From what I recall (I consume way too much without proper digestion), James Wood is a meanie of a literary critic who is erudite to a flaw and a bit fusty. I probably read some of his reviews back when I was reading The New Yorker (grandparents had a subscription — is anything better than hand-me-down magazines?), but I don’t remember them. However, when I read the reviews of his latest book How Fiction Works, I quickly ordered it from my local library. Several months later, I finally have it in hand.
I enjoyed it and learned from it so I suppose that means that it’s a good book. Reminds be a bit of John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction in its breadth and insistent literariness. I liked that Wood uses tons of examples from literature and that he expresses a real breadth as a reader (although he doesn’t deal much with genre) in that he likes and finds value in works of literary realism, postmodernism, and pre-realism, yet isn’t afraid to show where all of them can go wrong. He cites (approvingly) James and Nabokov and Austen and Stendhal and others and does a good job of not conflating all of them. He shows where there are serious points of differences. I also love that he clearly loves novels, loves fiction. And he goes after some of the silly truisms that get passed on, celebrating all types of metaphor and characters and style and point of view (although he does go on about free indirect discourse a lot — but he’s right — it’s what makes novels unique and wonderful and heterglossic, to borrow from Bakhtin). One wishes for a bit more structure and the latter 1/3 of the book seems a bit more rushed and less-developed than what comes before.
I do want to quote one section from How Fiction Works because it relates to a particular issue that comes up quite a bit in Mormon fiction circles. It’s not the most quotable work because so much depends on specific examples and prior discussion, but hopefully this comes across okay enough:
A great deal of nonsense is written every day about characters in fiction — from the side of those who believe too much in character and from the side of those who believe too little. Those who believe too much have an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to “know” them; they should not be “stereotypes”; they should have an “inside” as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should “grow” and “develop”; and they should be nice. So they should be pretty much like us. (101).
He goes on to cite a New York Times review of the films The History Boys and Venus. Neither film sounds like something I would want to see — something about old men who grope young boys. There is indeed an “ick factor” there. But if I disagree with the particular example, I do think what he has to say about this in relation to characterization is worth thinking about and discussing:
In other words, artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of — or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them. The idea that we might be able to feel that “ick factor” and simultaneously see life through the eyes of these two aging and lecherous men, and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind, seems beyond this particular commentator, of whom all one can say is that she is unlikely to be so unforgiving when she herself has reached seventy. But there is nothing egregious about this article. A glance at the thousands of foolish “reader reviews” on Amazon.com, with their complaints about “dislikeable characters,” confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness. (102)
Bit of a cheap shot there, Mr. Wood (and speaking of characters — I keep picturing the author of How Fiction Works as the animated version of James Woods playing himself on “Family Guy” [James Woods, incidentally, was born in Vernal, Utah). But it raises the issue of this: unless you condemn all fiction then I don’t think that it’s fair either to say a) the characters made me do it and b) the characters are dislikeable/immoral and so that must mean the book (and perhaps the author) is too. Authors are in control of their characters. Readers are in control of their response to the story. Flat characters can be interesting, entertaining and instructive. Round characters can be insufferably boring and lame. Meta-fiction can be interesting and well-done or it can be pretty stupid. etc. etc.
We all make certain allowances when we read fiction. I firmly believe that individual readers have the right to make the allowances they wish and to draw the boundaries where they so desire. But I also think that, in general, the more we take fiction to be fictive and the more we stretch our willingness to work with the styles, plots and characters (in a variety of modes — I have no patience for those who can’t read 19th century fiction because they are too lazy to work with non-20th-century transparent genre style nor with those who refuse to read genre fiction because they have some narrow notion of style and literariness or even worse of “literary realism”) of all types of storytelling, the more interesting readers (and writers and reviewers) we become.
I have wondered in the past if I’m not just not demanding enough of a reader because I enjoy so many types of genres, authors, styles, etc. I don’t know that I can make any large claims about magnanimity because I still have my irrational blind spots and reading ruts. And yet, I can say that being able to delight in a wide assortment of characters is fulfilling and fun.