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Book Review

Deconstructing fiction -- and its readers

By Eric Weinberger
August 20, 2008
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Surely it is a coincidence that soon after the critic James Wood left The New Republic for The New Yorker and published a book called "How Fiction Works," his former editor Leon Wieseltier dismissed modern book reviewing as largely a treatment of whether a book "works"or not. This is Wieseltier's dig at the vast Master's of Fine Arts industry, where student writers meet to workshop each other's manuscripts, which leads presumably to controversies not of literature or of the imagination but rather of what is "working" in the story and what isn't --an influence that has now passed over into literary reviewing.

Wood, in this slim, brainy volume, has despite his title not written a handbook but the more appealing, stiffening kind of sermon that, in its relaxed confidence, doesn't seem unbearably prescriptive. Like all his work, Wood's latest reminds us of the moral importance of literature, and the novel, which ironically bypasses the whole question of how it works, since -- this is the implication -- if the writer lacks moral urgency, his best and most craftsmanlike efforts won't come to anything much. But before that, there is a tedious dichotomy popular these days that is to be overcome: "Fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and ..... there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities."

This should go without saying, but on the assumption it doesn't Wood carries on -- always with entertaining briskness and brio -- with his argument, using only the novels "at hand in my study," pointing out the artifice, the verisimilitude, giving names to ideas. Slowly, in all this, comes the moral argument, that "literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself," which makes us better readers in turn. This is the most satisfying aspect of Wood's essay. Next to life is art, Wood reminds us several times, using his words or others'. Considering the matter of details in fiction, he reminds us that this, too, is like life: "Fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus detail. ..... Life ..... will always contain an inevitable surplus, a margin of the gratuitous, a realm in which there is always more than we need: more things, more impressions, more memories, more habits."

Since Wood knows that life is, in the end, too much for us all, it can seem incongruous that he believes, rather touchingly, in the perfect sentence. Surely that is too neat, for real life. Much of his book contains brief exalted passages of close reading of just those perfectly expressed sentences that so move him. The larger point is that great writing elicits its own inevitability, as in a passage by Saul Bellow, protagonist aloft over Newark, of which Wood says that "until this moment one did not have these words to fit this feeling."

Perhaps Wood's strongest idea is the claim that anything can work so long as its author -- the moral argument again -- has the talent, conviction, and quite possibly luck to bring readers to that point where everything is illuminated. "I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level." The great writers "have so finely tutored us in their own conventions, their own expansive limitations," that we are "satisfied with just what they give us." The avant-garde has to be ready for us. Great writing is akin to great teaching; fiction works, we can finally say, when -- paradoxical as this sounds -- mere words on the page teach us for the first time about something that we, from our adult or life experience, already know to be true.

Eric Weinberger reviews books regularly for the Globe.

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