James Wood – How Fiction Works


Forty-odd years ago Iris Murdoch cast an eye over the spheres of activity termed moral philosophy and literature, and – with the unfussy authority of an ex cathedra – identified the two dominant modes in which contemporary fiction operated. “The twentieth-century novel is usually either crystalline or journalistic,” she wrote; “that is, it is either a small quasi-allegorical object portraying the human condition and not containing 'characters' in the nineteenth-century sense, or else it a large shapeless quasi-documentary object, the degenerate descendant of the nineteenth-century novel, telling, with pale conventional characters, some straightforward story enlivened with empirical facts.” Murdoch was dissatisfied with the thinness of our concept of the Self, lacking as we did a “satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn.”

Murdoch insisted that we needed to rediscover 'a respect for the contingent'; that is, the Novel, in order to attain its fullest expression as an art form, must be hospitable to imperfection, incompleteness; and discard any notion of closure, pattern, formal neatness. “We must turn our attention away from the consoling dream necessity of Romanticism, away from the dry symbol, the bogus individual, the false whole, towards the real impenetrable human person.” ('Against Dryness', 1961)

Contingency, as Murdoch understood it, finds its sublime apogee in the great Russian novelists, Tolstoy chief among them: “...since reality is incomplete, art must not be too afraid of incompleteness”; and it is the profound inaccessibility of the souls of other people, their habit of slipping free of the snares of pure behaviourism and psychologism ('motive', in the kind of fiction Murdoch approves of, being thus a chimera and delusion), that the Novel ought to be engaged with. In Tolstoy, as in Shakespeare, the characters peopling their work are ineluctably, unapologetically themselves. And we have the sense that they somehow resist the puppetry of the author...

The suspension of analysis, that would reduce a human being to a set of clearly intelligible – if fatally reductive – sigils of selfhood, and would deny the 'opacity of persons': for Murdoch, the acceptance of the otherness of the other enjoined on us by great fiction is much akin to the experience of love.

Now, as James Wood has pointed out, Murdoch's practice as a novelist herself falls short of this philosophical ideal, this 'Atlantis of the mind'. She issues a counsel of perfection that, in her own fiction, she fails to meet. (Reading her novels today, one is struck by how mannered, how weirdly stylised and theme-cramped they are: indeed, how masque-like.) Wood cites her 'excessive Platonic scrupulosity' as perhaps the cause of Murdoch's lapse and the aesthetic flaws of her work. Her characters are afflicted by a kind of histrionic diabolism – they lurch from spiritual crisis to spiritual crisis, they are afire with otherworldly mysticism or broken on the wheel of moral abjection. Her prose seems to function in the classic realist manner, its austerity almost painful; but Murdoch is less interested in examining the ordinary than in hauling her characters over the existential coals. Indeed the typical Murdochian novel thrashes about in its hyperreality, and her philosophical concerns are never far from the surface.

For Murdoch, if literature is to succeed qua art it must dispense with any consolatory pleasures; and it “..must always represent a battle between real people and images..” But, with the best will in the world, it isn't easy to find 'real' people populating her novels. Martyrs and psychopaths, hierophants and holy fools, yes – but real? Murdoch's was a deeply divided creative sensibility. Each of her novels, to some degree, was a hamstrung compromise between roman à thèse and conventional plot-driven narrative, characterful and coherent. Each seems asphyxiated by the dense wadding of philosophy. Fascinating though they are, they exist in another dimension, shying from the banalities of life. James Wood remarks that “...it is frustrating, if one cares about English fiction, to see a novelist so well-equipped artistically, skidding around on this hard philosophical ice.” Things as they are,/Are changed upon the blue guitar...

