Links: James Wood, news and fiction, sexuality and narrative, the paperback, bars and babysitting

* James Wood: “On Not Going Home.”

* “Is the News Replacing Literature?” Unlikely, but high-quality analysis of the news often has a literary quality. But quantity still has a quality all its own and writing 800 words, 8,000 words, and 80,000 words are all very different beasts and having written pieces of all three lengths I can say that what works at one length won’t at another.

I’m also fond of saying that not-very-good nonfiction can still be useful while not-very-good fiction rarely is.

* Someone on Reddit “capture[s] the vagaries of sexual consent through a series of personal stories;” many people have such stories but few share them widely, for obvious reasons. See also “The power of conventional narratives and the great lie.”

* The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity.

* “How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read;” ebooks are now doing something analogous.

* Smartphone sales growth slows, presumably for obvious reasons: when I first got one I used it for the same stuff everyone else does: maps, looking up random stuff, sending/receiving naked pictures, listening to music, and maybe one or two other things. With the model I have now I do basically the same stuff, as well as find Citi Bike locations and coffee shops. The new version does some of those things slightly better / faster, but were it not a business expense I doubt I’d bother.

* “Bars are too loud and cafes too quiet.” Mostly, bars are too loud.

* “My bad baby sitters year;” mostly a lost world, especially when it comes to finding forbidden objects / photos.

We all become close readers in romance

That evening, as he was returning home, Charles took up again one by one the words she had used, trying to recall them, to complete their meaning, in order to re-create for himself the portion of her life that she had lived during the time when he did not yet know her. But he could never see her, in his mind, differently from the way he had seen her the first time, or the way had just left her.

We all become close readers in romance, where words matter so much and yet are never sufficient. Charles is speaking early in Madame Bovary, which feels shockingly modern (especially read in conjunction with How Fiction Works); most capital-C Classics don’t. Lydia Davis’s introduction is helpful.

Novels in which I root for everyone and no one at the same time are rare, and rarer still in a novel in which most characters express commonplace sentiments like Charles’s. Those ideas work in the context of Madame Bovary. I wonder how and maybe always will.

All of us have had the moments of trying to take “up again one by one the words she had used,” although the gender pronoun will change based on orientation, and all of us have had those words feel inadequate as we try to “complete their meaning”—an infinite amount of commentary can’t complete meaning. In romance and art this is especially painful until it is accepted.

Warning: Don’t buy James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish)

I bought Plot & Structure because the issue of how a novel’s narrative moves seems to be understudied by academics, who tend to produce jargon-laden, overly analytical nonsense, and by novelists themselves. I’d really like an equivalent of How Fiction Works, but for an important matter that James Wood disdains (“the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot”). My ideal book would, as Wood says, ask “a critic’s questions and [offer] a writer’s answers.”

Unfortunately, Bell asks few questions and offers fewer answers. This is frustrating to me because, when I started writing, plot was a major weakness. The first two novels I actually wrote to completion had no real plots and thus weren’t very good novels (my Dad pointed out the former and let me infer the latter). Since then I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about plot, and being dissatisfied that I’ve never seen it addressed well elsewhere. Self-consciously literary writers and critics tend to discount it (as Wood does), sometimes to the detriment of their own work.

Genre writers tend to understand plot but either aren’t known to me, critically speaking, or write so poorly on a sentence-by-sentence level that their work isn’t interesting. To me, the best novels combine plot/story and language in a single, cohesive package. That, however, is difficult to do, and the difficulty may explain why we see so many arid academic-feeling novels about, oh, I don’t know, language and pure consciousness and What It Means To Be Alive Today, while so many genre novels with ticking bombs and handsome heroes and buxom heroines who put out surprisingly easily and simple words laid out in simple ways that won’t confuse anyone.

Not only is this dearth annoying because of my own flaws, but because I can’t point aspiring writers to a particular book and say, “Read this.” I can talk about some of my own techniques—I’ve written plot outlines for a number of books I admire, like an artist tracing his favorite paintings in order to imbibe their spirit and technique. With scenes, I’ve learned to ask what each character wants, what stands in his or her way, and why he or she is doing to overcome that barrier. I don’t always have answers—the characters often don’t have them, either—but at least asking the questions provides some structure to what might otherwise be a misaligned mess.

