Josh's Reviews > How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works by James    Wood
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's review
Nov 23, 2008

really liked it

For all the hostile ships that Wood's writing has launched (in print and, more often, online), he's a pretty inclusive critic. Twice now (in this book and again in The Irresponsible Self), he's talked about realism schooling its truants - but then his idea of reality seems to be that it's the quality of shared experience that makes us nod when we read, for example, about a train's plume of smoke looking like a quill feather. Yes, it does look like that, we think - and when we do this we are doing something (or having something done to us) in the novel's world. At the same time, we nod because it reminds us of something in our world. So Wood's reality is a type of aesthetic persuasiveness: are train plumes really like quills? Sure. The metaphor moves into our mind and rearranges it, like a magnet pulled into a field of iron filings, and after that, we look at train smoke more closely and with greater delight.

Wood would (the same way that Kant can't) probably disagree with this reduction of reality to simple persuasiveness, if only because the existence of a real world blooming resplendently beneath all this apprehensive mumbo-jumbo appears to be one of this book's most important articles of faith. I personally think he's right. At one point, he takes WIlliam Gass to task for debunking one of William James's characters - yes, of course these are only words, Wood says, but to believe that they describe a person (to enter imaginatively into the fictional world in which they form a person, like little bees making a bee-beard) is the reader side of the handshake. No, Harry Potter is not a living and breathing person, and neither is Anna Karenina, except in Russia, where both characters get talked about as if they lived next door (Harry's name is pronounced "Gary"). Abraham Lincoln isn't a living breathing person either. That's sort of not the point, isn't it? Or if it is the point, aren't we asking too small, rather than too large a question?

You believe in reality. You believe in it because it can fuck you and has fucked you. Wood's argument (that I can see) is that all writers aspire to realism, and when they fall short they do so not because they're trying to be too tricksy or self-reflective or whatever (Wood reminds us that the novel has always been aware of and indebted to its artfulness), but because their work is simply unpersuasive. It is half- or uncooked. Trying to make something so that it works, then, is a discipline, and a way to approach, not just reality, but other human beings. Stein can do it as well as Foster Wallace as well as James, Austen, Proust and so on.

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message 1: by Gabriel (new) - added it

Gabriel If I must be a Gass apologist, so be it. There are far worse things to be.

The essay that Wood takes such exception to, "The Concept of Character in Fiction" in "Fiction and the Figures of Life," is much more complex and interesting than Wood gives it credit for. Indeed, the sentence that causes Wood so much consternation, "A character, first of all, is the noise of his name, and all of the sounds and rhythms that proceed from him," seems to have been so contorted (by Wood) to have lost all of its original sense.

Gass's essay is useful because it analyzes not the content of fiction but the way that fiction is built out of words. Most certainly, it is useful to see the character, and the ready understanding of character, as halves of a handshake entered into by the reader and writer, if only to fool oneself (as a writer or reader) that this is the case for the purposes of adhering more closely to realistic principles of representation. What Gass very successfully demonstrates is that, whatever we may want to feel about that process, it is not the case.

If I could reprint the whole of Gass's essay here, I most certainly would-- it would be instructive in a way that Wood's excerpts (from that essay, (and even those in the review of Wood's book in the recent NYRoB)) are not. Gass wants us to see that the "envisioning" that reader and writer engage in is neither as complete nor as "realistic" as either wants it to be. Language is an imperfect vehicle for such representation, already eclipsed by the visual arts, audio recording, and the cinema. We know all of this already; it is completely evident from the first. Gass wants us to see that, in order to "see," or mentally envision each and every thing described in a passage of fiction would require much, much more time than we actually spend deciphering it. Hence, we do not truly "envision" those images (except on rare occasions when images are perhaps so strong that they cannot but be envisioned, and even then in incomplete detail) and that fiction's canvas, including the space for character, is largely empty. The other side of the handshake is indeed the reader, the reader who accepts a mostly-empty canvas as full, who may even believe that s/he has filled in that canvas with details from her/his own life.

Wood is, of course, right in saying that this type of transaction is entered into by the reader, and that the reader does not expect that the character has any "real world" equivalent. But in this he does not disagree with Gass. What Wood seems to object to is that Gass would reduce the character to the words on the page. Let us remember that those words are necessary but not sufficient. Gass writes that those words are not "notes begging to be played," in other words, that they are not traits that must be turned into a fully-envisioned persona, even one that exists only in the mind of each, individual reader. To do so would slow the reader down to a crawl, would impede the flow of sentences that is crucial to writing as a communication. Instead, they are something else, something that can be (but needn't be) understood as a kind of tool, a vehicle, for the writer to communicate with the reader.

It may in fact be the case that Gass and Wood would see eye to eye, were Wood willing to drop the rag of "noise" that he has torn from Gass's essay and look at the sense of that essay. Gass's essay is well worth reading, if only because it does not take as given so many things that Wood's critique of that essay takes as given.

It is quite easy to say that the words that make up a character in fiction do not add up to a person, or even reflect such, and are not meant to. But, in order to maintain the illusion necessary to building that character in a realistic way, it seems also necessary to maintain just such an equivalency. What is "motivation" if the writer and reader do not share the sense that the character is required to act as they do? What else can it be but the illusion that the character is a person (or person-construct) who acts as the reader and writer do, or might in similar circumstances? What this argument does it to take with the left hand what the right hand has given.

