Best of ‘Novel Readings’: James Wood, How Fiction Works

This review first went up in March 2008. My brooding over deep vs. broad reading has had me thinking again about Wood’s criticism, which I wrote admiringly about when I first discovered him in 2007. (This remarkably belated discovery speaks volumes, I think, of the divide between academic and public criticism.) I have also been thinking a lot about Becky Sharp, because in an essay for the July issue of Open Letters Monthly I lay out a more elaborate version of the argument I touch on here for her incidental significance to the novel in which she is so captivating a heroine. Both lines of thought led me back to take another look at this piece. I haven’t kept up with all of Wood’s reviews since, mostly because he and I often choose different books to pay attention to, but when I do (as with his recent piece on David Mitchell) I’m still struck by the elegant erudition of his language and analysis. Still, as this review shows, I have some sympathy with Lauren Elkin’s proposal that Wood is “a fine specimen of a book reviewer” but not exactly a “literary critic.” Not, as they used to say on Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that.

How Fiction Works was also very ably reviewed in 2008 in Open Letters Monthly, by Dan Green of The Reading Experience.


The dust jacket describes How Fiction Works as Wood’s “first full-length book of criticism.” Anyone led by this blurb to expect sustained analysis supported by extensive research and illustration will be disappointed, as in fact How Fiction Works turns out to be essentially a ‘commonplace book,’ a collection of critical observations and insights of varying degrees of originality and sophistication, developed with varying degrees of care and detail. Wood acknowledges having set deliberate limits on his project, likening it in his introduction to Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, proposing to offer practical “writer’s anwers” to “a critic’s questions,” and admitting (though with no tone of apology) that he used only “the books at hand in [his] study.” To some extent I agree with other reviewers who consider it only fair to evaluate the book Wood wrote, rather than regretting he didn’t write another one. Yet even within the parameters Wood sets, I think there are grounds for wishing he, with his exceptional gifts and qualifications as both reader and critic, had not sold himself (or us) short in fulfilling them. Further, beginning with the invocation of Forster but going well beyond it, the book has pretensions to grandeur: for instance, also in his introduction Wood remarks that Barthes and Shklovsky “come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them” (2). With gestures such as this, Wood claims an elevated stature for his critical contribution that is undermined by its casual construction and over-confident approach to scholarship. Though How Fiction Works provides many further proofs of Wood’s critical gifts and considerable erudition, I think it also proves that even the best practical critic flounders when working only with what he has already to hand or in mind.

Right off the bat I was irritated by the book’s structure. Wood has said that he felt liberated by using the numbered “paragraphs” or sections, but allowing yourself to skip from thought to thought in this way means letting yourself off the hook too often. Frequently in the margins of my students’ work I write “And so? Finish the thought!” One effect of crafting, first paragraphs, and then longer pieces as sustained wholes is that in working out the overall movement of your ideas and building in appropriately specific transitions, you confront both the logic and the further implications of your claims: the form pressures you to think better. Numbered bits, however, relieve that pressure: you can just stop with one topic and start the next, and as long as they are more or less related, you can claim to be producing a unified whole, even if you are only papering over gaps. In How Fiction Works, the breaks often seem unnecessary: a new number sets off what is really just the next sentence in the idea already unfolding. Most of the time, however, they are substitutes for careful transitions. They allow a certain stream-of-consciousness effect to creep in: that last bit reminds me of this exception to a general principle, or of a writer who also does that, or of another favourite excerpt, or of a time I went to a concert with my wife. Well, OK, I guess, and no doubt it would have been much more difficult to do a coherent chapter offering a theory of, say, fictional character, realism, or morality and the novel. And I suppose it’s true that non-academic readers don’t want the kind of detail and complexity such a full account of these topics would require. Even so, the numbered bits felt lazy to me. The footnotes too had an aimlessness about them. Some of them covered ideas or examples that seemed no less important to their chapter than most of the bits allowed their own numbered section (note 53 on p. 150, to give one example) while others appeared entirely unnecessary to the book (note 40 on p. 121, or note 41 on p. 124, for instance).

The TLS reviewer objects to Wood’s “grace notes”: “It is sometimes hard to distinguish a gasp of admiration for another’s skill from the contented sigh when the books in one’s study satisfy one’s own theories.” I shared this reaction, not least because “how fine that is” (139) is an expression of taste, not criticism. But Wood is a compelling reader of details, even passages. It’s when he makes broader assertions that he leaves himself more open to objections. For one thing, he has some governing assumptions about what fiction is for that he treats as universal rather than historically or theoretically specific. In his chapter on “Sympathy and Complexity,” for instance, as a footnote to his remarks on fiction as a means of extending our sympathies (the occasion for one of his shockingly few references to George Eliot!), he adds this:

We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on,–because it is alive and we are alive. (129)

