How Fiction Works isn’t actually about how fiction works. To be obsessed with the mechanics of words and sentences, to see literature as essentially an enclosed system with internal rules, is to be a formalist, and James Wood, for all his formality, isn’t a formalist. He admits as much. In the Preface to How Fiction Works Wood writes, “when I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I am talking about point of view I am really talking about character, and when I am talking about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.” For James Wood, fiction is about the world, not about itself.
Wood calls his book How Fiction Works for two reasons. The first is that he’s a cocky son-of-a-bitch at the top of his game and he’s ready to make serious claims. He is in full confidence and he should be. Nobody else is writing about literature with anything like his pop and verve. The second reason is that he’s really using the word “works” in a secondary sense of the term. He isn’t using the word in the sense of “operates” or “functions.” He isn’t meaningfully interested in technique. Instead, he’s using “works” in the sense of: “Darling, that dress really works on you,” or, “I wouldn’t know what to do with that chair but it really works on this veranda.” “Works” here means something more like “comes together” or “does what it is generally meant to do.” The biggest clue — other than what Wood actually says in the book — that this is what he means by “works” is the title on the front cover. It isn’t How Fiction Works, but How Fiction Works. Already right there, in that emphasis, Wood is telling us that he’s after something bigger than mere technique. He is out for metaphysics, for an argument about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human “self.” That’s what Wood really cares about, and it just so happens that literature is in a special place to deliver the goods. Literature, to put it bluntly, has a special relationship to truth.
Wood’s historical argument to this effect isn’t to be found in How Fiction Works but he sketches out the basic idea in a number of other places. Thinking about how the novel came to be, Wood focuses on the idea that human experience changed profoundly somewhere in the midst of the 19th century. He thinks this change has to be understood in terms of the transformation from religious ways of thinking to the fundamentally secular self-conception of the modern mind. In his introduction to The Broken Estate, Wood writes:
It will become clear that I believe that distinctions between literary belief and religious belief are important, and it is because I believe in that importance that I am attracted to writers who struggle with those distinctions. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, those distinctions became much harder to maintain, and we have lived in the shadow of their blurring ever since. This was when the old estate broke. I would define the old estate as the supposition that religion was a set of divine truth-claims, and the Gospel narratives were supernatural reports; fiction might be supernatural too, but fiction was always fictional, it was not in the same order of truth as the Gospel narrative.
This is a story that, by now, is familiar to most of us. Wood is special in how sensitive he is to the implications of that transformation, how deeply he is able to read the costs and opportunities of an historical change. Wood has seen, as deeply as anyone, that the collapse of a specifically religious conception of truth made it possible for the novel to be about truth in a new and different way. Truth itself changed when God died.
Now that’s a very big claim, and whenever a critic starts harping about truth it is easy to be suspicious. Perhaps they aren’t really saying anything of substance. They’re just using the word “truth” as a desperate gambit, beating us all over the head, as it were. Sometimes that is exactly what critics are doing. But not Wood. He is saying something more substantial.
The novel, he says, just happened to be in the right position to take advantage of the changes in human consciousness that occurred in the middle of the 19th century. The novel was in the position to show us what we are like after experience was transformed. It was in a position to show us how the self is structured when it doesn’t have religion to fall back on. It could give us a picture of ourselves as finite and complicated individual subjects only vaguely aware of why we do the great, the tragic, and the simply mundane things we do.
This is what Wood means by “realism.” The stupid debate over realism generally counterposes writing that aims for a direct correspondence between the written word and the facts of the real world against writing in which all sorts of fantastical and impossible things happen. But that’s not what Wood is talking about. Wood wants literature to be “real” in how it portrays the “real” structure and feeling of being a human being, of having subjectivity. This kind of realism is free to portray absurd or impossible events as long as it stays true to the task of portraying how we experience the world. The great mysteries of the universe have, for Wood, migrated from the realm of theological conundrums to the internal intricacies of human motivation and self-understanding. The very fact that we are a puzzle to ourselves and others is a truth. Revealing how that puzzle operates, without trying to solve it, is what fiction was uniquely able to accomplish. It took some time for the discipline of fiction writing to figure this out. It was a matter of coming to terms with the way that nuance and complicatedness, the stuff of the human soul, is structurally mirrored by the inherent nuance and complicatedness of fiction itself, especially in its novel form.