Realism – or things are they are, unmolested by programme and undistracted by philosophical inquiry. James Wood regrets Iris Murdoch's failure to grasp the distinction between aesthetic and philosophical, and there's something rather touching about that. The novels are 'hapless enactments of philosophy', and Wood means for us to regard Murdoch in the light of a thwarted idealist, one in whom the brittle deliverances of a fiction attentive to the textures of the real are stifled by the professional philosopher's bad habits. “Perhaps her novels are the aesthetic sacrifices to her stern metaphysics?” That she enrolls Tolstoy to her ethical vision, as the greatest exemplar of a process through which “an enriching and deepening of concepts ... moral progress takes place”, is instructive – Tolstoy seen in his essential religiosity, the bearded pentateuchal patriarch of his last years, and not the Tolstoy of whom Virginia Woolf can write, in her essay 'The Russian Point of View':

Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded. Nobody, therefore, can so convey the excitement of sport, the beauty of horses, and the all the fierce desirability of the world to the senses of a strong young man. Every twig, every feather sticks to his magnet. He notices the blue or red of a child's frock; the way a horse shifts itself tail; the sound of a cough; the action of a man trying to put his hands into pockets that have been sewn up. And what his infallible eye reports of a cough or a trick of the hands his infallible brain refers to something hidden in the character, so that we know his people, not only by the way they love and their views on politics and the immortality of the soul, but also by the way they sneeze and choke.

This is exquisitely put, and James Wood, I'm sure, would very much approve. Woolf says more about Tolstoy the novelist in a paragraph than poor Iris Murdoch, feverishly flipping the Zener cards of speculative philosophy, can muster in all her critical writings. “Life dominates Tolstoy,” Woolf goes on, “as the soul dominates Dostoevsky. There is always at the centre of all the brilliant and flashing petals of the flower this scorpion, 'Why live?'” Besides Murdoch's anaemic vagueness about Tolstoy saying “that art was an expression of the religious perception of the age..”, Woolf's delight in the power of seeing, in the Conradian faith in making you see, stands as comprehensive and persuasive a reason as any to believe that literary realism isn't the dead letter some would maintain. The fierce desirability of the world to the senses...

Iris Murdoch's fiction – in spite of its peculiar dramatic intensities - feels less than fully realized to us because of the absence of specificity she grants to her worlds. Her characters are ghosts in the machine of her philosophical investigations. A.S. Byatt has written, more forgivingly, that the Murdochian novel “stands beside realism, a papery charade indicating in riddles what it is not doing, but is intensely concerned with.” The Black Prince – the work Byatt discusses - “is best read as a fable about the difficulties of realism, or truth-telling.” Perhaps Wood is wrong to reprove Murdoch for failing to settle comfortably into the realist mode, because she is too self-conscious a thinker not to grasp how troublesome that mode can be. She is a renegade realist, a fabulist at heart, straying into zones beyond the strict boundaries of the form, viewing the novel from without. Blaming her for not writing as a 'straight' realist must then be like blaming a golf ball for not being a vegetable. But, for James Wood, uncomplicatedly, the measure of aesthetic success remains the felt proximity to the world and its devices. Murdoch was simply too infected by thought and the rarefied crossmess parzel of metaphysics – the novel as donnish parlour game – to come to the mark.


Literary realism isn't, James Wood asserts, in cultural receivership. Rather, it supplies the ground to all the types of its contraries - be they never so ready to reject any debt, or disavow realism as 'stuffy, correct, unprogressive'. Writing of Gogol, Wood holds that “'realism' is beautifully flexible and longeval, and has always contained within it, as a single note contains its harmonics, its potential mixtures. Realism produces surrealism; it funds its own defaulters.” Wood emerged in the nineties as a critic at odds with the reigning cultural atmosphere. His two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, introduced a voice that was neither mustily academic nor meretriciously 'cool': measured, serious, with a spidery intelligence that can nimbly explore the pitted surfaces of a text.

Abandoning the 'mephitic kindergarten' (Gore Vidal) of the Cambridge English Faculty, Wood instead worked for the Guardian, as literary editor of The New Republic, and, today, as staff writer for The New Yorker. Ready to accept the risks and rewards of the freelancer, he struck out with a series of deeply involved pieces that make typical newspaper reviewery seem like thin gruel. The publication of The Broken Estate suggested that, however much the naysayers might complain, literary criticism – the real deal, an activity which enhances and adds to the work it examines – still had true viability beyond the academy. (Henry James's absolutism on this score is telling: “The critical sense is so far from frequent that it is absolutely rare, and the possession of the cluster of qualities that minister to it is one of the highest distinctions ... In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of the artist, a torch-bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother.”) Wood raised the stakes: it seemed that it had become possible once more for literary journalism to find a receptive audience and speak to it au sérieux.