Well, maybe, but not everybody, and not all the time: for instance, most of the Victorian critics I have been editing for my Broadview anthology [now that the anthology is actually out, I wonder if Wood would like a copy–maybe I’ll send one along!] would not have recognized this highly aestheticized motive for novel reading. Is it fair, or even sensible, to say that they were simply wrong? Or to ignore how the formal developments of the Victorian novel furthered ends not adequately respected by Wood’s post-Jamesian formulations? His is in many respects a teleological account of the history of the novel. “Progress!” he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot” (125). But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing? How much better we might understand them if we allow them what James calls their “donnee.” “It is subtlety that matters,” he declares in his chapter on character; “subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure”: “I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov’s The Kiss than I do about the consciousness of Becky Sharpe [sic] in Vanity Fair.” But Becky Sharp’s consciousness is surely not the point of Vanity Fair; indeed, I argue in my own lectures [and now, in my essay in July’s Open Letters] that too close a focus on Becky risks diverting us from Thackeray’s grand gesture of holding the mirror up to ourselves, so that the novel becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on our own morality and mortality. “Was she guilty or not?” the narrator asks–and, remarkably, will not tell us, because ultimately she is not the point but the occasion, the device. Thackeray is not a failed Chekhov any more than Dickens is a failed Flaubert. To Wood, “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style” (58), but that history is partial and often distorting.

About the operations of free indirect discourse and the importance of knowing who ‘owns’ which words, on the other hand, Wood is typically astute. Here’s one place where examples from Middlemarch would have served him well, though at the risk of undermining his generalizations. Consider this passage from Chapter 1, for instance:

And how should Dorothea not marry? — a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles — who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Think how much is lost on a reader who improperly identifies the source of that word “naturally”–or the last two sentences altogether!

Wood is good on the telling detail as well as the quality he calls “thisness”: “any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability” (54). But again, when he moves into prescription, he becomes less persuasive, as when he objects to the “layer of gratuitous detail” in 19th-century realist fiction. Again, the challenge is in defining “gratuitous” (as, clearly, Wood himself is well aware), but he can’t propose any principle except, perhaps, his idea that “insignificant” details avoid irrelevance if they are “significantly insignificant” (68). After recounting an incident in which he and his wife had “invented entirely different readings” of a violinist’s frown at a concert, he claims that a “good novelist would have let that frown alone, and would have let our revealing comments alone, too: no need to smother this little scene in explanation” (72). Again, well, maybe. I can imagine at least one “good novelist” who might have done great things with their “different readings” of that little moment, perhaps even using their “revealing comments” as a chance to reveal even more about perception and reality as well as human relationships (“these things are a parable…”). Doesn’t it depend on what your novel is about and on the formal methods you are using to realize those goals?

I’d like to return before I close to the “Sympathy and Complexity” chapter, because this is a topic close to my heart, one on which I have spent a lot of my own critical energy recently, and one I expected Wood to handle particularly well. “Perfunctory” is the best word I can think of to describe it. I’ve mentioned already his dehistoricizing assumption that “we” don’t read in order to receive moral benefits. I doubt this is true in practice, and I also question the separation he implies between moral and aesthetic readings. Here is a case in which even a little research outside “the books at hand in [his] own study” would have immeasurably enriched his discussion: Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep, for instance, would have helped him complicate exactly that separation. And the conversation about how fiction might do “what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do” (135) has many participants besides Williams: Martha Nussbaum comes promptly to mind. Further, not all novels avoid providing “philosophical answers”; he replicates Nussbam’s error in generalizing about “the novel,” but as a professional novel reader, he should know better.

Here the hybrid character of How Fiction Works proves a genuine weakness, I think. This chapter is not a full, responsible, or authoritative inquiry into its subject. Of course, it does not pretend to be (remember, the book promises only “a writer’s answers” to “a critic’s questions”). But then how should we evaluate it? Doesn’t Wood do even his non-specialist audience a disservice by taking up complicated subjects on which there already exists a rich body of scholarship and offering his own fairly casual observations with the confidence of real expertise? What a much greater contribution it would be to distill that complex material and present it accessibly! To grab what’s at hand and say just what comes to mind bespeaks an enviable but also problematic degree of confidence. And while the non-expert reader is in no position to object, the expert reader is easily deflected with the excuse that she is not the intended audience…

After I read How Fiction Works I re-read some of my collection of Wood’s essays, including his reviews of Never Let Me Go, Saturday, and Brick Lane. This is really wonderful stuff, as I have remarked before; I admire it wholeheartedly for its critical acuity, its literary elegance, and its moral seriousness. But considering How Fiction Works strictly as one among many books about books (and Wood is wrong, or perhaps disingenuous, when he says “there are surprisingly few books” of this kind about fiction [1]), I think there are many better choices available. I continue to recommend David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, for instance, which takes up many of the same topics as Wood, though under a less grandiose umbrella of prescriptive claims. I think it’s an exciting development that Wood has landed a job in Harvard’s English Department. In taking this now unconventional route from journalism to the academy, he is following in the footsteps of many eminent Victorian critics (David Masson, for instance). But considering how bitterly difficult it is for those following the established professional route to land any academic job at all, it’s frustrating to think that he may not be held to anything like the same standard of rigour as many critics far less lauded and applauded. Here’s hoping that he has more books in him as good as The Broken Estate.

(Original post cross-posted to The Valve.)

