Monday, November 3, 2008

How Fiction Works - James Wood

Near the end of my second novel, Self-Mutilation, the protagonist, Oscar, has lost his confidence in the world and remarks that there is no one to trust except the greatest authors of all time:

"Life is not one big Greek drama, complete with a protagonist’s tragic flaw. It’s just babies being born, growing up, doing the things adults do, growing old, and dying. It’s just making a living, that’s all it comes down to. Work. Why can’t we all live in harmony, God? Why can’t there be enough for everyone to go around? Why do we always have to worry about how we’re ever going to be able to survive? Is it just this country I’m living in, that has perverted the basic elements of human existence, or is it the entire world, and is this place actually better than others? I don’t know who to believe about anything anymore. The greatest writers in history. Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Homer, Aeschylus and Aristophanes, Dante and Cervantes, Shakespeare and Milton, Lao Tzu, Flaubert and Balzac, Tolstoy and Kafka, Joyce and Proust, Nabokov and Mann, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. They’re the only ones I can believe. And who knows how many of them were motivated by commercial popularity. Who knows how many of them were fixated on immortality." (184-185)

I shouldn't post this excerpt because it comes from the final page of the manuscript itself, but oh well, it related too closely to James Wood's recent volume on literary acumen called How Fiction Works, a book I half-heartedly recommend (I "half-recommend" it). The book is closely related to the passage because, of the 21 authors named as the greatest of all time by me (in my own, non-English majored, barely well-read estimation) 16 are mentioned. Some of them barely (Aristotle, Balzac, and Hemingway), some of them fairly (Cervantes, Mann, Nabokov, Joyce, Kafka, and Proust), some of them rarely (Homer, Plato, Milton, and Fitzgerald), and some of them heavily (Flaubert-especially!-, Tolstoy, and of course, Shakespeare). Just for fun, let's point out who Wood doesn't discuss at all from my list: Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes (no love for Greek Tragedy!), Dante (right, he meant, like, nothing, to literature), and Lao Tzu (which is not surprising at all, as Lao Tzu is not a novelist and is included in my novel's list as the separating element between the roughly chronological listing).

Enough with the list already! But seriously, the listing of authors is one of the chief pleasures of How Fiction Works. In his introduction, Wood makes several impressive claims:

"As a teenager I was very taken by the rather fancy note to Ford Madox Ford's The English Novel: "This book was written in New York, on board the S.S. Patria, and in the port and neighbourhood of Marseilles during July and August, 1927." I cannot claim proximate glamour, nor a similar feat of library-less memory, but in the spirit of Ford, I can say that I have used only the books I actually own--the books at hand in my study--to produce this little volume. I can also add that, except for a paragraph here and there, none of it is previously published." (xv-xvi)

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I would like to point out the absence of the Beats. No Kerouac, no Ginsberg, and no Burroughs. Granted, I do not put them on my list as the greatest of all time, but no one, NO ONE, can argue that they have not played a crucial role in the development of the novel post World War II. They are positively modern compared to the moderns that Wood namedrops (David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Jose Saramago, J.M. Coetzee). Sure, none of them may have won the Nobel, but they do not deserve to be ignored. Oh wait, I think Ginsberg is mentioned ONCE:

"...the Milky Way flows out of her breasts, and the children come from between her legs ('the Monster of the Beginning Womb,' as Allen Ginsberg calls it in Kaddish). Men cannot rival that, even as they, like Mickey or late Yeats, rage on about male 'vitality.'" (201)

That, in a discussion of Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, and further, even Ricky Gervais and Seinfeld merit mentioning the same number of times as Ginsberg. Burroughs is not there, Kerouac is not there (and Bob Dylan is not there either, so at least there is good company). How can you leave out Burroughs, when he has created his own literary genre (even if it is pretty "out there"), and how can you leave out Kerouac, when EVERYBODY knows and reads On the Road in the same way as The Great Gatsby. And Gatsby only gets mentioned for the sake of its main character, whose private thoughts we do not get to read. Other OMG absences include J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut (how can you ignore The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Cat's Cradle?).

To be fair, this is not a list of all the greatest writers of all time. This is a book in which Wood purports to explain what he views as the inner workings of fiction--character (flat or round ones), detail (relevant or irrelevant--or is anything truly irrelevant?), dialogue, narrative voice, free indirect style, and language. Sometimes the book works wonderfully. The chapters on "Dialogue" and "Language" are excellent, and very instructive for the apprentice writer. However, while Flaubert may be one of the all-time greatest literary giants, Wood masturbates a little too much to the great man's name and monkish attitude towards the literary craft. Also, Wood seems to have a pretty concise idea of what makes great literature, and while reading large sections of this, I reflected on my own work and considered that Wood might denounce it as inadequate, and that all of the other anonymous critics who have dismissed it may be right, and I may not have any talent to speak of and I will be a total waste of life for writing novels that will never be published. Still, Wood does have the ability to surprise (his namedropping the "sadistic eros" of Dennis Cooper in comparison to Kafka and Beckett near the end of the work was a moment of personal vindication) and this volume will be quite titillating for anyone who claims to love literature. Wood might think my fiction doesn't work, but I'll take the company of his authorial voids any day.

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