Much of this rests on the gravity of Wood's themes. The Broken Estate declares itself as a study of the dialectical movement between religious belief and literary belief. At some point in the nineteenth century, Wood argues, the immemorial concordat between the message of the Gospels – as revealed truth – and an orphaned humanity was shattered. Yet the impulses animating this former 'estate' remained, and it fell to literature and art to respond to them. The Bible was reinterpreted as an anthology of fables, a verbal artifact. Flaubert elevated style to a religious obligation. Subtly aphoristic in his introduction, Wood nudges us toward an understanding of the upshot of this shift: “The gentle request to believe is what makes fiction so moving... This is surely the true secularism of fiction – why, despite its being a kind of magic, it is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity... Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt...” Which is to say, there will be no glib certainties in the very best fiction, nothing doctrinaire, nothing coercive – it prosecutes its effects on us by the mildest of trickeries, by soliciting our credence, by wooing us with plausibilities, not by extorting it from us. Wood persuades, perhaps, because of this unassuming tack. Unlike an F.R. Leavis, say, there will be no bullying into compliance. We must orientate ourselves toward literature and life sceptically but openly.

Ford Madox Ford once echoed Wood's insistence that 'realism' is the enabler and final guarantor of all the other varieties of fictive art: “... Lord Dunsany imagines himself to be in revolt against realism ... He does nothing of the sort of course, since he is one of the chief realists of them all. He is so much of a realist that he produces an effect of mysticism; just as his countryman who is thinking of filling the old pig with buckshot produces an effect of thinking of the cold way of the stars. This is not a paradox; it is part of the whole scheme of art and of the way art works.”

Wood's conviction of the vital utility of fiction is bracing, if defiantly old-fashioned. His prose, while sharply precise, with a suppleness that never falters into laxity, positions itself somewhere among the belle-lettrists of an earlier age. Little wonder, then, that the blogosphere has rounded on Wood, and he has borne the brunt of such snarkishness from certain quarters that it's fairly easy to feel that a lot of the grandstanding snidery and 'masculinist anti-intellectualism' comes from those threatened, in some obscure way, by him. (Some responses so wrong-headed it's hard to know what to say in reply: "If this is the remaining legacy of the 'great tradition' of British literary criticism [or American, for that matter], better that we should refuse it." Oh, really...) In the capping section of How Fiction Works, Wood quotes two contemporary opinions on realism, Rick Moody and the litblog 'The Elegant Variation'. (Although I ought to point out that Mark Sarvas, proprietor of TEV, is an admirer of Wood.) Both are of the view that the realist novel is a limping Rosinante of a form. Both suggest that it is reactionary, moribund and basically irrelevant. “This,” Wood replies, “is more or less nonsense.”


Wood's latest, How Fiction Works, is a handbook of practical criticism - “casting a critic's eye over the business of creation”. Ten chapters, each composed of short numbered paragraphs; it forms, also, something of an appendix to the earlier books, in that much of its matter will be familiar to readers of Wood (I'd almost written 'fans'), and many of the interpretative moves can be found more expansively in his criticism proper. Wood asks us to think of it as a contemporary revision of E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. (Ford Madox Ford spluttered over the 'tea cup clattering disquisitions' that Forster indulges himself in: “He cites an immense number of second-rate English novelists and jests over them for all the world like a contributor to Punch making fun of his own children for the benefit of the public.”) Wood, mercifully, isn't quite as niminy-piminy as Forster. His faith in literary realism's capacity for most meaningfully engaging with human experience carries over from the essays. To educate a reader in the 'forms of attention' (Frank Kermode) through which we deepen our maiden apprehension of literature as connected to the world, to our experience of it, as the preeminent means of understanding it: this is Wood's project.

Familiarise yourself with Wood's criticism and you come soon enough to recognise his touchstones: Flaubert, Tolstoy, Italo Svevo, Knut Hamsen, Henry Green, among others. They reappear in How Fiction Works, as those novelists best able to give verbal definition to the textures of real life, to the 'mind's creases', and who acknowledge the final unknowability of the self.

