Saturday, August 16, 2008

Oh Waiter, This Tea is Weak.

From Walter Kirn's review of James Wood's How Fiction Works:

In the second of two short prefaces to “How Fiction Works,” an old-fashioned primer on literature that also functions as a timely primer on the art of modest self-marketing, the esteemed critic James Wood reaches out to assure “the common reader” (that good fellow from the club who tries to keep up with all things cultural but is forever slightly short on time) that his prose is as free as he can make it of what James Joyce termed “the true scholastic stink” of so much academic writing. After noting his intellectual debts to “the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky” and “the French formalist-­cum-structuralist Roland Barthes,” Wood goes on to compare his “little volume” to the Victorian critic John Ruskin’s musings on the Renaissance painter Tintoretto. Finally, to make himself even less intimidating, even more approachable, Wood (who writes these days for The New Yorker) has us know that every passage he cites in demonstration of his theories comes from “the books at hand in my study” rather than, as the common reader might fear, the entire New York Public Library or, even more distressing, his memory.

Wood’s study must be vast, with well-stocked shelves, judging by the inarguable erudition displayed in his compact vade mecum of short chapters and neatly numbered sections devoted to such topics as point of view, characterization, fictional detail and, toward the end, nothing less than “A Brief History of Consciousness.” He drops his quotations and references as copiously, easily and freely as a man on a bench in Central Park scattering cups of birdseed. “In Book 22 of the ‘Iliad,’ ” Wood writes in a discussion of wrinkles in narrative time, “Hector’s wife is at home warming his bath though he has in fact died moments before; Auden praised Bruegel, in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts,’ for noticing that, while Icarus fell, a ship was calmly moving on through the waves, unnoticing. In the Dunkirk section of Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement,’ the protagonist, a British soldier retreating through chaos and death toward Dunkirk, sees a barge going by.”

With the whole Western canon at his disposal, apparently, Wood begins to shape a general argument whose moderate, neoclassical simplicity and preference for precision and clarity over mere vigor and potency seem initially like the hard-nosed wisdom of someone who’s read a million pages, seen all writerly tricks a thousand times and attained the detached, big-picture perspective of an orbiting critical satellite. ...

Though Wood’s precise, dialectical approach is well adapted to tracing the paradoxes behind standard literary conventions (“Actually, first-person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person ‘omniscient’ narration is generally more partial than omniscient.”), and while he makes many nuanced observations about the fetishes and habits that mark individual writers’ styles (“Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult of itself,” “This roughened-up texture and rhythm is, for me at least, one of the reasons that I rarely find Bellow an intrusive lyricist”), he winds up restating more of what we do know than exposing what we don’t, quite. Take his disquisition on detail, which comes down first to asserting its importance, then to questioning its all-importance, and then, after serving up a list of some of his very favorite fictional details, to defining the apt, exquisite detail much as a judge once defined obscenity: as something he knows when he sees it. He operates similarly in his discussions of verbal musicality and the craft of proper word choice, implying that his knowing and his seeing are of a peculiarly high degree and ought to prove persuasive and sufficient simply because he’s known and seen so much....

Let it be noted: Walter Kirn spent the better part of four paragraphs bitching that James Wood, who, um, writes about books for a living, is too well-read.

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