Weekend Miscellany: P. D. James, Persephone Books, James Wood

Some articles and reviews of interest:

At The Times, there’s an interesting interview with P. D. James, who has a new Adam Dalgleish novel coming out. James has often remarked that she sees herself working in the tradition of 19th-century domestic realism as much as the detective novel; her interest in the Victorians shows up again here, as does her conviction that writing mystery fiction frees up an author to focus on character and theme:

“There’s huge fascination in examining the human personality under the trauma of a murder investigation. All of us present a carapace to the world that conceals things we wish to keep to ourselves. In a murder investigation, these defences are often torn down.” This gives a novelist “a huge opportunity”, one particularly valued by this writer, who, besides filling notebooks with “plotting and planning”, sets store by knowing her characters intimately. “I move in with them. I sympathise with the view Trollope expressed that you have to get up with your characters and live with them all day.” (read the rest here)

Also at The Times, there’s a piece on Persephone Books:

There can be little doubt that Persephone, which reprints lost or forgotten women’s classics, has filled a gap left by the bigger Virago. Quieter, more interior and less obviously feminist than the latter, it celebrates its first decade as the champion of the kind of book trendy that literati like to dismiss as dull and domestic.

Virago’s founder, Carmen Callil, when recently describing how her team chose whether or not to reissue a particular author, would dismiss rejects as “below the Whipple line”, referring to what she called, with withering dismissal, “a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us”. Persephone, as it happens, has Dorothy Whipple as one of its star authors, alongside Virginia Woolf, Mollie Panter-Downes and classic children’s authors such as Noel Streatfeild and Richmal Crompton, whose adult novels have long been out of print.

“I think Dorothy Whipple is compulsively readable and perceptive, and the 20th-century Mrs Gaskell,” Beauman says. “I’m passionate about her work.”

So, indeed are Persephone’s customers, who have fallen upon its 78 reissued novels with joy and ensure sales of between 3,000 and 10,000 a book. As the shop – which sells Persephone mugs, dressing gowns and cards behind a window dressed with a felt cloche hat and an old typewriter – suggests, being a Persephone reader is almost a lifestyle choice for intelligent women who want to settle down with what has been described as “a hot-water-bottle novel”.

Yet alongside bestselling nostalgia collections such as Kay Smallshaw’s How to Run Your Home Without Help are darker tales, such as Penelope Mortimer’s Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, and wholly enchanting adult fairytales such as The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

These are the kind of tremendously English books often enjoyed (and parodied) by the heroines in Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons. They do, however, have a serious readership, and Persephone’s list of those who have written prefaces for the reissues include Penelope Fitzgerald, P.D. James and Valerie Grove. (read the whole story here)

I don’t remember seeing any Persephone titles in bookstores here, but now I’ll have my eyes open. And if they don’t have Canadian distribution, there’s always the excellent Book Depository (free international shipping!).

Better late than never: the New York Times weighs in on James Wood’s How Fiction Works:

The grosser elements of fiction — story, plot and setting, as well as the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar that has impelled such messy master­works as “Huckleberry Finn,” “On the Road” and Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” — intrude not at all on Wood’s presentation, which proceeds in the steady, dark-gowned, unruffled manner of a high-court judge. Wood seems firm in his conviction that accounting for How Fiction Works needn’t involve bewildering digressions into Why Writers Write or Why Readers Read. For him, that matter seems settled. They do it to perfect the union of Wood’s vaunted “artifice and verisimilitude,” two virtues he treats as though carved on a stone tablet, and thereby to promote the cause of civilization; not, as is so frequently the case outside the leathery environs of the private library, to escape the constrictions of civilization, redraw its boundaries, decalcify its customs, or revive the writer’s or reader’s own spirits by dancing on its debris. (read the whole review here)

This review (which concludes with blog-worthy snarkiness, “there is one question this volume answers conclusively: Why Readers Nap”) is not nearly as favorable as Frank Kermode‘s in The New Republic a little while back. How Fiction Works has certainly received a great deal of attention, in print and on blogs: here are a few more links, in case you just can’t get enough criticism of criticism. You have to give the man credit for getting a lot of people talking about what makes good literary criticism.

Weekend Miscellany: Mr Whicher, James Wood, Reader Online Poll

It’s ‘Halifax Natal Day’ here (also known as ‘we want an extra day off in August too’) and thus still in some sense the weekend, so here’s my semi-regular round-up of interesting things:

At The Little Professor, there’s a typically thoughtful review of Kate Summerscale’s much-discussed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the story of the infamous Road Hill murder case and its lead investigator:

Summerscale’s project wears a number of intellectual hats: it aspires to be, simultaneously, a popular microhistory of a scandalous murder case, a literary history of modern detective fiction, and a sort of detective “faction” in its own right. Summerscale’s story doesn’t just analyze the Road Hill case, but actually tries to be the kind of narrative the murder inspired; the reader is invited to watch as new forms of story-telling coalesce into recognizable genre conventions.