Technically it has been through the development of the Free Indirect Style – and the artful deployment thereof – that the novel emerged as the bel wether of literary forms: it “brings us closer to the characters,” says Wood, “letting us, if only for a minute, inhabit the wilderness of their souls.” He sets the greatest store by writers who make use of it most adroitly, without obtruding their own voices. The reader eavesdrops but does not quite fully occupy a character's mind as one might stream-of-consciousness. The shuttling perceptions and observations of the character blend with the récit. The effect, thus, is that of intermitted intimacy: truer to our oblique, imperfect experience of other people; less self-consciously written than Joycean monologue intérieur. For such subtlety Wood cherishes high realism. Its being comfortable with lacunae, too, as Wood illustrates in his discussions, here and elsewhere, of Chekhov, who spells nothing out, who liberated fiction from authorial tinkering and let it breathe. Wood further argues that the great novelist is a 'first-class noticer', skilled at plucking from the shapelessness of the phenomenal world details which illumine and are themselves promissory notes for the authenticity of the fiction. Now, at first blush none of this seems exceptionable. Close reading is the means by which the reader proves his mettle, after all. And Wood wants to school us in attentiveness to the wrinkles and purls of a narrative, of style and characterisation. The feverish busyness of what he's called 'hysterical realism' – with its promiscuously inventive energy and bustle – really only distracts from the matter in hand. For Wood to read a novel is a kind of secular sacrament; and the spectral traces of the devotional habit are everywhere in his criticism.

Yet How Fiction Works – read alongside the earlier works – feels thinner, less engaged, written left-handedly. This by no means slights Wood's commitment to the business of criticism. (There's been a suspicious rash of such slender 'how-to' manuals of late, from Terry Eagleton's How to Read Poetry to Tom Paulin's Secret Life of Poems.) It may simply be that by far the better instances of his practice are to be found in The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self: we've been spoilt. His publisher left a certain hostage to fortune by billing it Wood's 'first full-length critical study'. It is nothing of the sort, which isn't to say that How Fiction Works somehow bombs... The same delight in mastery radiates from the page, the same joyous thrill over the excellences to be discovered in the most accomplished fiction. But it's a minor matter of regret that Wood hadn't quite the nerve to stray far from territory covered before, and more thoroughly and interestingly, at that.

Fiction – the most maturely realised, the most exemplary – transacts between artifice and verisimilitude. The novelist shapes his fiction principally by selection of detail, regulation of tempo, and so on. The proposition, however, seems drably obvious, the merest truism. Might it be a cause for concern, that our instincts for decoding the strategies of narrative writing have become so attenuated, that Wood needs to point it out? (I myself first came across the Free Indirect Style at sixteen, reading Stephen King – I hadn't the term for the technique, but I identified it as such...)

In his much-debated essay 'Hysterical Realism' Wood invokes what he calls the 'Sun King principle': “An excess of storytelling has become the contemporary way of shrouding, in majesty, a lack.” The hyperactive carnivalesque of such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith – Wood believes – conceals an essential nullity in the heart of their enterprise. To be 'merely' human doesn't seem quite enough for their characters, they are to be vivid rushes of vacant self-display. “The big contemporary novel,” Wood goes on, “is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence.” He bids us to reflect on the work of fiction with the same untroubled calm as one might contemplate the light in a Vermeer interior. And it is in the finely-graded parity between technique and the actual, the infinitely subtle approximations of reality as we experience it, that Wood finds the measure of the novelist's artistry. Hysterical realism hurries us away from actuality - indeed, it throws a bag over our heads and bundles us into the boot of a car...

Against the rogue energies of hysterical realism Wood places his own gold standard: “life on the page, life brought to different life...” Nor 'lifelikeness', but lifeness. It tutors us to sharpen and enrich our responses to the world of which we are tenants, responses otherwise dulled by habit. How Fiction Works honours this, but cagily. 'Life' assumes the transcendental authority accorded, in former ages, to the Godhead; and, in a sense, resists inquiry. “He found the world to be as deeply evasive as he was himself,” Wood notes in 'What Chekhov Meant By Life', “ - life as a tree of separate hanging stories, of dangling privacies. For him a story did not merely begin in enigma, but ended in enigma too.” ('Knowable unknowability', as Morgan Meis neatly puts it.) Wood is attracted to a kind of aesthetic reticence, above all else. 'Lifeness' exacts from us patience, attention and imaginative pliancy.

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