Wood therefore gives Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew pride of place in the historical development of fiction. With Rameau’s Nephew, we are treated to a character who no longer, as in the literature of previous centuries, represents a unitary consciousness that can be quickly understood. Instead, we get a character rife with internal contradictions and a certain in-built “unknowability.” Rameau’s Nephew is written as a dialogue between the nephew and a character named “Diderot.” Through the course of the dialogue, Rameau reveals himself to be almost wildly unstable, resentful and desirous of the staid accomplishments of his musician uncle, Rameau, and at the same time extremely cynical about the social world that he sees operating largely as a game. Wood, like Hegel before him and Lionel Trilling in his classic book Sincerity and Authenticity, sees a form of consciousness emerging in Diderot’s work that we can recognize as distinctly modern. “From this character,” writes Wood, “flows much of the psychological flamboyance and acuity of Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Hamsun, Conrad, Italo Svevo, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Wittgenstein’s Nephew…”
The realism of Rameau’s Nephew is a realism that portrays “how life really is.” Realism, for Wood, is thus no straight thing. It is as crooked as the timber of humanity itself. It is in some aspects mysterious and never to be fully disentangled. Why do we do the things that we do? We simply don’t know exactly why. We certainly don’t know it all the way down. The project of modernity in Wood’s eyes is largely in revealing the contour and shape, the specific “feel” of that essential mystery. He even borrows a concept from the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, haecceitas or “thisness,” to explain what he means: “By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.”
The modern novel’s ability to convey a sense of thisness constitutes a true realism. That is Wood’s “really real.” Too fine-grained to be captured in a category or an axiom, it can only fall to literature to properly convey such a realism. And this is why Wood can finally equate realism with truth. “So let us replace the always problematic word ‘realism’ with the much more problematic word ‘truth’ . . . Once we throw the term ‘realism’ overboard, we can account for the ways in which, say, Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Hamsun’s “Hunger” and Beckett’s “Endgame” are not representations of likely or typical human activity but are nevertheless harrowingly truthful texts.”
That, for Wood, is what a novel should be. Truth.
Still, for all Wood’s confidence, he’s long been nagged by a lingering doubt about the health and well-being of the novel. This doubt pops to the fore, for instance, when Wood writes about Saul Bellow, who Wood takes to be a defender of the real realism of the novel at its truest. Wood writes:
At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, we might say that Bellow has extended the life of the novel. He has reprieved realism, held its neck back from the blade of the postmodern; and he has done this by revivifying realism with modernist technique.
Bellow is surely a brilliant writer for exactly many of the reasons that Wood says he is, but damned if that sentiment doesn’t sound like a last stand, a rearguard action holding off the inevitable.
Now, like all theorists of decline, Wood can simply say, “Sure, I recognize that the novel is in a tough spot and that much of the work being produced does not fall under the category of truth to which I think the novel ought to aspire. But what can I do? Facts is facts. Sometimes the world doesn’t turn out the way we want it to.” Using that logic, Wood can still apply his normative criterion while recognizing that it is a criterion that falls, more and more, on deaf ears, both among readers and writers.
And yet, there’s another possibility buried somewhere in Wood’s analysis that would deliver an entirely different normative kick. Writing about Chekhov, Wood says that:
In Chekhov’s world, our inner lives run at their own speed. They are laxly calendared. They live in their own gentle almanac, and in his stories the free inner life bumps against the outer life like two different time systems, like the Julian calendar against the Gregorian. This was what Chekhov meant by “life.” This was his revolution.
In the greater sense, this was the revolution that affected all of literature at the dawn of the modern age for Wood, and this is what makes the Chekhovian kind of writing a writing that captures the truth of “life.” The question is whether that is the way life has to be, or should be, or must be.