One can’t, of course, separate plot from character, setting, narrating, and other technical features in a novel. It would be stupid to try. But plot is a great blindspot in Wood’s criticism, and it’s a blind spot I aspire to see, or to see someone else seeing.

Bell, however, is blind.

More books I don't want to read: Theodor Fontane and Teju Cole

The New Yorker has been running a lot of reviews that describe novels I don’t want to read. The latest: Theodor Fontane’s work, which Daniel Mendelsohn describes this way:

The topography of his plots is admittedly as flat and monotonous as the notoriously bland landscape of his Prussian homeland, Brandenburg (about which he lovingly wrote in a multivolume work). Most of “Cécile” is devoted to the excursions and the chitchat of those hapless tourists; there’s some gossiping, a halfhearted flirtation, and then everyone goes home to Berlin.

“Flat and monotonous” plots? The “excursions and the chitchat of [. . .] hapless tourists?” Give me the latest thriller about mindless warfare and assassination. Or about fast-talking urbanites and their tedious sexual lives. Or anything. Elsewhere, Mendelsohn says, “Even Fontane’s characters are plagued by a certain anxiety about having nothing very exciting to talk about.” That’s enough of a problem in real life, thanks: give me escapism!

Or there’s Teju Cole’s novel Open City, as described by James Wood:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing).

“A single, unbroken paragraph,” limited conversation (which means we’re stuck in someone’s mind), the lack, again of, “event or contrivance,” as if those are bad things, the mark of a second-rate artist who wants to see how people interact with more than themselves and how they respond to adverse events, like the kinds that sometimes happen in life.

I realize Wood doesn’t like plot: in How Fiction Works, he quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and then says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I don’t think that’s good or that plot is essentially juvenile and tend to like novels in which the proverbial “something happens” and tend to dislike the ones that feel more like philosophy plus characters.

More books I don’t want to read: Theodor Fontane and Teju Cole

The New Yorker has been running a lot of reviews that describe novels I don’t want to read. The latest: Theodor Fontane’s, which Daniel Mendelsohn describes this way:

The topography of his plots is admittedly as flat and monotonous as the notoriously bland landscape of his Prussian homeland, Brandenburg (about which he lovingly wrote in a multivolume work). Most of “Cécile” is devoted to the excursions and the chitchat of those hapless tourists; there’s some gossiping, a halfhearted flirtation, and then everyone goes home to Berlin.

“Flat and monotonous” plots? The “excursions and the chitchat of [. . .] hapless tourists?” Give me the latest thriller about mindless warfare and assassination. Or about fast-talking urbanites and their tedious sexual lives. Or anything. Elsewhere, Mendelsohn says, “Even Fontane’s characters are plagued by a certain anxiety about having nothing very exciting to talk about.” That’s enough of a problem in real life, thanks: give me escapism!

Or there’s Teju Cole’s novel Open City, as described by James Wood:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing).

“A single, unbroken paragraph,” limited conversation (which means we’re stuck in someone’s mind), the lack, again of, “event or contrivance,” as if those are bad things, the mark of a second-rate artist who wants to see how people interact with more than themselves and how they respond to adverse events, like the kinds that sometimes happen in life.

I realize Wood doesn’t like plot: in How Fiction Works, he quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and then says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I don’t think that’s good or that plot is essentially juvenile and tend to like novels in which the proverbial “something happens” and tend to dislike the ones that feel more like philosophy plus characters.

Noticing the detail in James Wood’s How Fiction Works

 

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it. 

You only have to read How Fiction Works to realize you haven’t been as a good a noticer in life or in literature as you once thought you were. This is why I’ve reread it once a year or so since it came out in 2007, and each time I notice different things about it—like in this passage, where the adverb “serenely” is so appropriate despite the many admonishes to avoid adverbs whenever possible. We know precisely what the twenty-year-old is like, mostly like because we’ve met him and her, perhaps been him or her.

I also notice Wood’s phrase “relative virgins,” which is funny because virginity is supposed to be a binary thing: you are one or you aren’t. But in a post-Bill-Clinton age when nominal “abstinence pledges” make the parsing of the relation of act to word important to a surprisingly large number of people, virginity feels a lot more relative than it used to. Maybe I wouldn’t be as aware of this if I hadn’t read Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, which in turn cues me into the kinds of things I hear from undergrads at the University of Arizona—which may in turn feed my own fiction, in the kind of virtuous cycle Wood describes here. And since I have taught literature, I know precisely what he means about “poor noticers,” except that he should probably add that relatively few people become the kinds of dramatically good noticers who really love literary fiction as they get older: hence some of the popularity of the Dan Browns of the world.