LP isn’t entirely sold on the project: for her reasons, read the rest here.
Open Letters Monthly features Daniel Green‘s review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Not surprisingly, given the differences between their critical agendas and the resulting history of contention between Green and Wood, the review is not particularly enthusiastic:

Wood is currently the most well-regarded generalist literary critic in the English-speaking literary world, and it is discouraging to say the least that such a figure uses his influence to conduct a rearguard action against the forces of change in literary practice, against those who, like William Gass (Wood’s bête noire in this book), want to transform our perception of fiction as the effort to depict “people” and “life” to one that can encompass that goal (with many provisos) but can also capture the reader’s attention in other ways, ways more responsive to the possibilities of fiction as imaginative manipulation of language and form. Wood makes his case for realism always within a context in which it is endangered by postmodernists and other stylistically immoderate writers who don’t appreciate its subtleties and are tearing fiction away from its proper relationship to “the world.” . . . .

Ultimately the most disconcerting thing about How Fiction Works, and about James Wood’s criticism in general, is that while Wood on the one hand expresses near-reverence for the virtues of fiction, the terms in which he judges the value of fiction as a literary form implicitly disparages it. He doesn’t want to let fiction be fiction. Instead, he asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services. He abjures them to avoid “aestheticism” (too much art) and to instead be respectful of “life.” (read the whole review here)

I find it interesting that Green repeatedly faults Wood for an over-zealous commitment to realism while my own reading of How Fiction Works expressed frustration rather at his tendency to emphasize aesthetics and form over plot, character, and “moral instruction,” and to universalize this priority and talk as if the novel really began with Flaubert.

At The Reader Online, they have a winner in their poll to select a classic novel to recommend for the Richard and Judy book club, which I gather has something of the force across the pond that Oprah’s book club has here. Their favored selection is Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a recommendation I would certainly second. In retrospect, I actually wonder if it wouldn’t have been a better choice for our summer reading project at The Valve: though I’ve certainly been pleased overall at the discussion we’ve had of Adam Bede, something a bit sexier might have kept more people engaged once summer really arrived.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

(Cross-posted to The Valve. Thank you to the regular Valve folks for the invitation to do some guest posting!)

The dust jacket describes How Fiction Works as Wood’s “first full-length book of criticism.” Anyone led by this blurb to expect sustained analysis supported by extensive research and illustration will be disappointed, as in fact How Fiction Works turns out to be essentially a ‘commonplace book,’ a collection of critical observations and insights of varying degrees of originality and sophistication, developed with varying degrees of care and detail. Wood acknowledges having set deliberate limits on his project, likening it in his introduction to Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, proposing to offer practical “writer’s anwers” to “a critic’s questions,” and admitting (though with no tone of apology) that he used only “the books at hand in [his] study.” To some extent I agree with other reviewers who consider it only fair to evaluate the book Wood wrote, rather than regretting he didn’t write another one. Yet even within the parameters Wood sets, I think there are grounds for wishing he, with his exceptional gifts and qualifications as both reader and critic, had not sold himself (or us) short in fulfilling them. Further, beginning with the invocation of Forster but going well beyond it, the book has pretensions to grandeur: for instance, also in his introduction Wood remarks that Barthes and Shklovsky “come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them” (2). With gestures such as this, Wood claims an elevated stature for his critical contribution that is undermined by its casual construction and over-confident approach to scholarship. Though How Fiction Works provides many further proofs of Wood’s critical gifts and considerable erudition, I think it also proves that even the best practical critic flounders when working only with what he has already to hand or in mind.

Right off the bat I was irritated by the book’s structure. Wood has said that he felt liberated by using the numbered “paragraphs” or sections, but allowing yourself to skip from thought to thought in this way means letting yourself off the hook too often. Frequently in the margins of my students’ work I write “And so? Finish the thought!” One effect of crafting, first paragraphs, and then longer pieces as sustained wholes is that in working out the overall movement of your ideas and building in appropriately specific transitions, you confront both the logic and the further implications of your claims: the form pressures you to think better. Numbered bits, however, relieve that pressure: you can just stop with one topic and start the next, and as long as they are more or less related, you can claim to be producing a unified whole, even if you are only papering over gaps. In How Fiction Works, the breaks often seem unnecessary: a new number sets off what is really just the next sentence in the idea already unfolding. Most of the time, however, they are substitutes for careful transitions. They allow a certain stream-of-consciousness effect to creep in: that last bit reminds me of this exception to a general principle, or of a writer who also does that, or of another favourite excerpt, or of a time I went to a concert with my wife. Well, OK, I guess, and no doubt it would have been much more difficult to do a coherent chapter offering a theory of, say, fictional character, realism, or morality and the novel. And I suppose it’s true that non-academic readers don’t want the kind of detail and complexity such a full account of these topics would require. Even so, the numbered bits felt lazy to me. The footnotes too had an aimlessness about them. Some of them covered ideas or examples that seemed no less important to their chapter than most of the bits allowed their own numbered section (note 53 on p. 150, to give one example) while others appeared entirely unnecessary to the book (note 40 on p. 121, or note 41 on p. 124, for instance).