I'll stop now. Gass's essay says everything much more elegantly than I have.

message 2: by Josh (last edited Nov 24, 2008 08:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Josh Damn you, Gabe, I was futilely trying to construct my own little word-dolls when I checked my gmail and found your comment waiting with its hand out.

I agree with you that Gass is one of quite a few straw men in Wood's argument, set up to be earnestly burned. But I think you're using Wood in the same way that he uses Gass. His argument is, if I'm reading you right, closer to both yours and your version of Gass's than you're allowing. The key word seems to be "reduce." You say that Wood resents Gass's reducing characters to words on a page, and he does, and in this way he is being unfair to Gass, since the essay in question doesn't exclude the possibility that characters, scenes, descriptions, or anything else in fiction might be both words and something else.

Wood's book is an argument for that "something else." Like Gass's own essay, I think it is meant as a corrective. In other words, it is as harmful in fiction (and I mean harmful to the work being attempted, also not useful, not productive) to think that an imaginary person is only the sum of his parts as it is to think that the real words you are using and the imaginary person you are hoping to create must correspond one to one.

For me, Gass simply plays his side of the pedal too hard. He says of James's (Henry) wordman - the man that he has just told us is mostly blank canvas - that "As a set of sensations, Mr. Cashmore is simply impossible; as an idea he is admirably pungent and precise." But this is only half right: to me, Mr. Cashmore is not impossible as a set of sensations. Actually, he is about as right as I bet most strangers I might meet are on first glance: I notice some things, miss some others, and from that set form Gass's idea (image, figure), whether I realize it or not. I meet reality half way; to return our metaphor a bit more, I grab, rather than shake it's hand: I pull it up, or down, into my particular tree or hole.

Gass says later in his essay that words are "opaque" - but this isn't true. Words are partially opaque, sure, but they are also referential. They are not paint. They are not notes. They point elsewhere, always, in part because they are communal and social tools. The dial of "opaqueness" to "referentiality" can be turned one way or another depending on the other, but both parts are in play. Gass also goes so far as to say that "In a perfectly organized novel, every word would ultimately qualify one thing..." But this wouldn't be a novel: it would be a pamphlet, a cube of black glass. You would not be able to open it. You certainly (you meaning anyone) would certainly not be able to write it.

I may be vastly misreading Gass here (or misimplicating, folding him along the wrong lines, muscling in my own creases), but I think his idea of a novel floating through the vacuum of empty space is simplistic - as I said before, a question that seems too big but is really too small. Language is a web, indiscreet. I have my Gass, you have your Gass (who I prefer to the one I know), and the fact that those two entities are different should be proof enough that neither they nor anyone, fictional or otherwise, can be "freed from existence, can shine like essence, and purely be." Gass again: "The writer must not let the reader out; the sculptor must not let the eye fall from the end of his statue's finger; the musician must not let the listener dream."

It may be (and is hopefully not) just a question of words, but I find Wood's germinal persuasion much more useful than that kind of anxious entrapment.

message 3: by Gabriel (new) - added it

Gabriel I must say that the Wood that I have encountered in the pages of the New Yorker and in his recent interview on Bookworm is a much more pliable Wood than the rather more wooden one that the NYRoB piece and his rhetorical stance on Gass make him out to be. He was even willing to say that his kind of criticism may (and probably does) stand in the way of "new" writing, whatever form it may take, if only because it is so backward-looking (and not backward). And for that reason, I am perfectly willing to take it at face value, not as some insidious how-to (destroy) manual for writers.

But, and you have identified a key point in your comment, I do not think that Gass's (and that of Poe, as well as the many "avant-garde" writers who followed Poe, or followed followers of Poe (i.e much of the new French writing of the last century)) definition of the novel necessarily produces such a hard object as you seem to imply. This is perhaps not the forum for such a discussion, but I will say here that there is a kind of opposition between the writers for whom the text is text, and those who believe that the text is also something else, that it spins out of control once it is set down and in public. If I cast my lot in with those who see it as text, that does not mean that I (or Gass, or Poe) do not understand and even take into account that the text may be read as revealing something beyond itself, something that is not textual (one has only to read Gass's "The Pederson Kid" to see that), merely that I find that it is not necessary to only see things as inside of that construct. But I do identify it as a construct, and hope that I am able to treat it as such.

Thus, I do not find it (Gass's novel) entrapment, though such it may be, only a kind of paramount or Tower of Babel that can only be conceived and never actually constructed. Plato's forms, which blind the viewer, as against the shadows they throw against the cave wall. Or even the allegory of the Cave itself.

message 4: by Josh (last edited Nov 24, 2008 09:53AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Josh Wood is surprisingly inclusive; so is Gass. Their respective Bookworm interviews are great (I especially like the recent one in which Michael Silverblatt seems to be trying to decide minute-to-minute whether he wants to punch Wood or kiss his feet). The mark of great readers, to me, is that they always like something I never thought they would. Polemicists tend to be second generation.

You're right, too, that there is some mysterious relationship between books and life at work here - something much more interesting than I allowed. Looking at a beehive is not fruitless. If a work really is completed, then it will communicate, even if the main thing that it communicates is its own silence, and you will be able to get something out of it in the end.

Anyway, I wasn't worried about getting out: I was worried about not being able to get in. I like worrying about whether or not I'll be able to escape from a novel. Bring on the entrapment. But if I can't find a door, I won't be able to get in, let alone hear what it does or doesn't have to tell me (a problem that I'm sure Poe and Gass are as concerned about as Austen and James).

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