Finally, because How Fiction Works is so delightful, one more quote: “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.”

What an unappealing book description looks like: Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03

In an essay about Jean-Christophe Valtat’s novella 03, James Wood writes that the work is an “eight-one-page monologue, written in one unbroken paragraph, about a teenage boy’s unrequited love for a mentally handicapped girl he sees every day at the bus stop […]”

Although I can’t give a complete theory of what makes a novel unappealing, I do know that Wood’s description of 03 has many elements I might include: very little probably happens in terms of narrative, if the story occurs chiefly a bus stop. A whole book composed of a “monologue” sounds unappealing: the dialogic aspects, to use Bakhtin’s conception, of novels makes them fun and gives their stories urgency as people’s desires collide. I want plot. And “one unbroken paragraph” reads to me suspiciously like a gimmick, and, beyond seeming like a gimmick, this would make the book hard to read. The title, 03, also has the whiff of a gimmick or of existentialism.

The short description Wood offers tells me one major thing: I don’t want to read this book. I would much rather read Wood writing about this book than the book itself; he offers insights that are probably more important, in this case, than the work he’s writing about, which is never a good sign for a novel.

Various writers have raised the rally cry against writers who engage in confusing postmodern game playing for its own sake: this, more or less, describes B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto, Tom Wolfe’s “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast“, Lev Grossman’s “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard,” and, most recently, Justin Peacock’s “The New Social Novel,” which actually isn’t new, but I’m willing to spot him the adjective in this case. Although I wouldn’t endorse everything every writer says in each of these essays, I do think they point towards a general idea: give us novels of substance, although we don’t always know what we mean by novels of substance and can’t necessarily define them.

I’m guessing 03 isn’t one, however.

What an unappealing book description looks like: Jean-Christophe Valtat's 03

In an essay about Jean-Christophe Valtat’s novella 03, James Wood writes that the work is an “eight-one-page monologue, written in one unbroken paragraph, about a teenage boy’s unrequited love for a mentally handicapped girl he sees every day at the bus stop […]”

Although I can’t give a complete theory of what makes a novel unappealing, I do know that Wood’s description of 03 has many elements I might include: very little probably happens in terms of narrative, if the story occurs chiefly a bus stop. A whole book composed of a “monologue” sounds unappealing: the dialogic aspects, to use Bakhtin’s conception, of novels makes them fun and gives their stories urgency as people’s desires collide. I want plot. And “one unbroken paragraph” reads to me suspiciously like a gimmick, and, beyond seeming like a gimmick, this would make the book hard to read. The title, 03, also has the whiff of a gimmick or of existentialism.

The short description Wood offers tells me one major thing: I don’t want to read this book. I would much rather read Wood writing about this book than the book itself; he offers insights that are probably more important, in this case, than the work he’s writing about, which is never a good sign for a novel.

Various writers have raised the rally cry against writers who engage in confusing postmodern game playing for its own sake: this, more or less, describes B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto, Tom Wolfe’s “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast“, Lev Grossman’s “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard,” and, most recently, Justin Peacock’s “The New Social Novel,” which actually isn’t new, but I’m willing to spot him the adjective in this case. Although I wouldn’t endorse everything every writer says in each of these essays, I do think they point towards a general idea: give us novels of substance, although we don’t always know what we mean by novels of substance and can’t necessarily define them.

I’m guessing 03 isn’t one, however.

The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel — James Wood

James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel is about comedy, yes, and the meaning that stands behind comedy, and the comedy that stands behind meaning, and so on in a potentially infinite loop. Like all his work, it is also about paradox: how words can become how real, and how the interior shows the exterior and vice-versa, and others discussed below. At one point, he says, “What seems to be a fleeting triviality is actually very important—this is both Verga’s subject and his mode of writing his banalities, like those of his characters, are never unimportant.” The seemingly trivial and banal become important, and the seemingly unimportant becomes exalted and majestic. Wood asks, and makes us ask, “why?”, searching for an answer that can never be had and yet also never seems futile. It’s a neat trick—call it the paradox of criticism, to go along with the paradoxes of the novel. If what we read isn’t significant in and of itself, perhaps we imbue it with significance through the nature of our interaction with the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the character, the story. Wood does, and in the process he sees what is too often missed.