The TLS reviewer objects to Wood’s “grace notes”: “It is sometimes hard to distinguish a gasp of admiration for another’s skill from the contented sigh when the books in one’s study satisfy one’s own theories.” I shared this reaction, not least because “how fine that is” (139) is an expression of taste, not criticism. But Wood is a compelling reader of details, even passages. It’s when he makes broader assertions that he leaves himself more open to objections. For one thing, he has some governing assumptions about what fiction is for that he treats as universal rather than historically or theoretically specific. In his chapter on “Sympathy and Complexity,” for instance, as a footnote to his remarks on fiction as a means of extending our sympathies (the occasion for one of his shockingly few references to George Eliot!), he adds this:

We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on,–because it is alive and we are alive. (129)

Well, maybe, but not everybody, and not all the time: for instance, most of the Victorian critics I have been editing for my Broadview anthology would not have recognized this highly aestheticized motive for novel reading. Is it fair, or even sensible, to say that they were simply wrong? Or to ignore how the formal developments of the Victorian novel furthered ends not adequately respected by Wood’s post-Jamesian formulations? His is in many respects a teleological account of the history of the novel. “Progress!” he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot” (125). But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing? How much better we might understand them if we allow them what James calls their “donnee. “It is subtlety that matters,” he declares in his chapter on character; “subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure”: “I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov’s The Kiss than I do about the consciousness of Becky Sharpe [sic] in Vanity Fair.” But Becky Sharp’s consciousness is surely not the point of Vanity Fair; indeed, I argue in my own lectures that too close a focus on Becky risks diverting us from Thackeray’s grand gesture of holding the mirror up to ourselves, so that the novel becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on our own morality and mortality. “Was she guilty or not?” the narrator asks–and, remarkably, will not tell us, because ultimately she is not the point but the occasion, the device. Thackeray is not a failed Chekhov any more than Dickens is a failed Flaubert. To Wood, “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style” (58), but that history is partial and often distorting. (About the operations of free indirect discourse and the importance of knowing who ‘owns’ which words, on the other hand, Wood is typically astute. Here’s one place where examples from Middlemarch would have served him well, though at the risk of undermining his generalizations. Consider this passage from Chapter 1, for instance:

And how should Dorothea not marry? — a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles — who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Think how much is lost on a reader who improperly identifies the source of that word “naturally”–or the last two sentences altogether!)

Wood is good on the telling detail as well and the quality he calls “thisness”: “any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability” (54). But again, when he moves into prescription, he becomes less persuasive, as when he objects to the “layer of gratuitous detail” in 19th-century realist fiction. Again, the challenge is in defining “gratuitous” (as, clearly, Wood himself is well aware), but he can’t propose any principle except, perhaps, his idea that “insignificant” details avoid irrelevance if they are “significantly insignificant” (68). After recounting an incident in which he and his wife had “invented entirely different readings” of a violinist’s frown at a concert, he claims that a “good novelist would have let that frown alone, and would have let our revealing comments alone, too: no need to smother this little scene in explanation” (72). Again, well, maybe. I can imagine at least one “good novelist” who might have done great things with their “different readings” of that little moment, perhaps even using their “revealing comments” as a chance to reveal even more about perception and reality as well as human relationships (“these things are a parable…”). Doesn’t it depend on what your novel is about and on the formal methods you are using to realize those goals?

I’d like to return before I close to the “Sympathy and Complexity” chapter, because this is a topic close to my heart, one on which I have spent a lot of my own critical energy recently, and one I expected Wood to handle particularly well. “Perfunctory” is the best word I can think of to describe it. I’ve mentioned already his dehistoricizing assumption that “we” don’t read in order to receive moral benefits. I doubt this is true in practice, and I also question the separation he implies between moral and aesthetic readings. Here is a case in which even a little research outside “the books at hand in [his] own study” would have immeasurably enriched his discussion: Booth’s The Company We Keep, for instance, would have helped him complicate exactly that separation. And the conversation about how fiction might do “what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do” (135) has many participants besides Williams (Martha Nussbaum comes promptly to mind!). Further, not all novels avoid providing “philosophical answers” (here, he replicates Nussbam’s error in generalizing about “the novel,” but as a professional novel reader, he should know better). Here the hybrid character of How Fiction Works proves a genuine weakness, I think. This chapter is not a full, responsible, or authoritative inquiry into its subject. Of course, it does not pretend to be (remember, the book promises only “a writer’s answers” to “a critic’s questions”). But then how should we evaluate it? Doesn’t Wood do even his non-specialist audience a disservice by taking up complicated subjects on which there already exists a rich body of scholarship and offering his own fairly casual observations with the confidence of real expertise? What a much greater contribution it would be to distill that complex material and present it accessibly! To grab what’s at hand and say just what comes to mind bespeaks an enviable but also problematic degree of confidence. And while the non-expert reader is in no position to object, the expert reader is easily deflected with the excuse that she is not the intended audience…

After I read How Fiction Works I re-read some of my collection of Wood’s essays, including his reviews of Never Let Me Go, Saturday, and Brick Lane. This is really wonderful stuff, as I have remarked before; I admire it wholeheartedly for its critical acuity, its literary elegance, and its moral seriousness. But considering How Fiction Works strictly as one among many books about books (and Wood is wrong, or perhaps disingenuous, when he says “there are surprisingly few books” of this kind about fiction [1]), I think there are many better choices available. I continue to recommend David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, for instance, which takes up many of the same topics as Wood, though under a less grandiose umbrella of prescriptive claims. I think it’s an exciting development that Wood has landed a job in Harvard’s English Department. In taking this now unconventional route from journalism to the academy, he is following in the footsteps of many eminent Victorian critics (David Masson, for instance). But considering how bitterly difficult it is for those following the established professional route to land any academic job at all, it’s frustrating to think that he may not be held to anything like the same standard of rigour as many critics far less lauded and applauded. Here’s hoping that he has more books in him as good as The Broken Estate.

The Dead (Critics, That Is)

Dan Green alerts us to William Deresiewicz’s essay “Professing Literature in 2008” in The Nation, in which the author draws some dire conclusions about the profession of English literature from the evidence of this year’s MLA job listings:

This year’s Job List confirms the picture of a profession suffering from an epochal loss of confidence. It’s not just the fear you can smell in the postings. It’s the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star–a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom–emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure. The job market’s long-term depression has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.

Twenty years after Professing Literature, the “conflicts” still exist, but given the larger context in which they’re taking place, they scarcely matter anymore. The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.

I’ve also just finished reading Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic–hmm, suddenly I don’t feel so well! Both authors present their material in what strikes me as an unfortunately tendentious way. Deresiewicz, for instance, in arguing that the “profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers,” apparently does not entertain the possibility that departments might be genuinely embracing the priorities he sees reflected in the latest wave of job ads, rather than cravenly appeasing their undergraduates. McDonald similarly attributes most changes in critical practice to everything but the conviction that the method in question might have intrinsic merit, as when, discussing the establishment of English “as a university discipline” in the early 20th century, he says that the critics of the time “sought to imbue [English] with some procedural and disciplinary muscle” (89). No doubt showing that English could have “procedural and disciplinary muscle” was crucial to proving its academic credibility, but McDonald repeatedly implies the primacy of self-interest over scholarly commitment–a move which in turn bespeaks a hermeneutics of suspicion on his part to match any he might point to in ‘cultural studies.’ Both of these writers, in other words, seem to consider their colleagues and peers singularly unprincipled and opportunistic–or (a bit more generously, as they might prefer to be interpreted) they see them as particularly susceptible to fads because they lack foundational commitments (Deresiewicz) or have tried too hard for too long to appear what they are not, namely scientists (McDonald).

Still, both Deresiewicz and McDonald are describing features of this profession (historically and currently) recognizable to anyone working within it, even if we might quarrel over how they are characterized or explained. That priorities in teaching and scholarship have changed often, sometimes dramatically, is not news; neither is it a revelation that English as a discipline seems particularly prone to self-doubt, internal convulsions, and obsessive self-scrutiny and meta-criticism. Is it on its death-bed, though? In my own department we are going through yet another round of curriculum reform–the third or fourth since I was hired just over a decade ago. I have come to see we aren’t actually moving towards any final goal but that each such round is part of an ongoing, probably never-ending process driven by many things, from our own changing research interests and strengths to the ever-mutating condition of the ‘canon’ of material and methods we feel responsible for presenting and the fluctuating needs and interests of an evolving student population. How far is this instability a symptom of disease, and how far is it a healthy process, warding off stagnation and sustaining our connection with a wider (and itself endlessly evolving) life outside the academy? To be honest, at different times I have felt both ways about it myself, depending on just what’s on the table and how closely I am involved! Overall, though, surely it does not make sense to expect talk about literature to be the same now as it was 10, 20, or 50 years ago. Neither Deresiewicz nor McDonald provides particularly convincing evidence for the conclusion that criticism (as either a practice or a profession) is in a far worse state right now that at other times, and the pressure they both apparently feel towards polemical generalization means they obscure all kinds of qualifications and nuances as well as many potential signs of life.

That said, there are certainly some features of McDonald’s argument with which I do find myself in sympathy, or which ring changes on themes that have preoccupied me for some time. Key among these is his interest in closing, or at least bridging, the gap between “the academic critic and a wider public audience” (ix). Though every history of criticism notes the same phenomenon and agrees with McDonald that it dates more or less from the early 20th century, with the professionalization of literary study and the bifurcation between criticism and literary journalism / reviewing, I think McDonald’s specific diagnosis is distinct: he blames critics’ abandonment of evaluation for the alienation of the wider public:

The question in which the reading public would have taken a primary interest – ‘Is this book / artwork worth my attention and time? Is it of any merit?’ – was not one that exercised the cultural theoretician. (23)

“If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public” (134): this loss and its roots in the history of criticism are the book’s major focus, though McDonald also considers other phenemona that have contributed to the diminished relevance of academic critics, particularly the democratization (or relativization) of criticism, or attitudes towards critical expertise, enabled by new media such as blogs or Amazon-style customer reviews. His focus on evaluation is reiterated in his prescriptive closing section, which calls for a renewed aestheticism and concludes,

Perhaps the critic is not dead, but simply sidelined and slumbering. The first step in reviving him or her is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. ‘Judgement’ is the first meaning of kritos. If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative. (149)

There seem to be some internal inconsistencies in McDonald’s analysis of criticism’s decline in public significance. His chief grievance with the movements he groups together as ‘cultural studies’ is that they treat literature instrumentally, as a means to other (usually political) ends. On his own account, though, most major critical movements have done some version of this, from promoting or sustaining civil society to “fill[ing] the breach left in religion’s absence” (69), and in fact the whole idea of ‘evaluation’ always has to be grounded in a set of extrinsic standards which (again on McDonald’s own account) have almost never been strictly aesthetic (if such a thing is even possible). Though McDonald believes that emphasizing aestheticism will bring about a “rapprochement between academic and non-academic criticism,” and thus, apparently, between critics and general readers, aesthetic evaluation is surely as problematic as any other kind. Further, McDonald actually praises Virginia Woolf precisely for “enrich[ing] aesthetic formalism with political and gender consciousness” (86)–so Paterian obsession with the immediacy of the aesthetic encounter is presumably not his ideal. So what is it, exactly, that he means to invoke with his mantra of ‘evaluation’? He objects to the levelling effects of considering every cultural artefact equally worthy of critical attention (“To be concerned with everything is, ultimately, to be concerned with nothing” [127]), but he resists the notion of an unchanging canon (“Who would not welcome the rediscovery of unjustly forgotten women writers, or the efforts to hear the voices of the marginalized and disempowered . . . ?” [21]; “the criteria for admission [to the ‘canon’] needed to be renovated . . . ‘quality’ is not an eternal and unchanging facility, but rather one that mutates along with the cultural evolution of a society” [23]). Once you’ve acknowledged the ‘problematics’ of literary judgment, how then are you supposed to answer what he proposes is the common reader’s key question (“Is this book … worth my attention and my time?”)? For what it’s worth, I think most academic critics would in fact be quite happy to answer that question about any book, but first we would all want to develop the question further (along the lines I laid out here, for instance).

Still, I share McDonald’s concern about the isolation of academic expertise from today’s reading culture more generally. I was struck particularly by his note that “Vintage are launching a new series of classical novels to rival Penguin, but they have decided to use journalists and novelists, not academics, to write the ‘Introductions'” (25). If true, this certainly marks a change and a lost opportunity for scholars interested in demonstrating the interest and value of their work to a wider readership. (Journalists and creative writers certainly dominate the book review section of Canada’s “national” newspaper, The Globe and Mail.) I think, too, that he is right to be looking at questions of judgment and how they are understood and articulated as one of the flashpoints for misunderstanding or resentment between academics and other readers. I just don’t see how his prescription to be more evaluative is an adequate response, unless (at the minimum) it is accompanied by a commitment to showing why the question “Is it of any merit?” requires substantial complication before a worthwhile answer is possible. The responsibility here is not all ours: ideally, readers would want, not to be dictated to, but to be engaged in debate worthy of the books they are considering. Imagine a reader who takes this position, for example:

[Great thinkers can] rouse, excite, and elevate our whole natures—set us thinking, and therefore enable us to escape from the fetters of ancient prejudice and worn-out platitude, or make us perceive beauty in external nature, or set before us new ideals of life, to which we should otherwise have been indifferent. But we have to co-operate in the result, if it is to be of any real value. We are not passive buckets to be pumped into . . . mere receptacles for ready-made ideas, but fellow-creatures capable of being roused into independent activity.

Such a reader wants, not to be told whether a book has “any merit” (McDonald’s formulation), but to collaborate in forming a judgment–and accepts responsibility for his or her own “independent activity.” Now there’s a hope to get even the most moribund critic up off her sickbed! (The quotation, by the way, is from Leslie Stephen’s 1881 essay “The Moral Element in Literature.”)

One final note: McDonald points to James Wood as an example of a new wave in critical possibilities, “an avowed evaluative critic of the novel” who has “moved not from academia to journalism . . . but rather from journalism to the university” (147). (In my text, he notes that this is not “the usual root” [sic]–one of many egregious editing errors in the volume, including missing words and faulty punctuation.) Wood is certainly an interesting example of someone who approaches criticism as a serious public task requiring both insight and erudition, judgment and learning. Is the highest standard of criticism, though, to be someone with strong opinions and the erudition to explain them well? Is Wood’s evaluation of novels really what makes his criticism important, or is it his ability to analyze literary particularities while taking into account (as McDonald argues Woolf does) the situatedness of the work in history and life? I would say the latter; even Wood has trouble articulating his standards (such as his foundational assumption that everything valuable in the modern novel begins with Flaubert) without their seeming like prejudices that ultimately add little to our ability to understand and appreciate other kinds (as the exceptions he often admits to in How Fiction Works seems to confirm–oops, for instance, but then there’s Dickens!).

