James Wood on religion and fiction’s “not quite”

I recently read The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood. I enjoyed it quite a bit even as I disagreed with some of his emphases and tone. In fact I would recommend it over his more recent book How Fiction Works (which I discussed last year).

In particular, I like that he focuses heavily on actual examples pulled from works of literature by great authors. Yes, sometimes the prose swelters, sometimes things are dismissed with a casual tone that doesn’t convince and the continual hammering insistence on realism sometimes get tiring, but on the whole it was a good reading experience. He’s especially good with the author’s he loves, writing mash notes to their work that are lovely and specific and do what good literary criticism does: makes you want to read (or re-read) the author’s work.

And in returning to the foreword, I found an interesting passage that relates to the whole issue of agency and fiction which I raised last week. After quoting Thomas Mann’s assertion that fiction is “always a matter of the ‘not quite'”, he writes:

Fiction, being the game of not quite, is the place of not-quite-belief. Precisely what is a danger in religion is the very fabric of fiction. In religion, a belief that is only “as if” is either a prelude to a loss of faith, or an instance of bad faith (in both sense of the phrase). If religion is true, one must believe. And if one chooses not to believe, one’s choice is marked under the category of a refusal, and is thus never really free: it is the duress of a recoil. Once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free. In fiction, by contrast, one is always free to choose not to believe, and this very freedom, this shadow of doubt, is what helps to constitute fiction’s reality. Furthermore, even when one is believing fiction, one is “not quite” believing, one is believing “as if.” (One can always close the book, go outside, and kick a stone.) Fiction asks us to judge its reality; religion asserts its reality. And this is all a way of saying that fiction is a special realm of freedom. (xiv)

Now Wood goes on to say a lot more, and he does not privilege fiction over religion, per se. In fact, he explores and warns against the substitution of fiction for religion. But this passage in particular raises some questions for me: is fiction a special realm of freedom? Is that realm different for LDS than for other readers, and if so, how? And is the choice to believe when it comes to fiction really, truly free?

I hope to say more about this later, but a major reason I privilege and attempt to propagate narrative discourse, esp. narrative discourse with literary elements, is because I see it as a complement and a foil to religious discourse; whereas, I see self-help and socio-psychological and business discourse as attempting to supplant or zombie religious discourse. In always being “not quite” literary discourse aka narrative aka stories can create a realm in which to explore (and entertain and instruct) without necessarily making hard truth claims. Now, of course, there still are tensions, especially for those who begin to view religion as “not quite” (and Wood talks a lot in the essays about authors where those two things collide). But my belief is that those tensions can be productive. That’s sort of what this whole AMV thing is about.

3 thoughts on “James Wood on religion and fiction’s “not quite””

  1. Is fiction a special realm of freedom? Is that realm different for LDS than for other readers, and if so, how?

    I’m going to answer “yes” to both questions and point to a brief interaction I had on my own blog about the intersection of agency and fiction. Here’s what I said there: “In response to <a href=”my critical review of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, in which I briefly discuss Meyer’s attempt in the novel to explore the principle of moral agency and then point to her essential failure to give choice its dues, Cory asks: ‘But isn’t “free will” just perspective anyway (in literature I mean, not Mormon Theology)?’ While his question is loaded with implications, I’ll try to break it down the best I can by answering here and by exploring some further literary considerations in this series of posts titled ‘The Question of Agency.'”

    While the series petered out at two posts, I tried to deal with the “not quite” you mention here by briefly exploring, first, Harry Potter’s decision, then Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” in terms of Cory’s question and my own understanding of the principle of agency. I don’t know how adequately I deal with the issues at hand, but your post reminded me of that brief interaction where I tried to grapple with some literary considerations of the question of agency.

    Link there at your own risk.

  2. I remember that Twilight and Frost posts, but somehow I missed the Harry Potter one. Good stuff.

    In terms of the “not quite” and esp. Cory’s question of perspective, I think that part of the deliciousness of fiction is when the characters seem to get away from the author’s agenda and do their own thing. And that’s not just because the characters seem more “realistic” but also because the reader is always being both seduced by and rebelling against the track of the narrative. Conversely, I also think that’s why readers tire of metafiction and postmodern play as well as didactic fiction — anytime you jerk too hard on the line you risk the reader breaking the line or spitting out the hook.

  3. I will answer “yes” to both questions as well. Freedom is relative and the fundamental questions everyone should ask, “What is freedom to me? What freedom do I seek in my life? How do I acquire the freedom I desire?”
    Depending on your moral compass, these questions can be a path to goodness or a path to destruction.

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