What I like about Wood is how he doesn’t feel researched—he feels organic, inevitable, so natural that most critics and academics are closer to the harsh screams of heavy metal than to Moonlight Sonata. Not even Amis’ Wagnerian bombast compares. This organic-ness can only come, I suspect, from long and deep engagement with a narrow body of reference texts—for Wood, they seem to include Flaubert, Chekhov, Henry Green, Shakespeare, and a few others—complemented by wide breadth and an extraordinary comparative faculty. Once such conditions are in place, one has the potential for great criticism. Converting potential to actuality is hard. Few accomplish it, and few have the sight to discover what is so obviously there and yet that I have so often missed. It is a puzzle almost as significant as the many paradoxes of realism and idea in the novel itself, or in any form of representational art. The simultaneous merging and yet standing outside a character, discussed in Wood’s introduction, is one such example too long to quote at length and all the more incredible for the inability of one to slice a part out; this is a pie that can’t be cut without destroying the whole. This might be part of the organic effect I tried to describe above.

In contrast to Wood, consider a section from Geoffrey Hartman’s essay called “Christopher Smart’s ‘Magnificat:’ Toward a Theory of Representation,” which I began immediately after The Irresponsible Self. Smart writes writes:

What if someone cannot be presented [from one person to another]? The sense of distance has been thrown out of balance: either the self feels defective vis-a-vis the other, or the other appears magnified, unapproachable. The someone can be a something: certain subjects may not be introduced into discourse, certain taboos restrict or delimit the kinds of words used.
I introduce the example of words early, because word commonly help present us.

The idea Smart is trying to present is a reasonably good one: the psychology of social order, or interactions among people, and the individual voice addressing itself might be limited by our thoughts (incidentally, Paul Graham writes about both in What You Can’t Say). But the metaphor isn’t a very good one: how could a person not “be presented” to another real person? If I’m in the room with someone and wish to introduce them, there isn’t some way that such a person “can’t” be presented. If the “someone” is a “something,” that makes more sense, as some forms of social convention discourage contentious topics, although it’s also worth noting that some forms, like graduate student parties, encourage superficially contentious topics. And if we’re aware of taboo topics, or make an effort to become aware of them, then we’re no longer not mentioning them to ourselves because we’re aware of them. Notice too Hartman’s use of the term “vis-a-vis,” which seems showy and ostentatious; it’s a struggle and brings his sentence to a halt. It feels like the slash of a sword instead of the stroke of a brush: forced, not inevitable. If Smart’s essay hadn’t been assigned, I might’ve discarded it after that false note in the second paragraph, but I’ve continued, and though I might buy parts of his argument, that argument as a whole is so hard to follow that I mostly want to give up the attempt.

Now, back to Wood; in “How Shakespeare’s ‘Irresponsibility’ Saved Coleridge,” he writes:

Kant offered Coleridge a way of making the self both passive and active. One the one hand, the world was phenomenal: we gather and order the phenomena of perception. Coleridge called this the faculty of understanding, and in the Biographia it becomes, roughly, the “primary imagination.” On the other hand, said Kant, the world was noumenal: there were transcendent things-in-themselves, unknowable, and this domain is grasped by the practical reason or will. This practical reason asserts itself not by argument but by command and precept; it is how we believe in God. Coleridge bent and expanded Kant’s category, stripping it of its philosophical restraint and making it something closer to free will, and at other times closer to the decisive and controlling activity of the imagination.

Seldom have I read a better concise explanation of sophisticated, important ideas with as few sampling or compression errors. The passage moves according to its own logic, graceful as a dancer and yet purposeful, an economy of precision that Orwell could envy. Ideas I hadn’t perceived as connected I suddenly do, and in that moment something happens—a sense of distant has been thrown out of balance, maybe, but if so, it’s only to be regained better and stronger than before. And if it is a sense of distance, it is the distance between Coleridge, Shakespeare, and myself. I’ll happily be thrown out of balance by someone who knows how to pick me back up.