Update: I just noticed John Mullan weighing in (favorably) on McDonald in the TLS here: “there has been something comical about the eagerness of academics to scorn the notion that some books are better than others…” Honestly, (setting aside objections to the incessant pretense that all ‘academics’ speak with one voice), surely these smart, literate people know that “better” is a meaningless measure unless we can explain better at what? You just can’t take the next step in the conversation without refining the question (and simply revising it to “better written” will not do). Shouldn’t readers and critics alike have to scrutinize, articulate, and defend the grounds of their evaluations? And isn’t the conversation itself, as much as (maybe even more than) the conclusion what will be exciting, revealing, instructive? Finally, is it so terrible to take time for something that is interesting or important, even if on some measures you might conclude it is not the best, even of its kind?

Some Notes on How Fiction Works

I got my copy of Wood’s How Fiction Works from the Book Depository a couple of days ago and in between finishing He Knew He Was Right and The Maltese Falcon and starting Middlemarch and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, I have managed to read the whole thing–not nearly as hard as it might have been, given how brief and, ultimately, shallow a text it is (hence the title of this post, meant to imply that Wood does not really deserve his title!). Full review to come as part of my ‘series’ on “books about books.” The short version is: I’m underwhelmed, and also disappointed, given how smart and even moving I have found some of Wood’s more careful criticism (yes, moving, and how often can we say that about literary criticism?).

Why I Teach Literature” (with some thoughts about James Wood appended)

Not long ago there was a ‘meme’ going around on the question “Why Do I Teach Literature?” (Joseph Kugelmass’s comments on this topic at The Valve include links to further contributors). Reading around in my files today (where I am in search of an organizing pattern for future research–but that’s another post for another day) I came across this passage and it struck me as nicely encapsulating both the central problem of teaching literature (that it is, paradoxically, always about feeling as well as knowing) and its greatest lure:

Critics, before and after Northrop Frye, have distinguished between literature and experience and literature and knowledge. The distinction, though plausible in some theoretical contexts, blurs nearly every day, in nearly every classroom. I am content that it blurs. Unlike physicists, who teach not nature but physics, we teach both literature (how it feels, how it thinks, to have read a literary work) and the rules and facts about reading literature. As Gertrude Stein once said to an obtuse interviewer: “But after all you must enjoy my writing and if you enjoy it you understand it. If you did not enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it?” That is why I finally became a teacher of literature, to live in the vicinity of that joy.

This is from Ihab Hassan’s essay “Confessions of a Reluctant Critic or, The Resistance to Literature” (New Literary History 24, 1993). Other critics have also written eloquently about the experience of following that lure of joy into a professional life that does not–perhaps cannot–reinforce or reward it, and may even work actively against it. John McGowan, for instance, in his book Democracy’s Children (2002), notes,

[T]here remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw (at least partly) allegiance to literature itself” (65).

25 Years after Hassan’s remarks, I think it remains true that it is in the classroom rather than in their scholarship that many academic literary critics feel and communicate their love of their subject. One of the reasons I shifted research directions altogether a few years ago (significantly, after achieving the professional security of tenure) was that I wanted my research activities to give me, or be driven by, the same kind of intellectual and affective immediacy I find in teaching, and I couldn’t see how that would happen if, among other things, much of my work continued to be on second-rate material, no matter how historically revealing it was–or how useful for generating publishable, if niche, material of my own. To a large extent I succeeded, and as an unanticipated bonus, I think I became a better teacher because of the synergy that developed between my class preparation and my other work. It’s interesting, actually, that it seems to be widely taken for granted (or is it?) that undergraduate teaching and scholarly research leading to publication are very different kinds of things, and overwhelmingly the professional priority is with the latter–even though (or, perhaps, because) its tendency is to drive all joy away!

Follow-Up (to be developed later): Also as part of sorting through my files, I’ve been re-reading some of the James Wood essays I’ve gathered up, and (aside from being overwhelmed with envy at his erudition, elegant style, and intelligent craftsmanship as an essayist), I’m struck by how much closer they are to the kind of criticism we–or at least I–do in the classroom than anything that ordinarily passes for academic or professional criticism (and here I think it’s important to distinguish, as mainstream writers often don’t, between criticism and reviewing). It’s not that I think I’m as smart, articulate, or insightful as Wood,or as well-read either, though I hope I have my good moments! My point is really about the genre of criticism he works in, which seems to me to lie somewhere in between the poles of academic scholarship (which he clearly knows about, but relies on more implicitly than explicitly most of the time) and popular book reviews (which would rarely seek the kind of broad perspective or level of sophisticated analysis he deploys). I’ve ordered How Fiction works from The Book Depository, along with The Irresponsible Self, and I’ve got The Broken Estate from the library. I sense a Wood-fest coming on, perhaps as a way to draw together some of the scattered elements of my recent browsing and brooding about the function of criticism at the present time. Conveniently, as a motivator, there’s a conference panel on Victorian criticism for which I’m hoping to submit an abstract. One of the questions in the CFP is about what the relationships envisaged by the Victorians between “different forms of cultural production and the work of the critic” might tell us “about how criticism was imagined during the Victorian era, and what they might tell us about the more professionalized forms of criticism practiced today.” If this isn’t an opportunity (and a challenge) for me to make something of my work on the Broadview anthology along with the ‘work’ I’ve been doing on this blog, I don’t know what is! Whether anyone would want to hear it is, of course, another matter altogether.