Even Lionel Trilling, who agrees with Wood on the importance of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew in portraying a new, post-religious form of subjectivity, does not fall into the trap of ending history there. Trilling’s book, Sincerity and Authenticity, proceeds under the analytic assumption that “now and then, it is possible to observe the moral life in the process of revising itself.” The unsaid implication is that the moral life, or Wood’s “really real,” is always in the process of revising itself. One therefore has to assume that the novel’s special relationship to truth is by definition a temporary one, always subject to changes in the relationship between man and world.
When it comes down to it, Wood has to allow for the possibility that “lifeness,” the thing he wants literature to reveal, is always changing in “what it’s like.” In fact, he’s obliged to consider this possibility because part of his whole argument is that life only became like it is now after God up and died. So why insist that literature keep on laboring to reveal one particular historical manifestation of human subjectivity if human subjects aren’t experiencing the world that way anymore?
The question comes down to how you stand on “hysterical realism” (a term Wood came up with in a now-famous essay about contemporary writers who tend toward an overabundance of miraculous, intertwined, history- and globe-traversing narrative free-for-alls in their prose. Think, for instance, of the first few pages of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children). Does this form of “post-modern” literature” say anything true about our current condition? Wood thinks not. He thinks that this writing is somehow fake, that we’re being fooled into thinking that Rushdie or Wallace or DeLillo or Pynchon are telling us anything real about ourselves. These writers are in love with their own bells and whistles but they only scratch the surface of true experience. They substitute a delirium of manic activity in place of a substantial portrayal of what people are like when they get to the essential business of coming into contact with the world, and all the other human subjects within it. In short, Wood thinks the hysterical realists aren’t telling us anything interesting about the self — they are merely fleeing its mysteries.
But, if nothing else, the hysterical realists are telling us that we’re living in an age of hysterical subjectivity much more than in one of the “laxly calendared.” And a simple glance at the world around us will reveal that they have a point.
In sketching out the contours of the forms of human consciousness that are emerging today and are shaped by what we might as well call globalization, it’s hard not to think that Wood prefers simply to pretend it ain’t so. He’s not interested in finding out what the hysterical realists are trying to tell us about ourselves. He only seems interested in shaming them back into the heart of the 19th and 20th centuries, back into the realm of the complicated forms of subjectivity that Chekhov or Bellow might have explored. He’s uninterested in the idea that the times are, once again, a-changin’. I suspect, though, that this lack of interest demonstrates not any real commitment to an end-of-history, quasi-Hegelian story of human consciousness, but rather a simple slide from describing what one loves to prescribing what one loves. James Wood is now a prisoner of what he got right.
Perhaps it is unfair to ask Wood to leave that prison, especially as he thrives within its confines. And even if his criticism will ultimately prove futile in resisting transformations that history itself has in store, there’s no shame in holding on to something good for as long as one can.
But, should Mr. Wood ever desire to trade his prescribing back in for describing, a helpful example can be found in Edmund Wilson’s treatise on what he called the imaginative literature of the 1870s through the 1930s, Axel’s Castle.
Writing about that literature in a way that sounds downright Woodsian, Wilson says,
“These books revealed new discoveries, artistic, metaphysical, psychological: they mapped the labyrinths of human consciousness as they seemed never to have been mapped before, they made one conceive the world in a new way.” But just as quickly, Wilson lets it go. He recognizes that those maps are going to grow stale because the labyrinths of human consciousness are themselves subject to transformation and will have to be re-mapped again and again. Wilson writes, flatly, “I believe therefore that the time is at hand when these writers, who have largely dominated the literary world of the decade 1920-30, though we shall continue to admire them as masters, will no longer serve us as guides. . . . And who hereafter will be content to inhabit a corner, though fitted out with some choice things of one’s own, in the shuttered house of one of these writers—where we find ourselves, also, becoming conscious of a lack of ventilation?” Brilliant as Wood is in revealing the depth of the literature of the last 150 years, I find, in reading his work about us, now, today, that I’m becoming conscious of a lack of ventilation. It would be interesting to see what transpired if Wood got out and let himself breathe a little. • 21 August 2008