It’s not entirely fair to hold up these two passages, each on tremendously different topics, as comparisons, and yet I think they do demonstrate the difference between the two writers and the larger difference between Wood, who works so hard for intellectual depth and engagement, and many other critics, who sacrifice the latter in phantom pursuit of the former. Wood has a nearly perfect power curve, and even where I disagree, as with Tom Wolfe, I’m still dazzled by the clarity of his thinking and writing, to the extent those can be separated.

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken — Daniel Mendelsohn

After reading enough fiction—although how much constitutes “enough” probably varies by person—it seems natural to search for deeper meanings and connections in what you’ve read. Although I can’t pinpoint where I crossed that threshold, somewhere I did—hence Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworlds, most of James Wood’s books, including How Fiction Works, Milan Kundera’s criticism, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Add to that stack Daniel Mendelsohn’s How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. Most pieces hail from “The New York Review of Books,” and they reflect the trade-offs inherent in that magazine’s style, including lengthy introductions so elliptical relative to the main point that one can sometimes start at the first paragraph break, which is often a couple pages in, and miss something, but perhaps not much. It’s a bit like a politician whose great ideas don’t get quite entirely heard because an overly long disquisition looses his audience. Willie Stark suffered from that malady, and Barack Obama was criticized for the same tendency. Readers of criticism should and probably do have considerably longer attention spans than a voter’s, but even that can be stretched only so far. It’s not that a particular essay of Mendelsohn’s suffers from excessively from it, but rather that the overall effect is one of such relentless prep that one becomes weary by the time dinner is actually to be served. This sense of weariness is what led me to allow my subscription to lapse. But keep going through those introductions: the digging brings intellectual gold, and that goal is worth the pursuit.

This is especially true because How Beautiful It Is is tied together better than the average “New York Review of Books,” and its consistent interest in classics and their continuing interpretation and impact give it a sense of building, of constructedness, that helps alleviate the occasional sense of tediousness. As Mendelsohn says of some of the first “9/11 movies,” “The problem with all this realness is that [United 93] itself—like reality—has no structure: and without structure, without shaping, the events can have no large meaning.” So too with criticism, and his larger structure rotates around Greek and Latin classics. When Mendelsohn is on, he’s fantastic, and his impressive knowledge of classics lets him bring seemingly disparate works together, like a metaphysical poet yoking two images that at first appear opposites. They obviously play into some of the sword and sandal epics he mentions, and less obviously into say, Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. I wish he’d written more about novels and less about theater, novels being my great interest, but what he does include is richer than many longer works of criticism and helps direct my own reading; Mendelsohn’s argument against The Lovely Bones, one briefly hot book, inspires me to avoid it with more diligence than I do Mitch Albom, another sentimental, schlocky, and vastly overrated bestseller who appeals to the Hallmark card reader in all of us. The Hours, however, is now on the list; one danger of reading How Beautiful It Is and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel is the perpetual extension of one’s reading list, practically giving you the tools to better perceive recent and ancient culture. And, perhaps more importantly, yourself.

Mendelsohn never abandons the critic’s ultimate purpose of judicious judgment, and one impressive thing is the way he manages to be unsparing but not mean, rooted in culture but not pedantic, and conveys his sense of joy, history, and sagacity. The three together are not easy. Some of his pieces seem like overkill, and so many words on the movies Troy, Alexander, 300, and Kill Bill seem wasted, as they’re not worth the skill Mendelsohn lavishes on them. A great critic can only reach his highest level when pitted against great works, and none of those reveal much about much of anything because they lack the depth necessary for the highest level of engagement. Still, Mendelsohn improves imperfect material, demonstrating the possibility better material gives us when he discusses writers, especially Virginia Woolf. The primary thing holding him back is the aforementioned habit of endless introduction and circling needlessly around the main point before he hits it: with James Wood’s criticism, you get the idea that every idea is essential to the argument. With Mendelsohn, you get the idea virtually every one is, but not quite every one: “Nailed!”, about the “Hatchet Jobs” of the writer Dale Peck, doesn’t nail the reader till three pages in. The habit isn’t fatal, and Mendelsohn is still worth reading, but he gets just a tad stuffy as he goes. Still, this is the worse thing I can repeat about Mendelsohn, and his essays convey so much insight that they’re worth reading even if you occasionally skim, because the wonderfully strong justify the others.

%d bloggers like this: