James Wood and the Pitfalls of Writing on Writing: Review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works

Daniel Torday

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24.00 (hardcover)

While going back and forth with Maxwell Perkins on some final edits of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald sent a smattering of awful choices for new titles to his legendary editor at Scribner. The High-bouncing Lover, he wanted it called for a time; or Gold-hatted Gatsby, or Trimalchio in West Egg, or just Trimalchio; or Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires. Perkins wisely advised against such poor choices when an option as good as The Great Gatsby was at hand. Finally, in March of 1925, Fitzgerald wired from France—he’d come to a decision. He sent a telegram which read: “CRAZY ABOUT TITLE UNDER RED WHITE AND BLUE STOP WHAT WOULD DELAY BE.” Thankfully, Perkins wrote back to say it was too late for such a change. Perkins had saved his greatest author from himself.

This story feels apposite in thinking about all the splenetic ink that has been spilled over critic James Wood’s How Fiction Works. So much bile has arisen a reader might be forgiven for mistaking him for a charlatan in the mold of, say, Jerome Corsi, rather than the consensus greatest-critic-in-the-land. On New York Magazine‘s blog, a writer wonders if Wood won’t sully a generation of young writers with his insistence on the primacy of Flaubert’s “free indirect style” (Wood himself had the temerity to respond to this nonsense and was censured for deigning to converse with the masses, which he’d already done not long before in the pages of n+1). In the print version of New York, critic Sam Anderson worries that Wood’s book “often feels dogmatic-a strict aesthetic dress code that consistently dismisses pomo riffraff like Pynchon for what strikes me as the superficial charge of lacking what Wood calls ‘final seriousness.'” And in the New York Times Book Review Walter Kirn writes:

The grosser elements of fiction-story, plot and setting, as well as the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar that has impelled such messy masterworks as ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ‘On the Road’ and Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son’-intrude not at all on Wood’s presentation, which proceeds in the steady, dark-gowned, unruffled manner of a high-court judge. Wood seems firm in his conviction that accounting for How Fiction Works needn’t involve bewildering digressions into Why Writers Write or Why Readers Read.

It’s hard to understand how these particular gripes even relate to How Fiction Works. Wood celebrates Bellow’s “exalting the vernacular” both in this new book and extensively in his work in general-one need look no further than his introduction to Bellow’s Collected Stories, in which the critic praises Bellow for his “prose as a registration of the joy of life: the happy rolling freedom of his daring, uninsured sentences.” Wood certainly takes his time to praise Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater-is there a character that does more “absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar” and furthering “the grosser elements of fiction” than Mickey Sabbath, a septuagenarian who spews seminal fluid and urine on his girlfriend’s grave and engages in graphic phone sex? And New York‘s Anderson has trouble with Wood’s treatment of “pomo riffraff,” but he never goes after the actual muddiness of Wood’s argument, an issue somehow tied to the fact that throughout the book the critic continuously refers to Wallace and his cohort as “stylish” when he means to call them “stylized.”

And so it seems that the real issue being taken up by these critics may simply come down to a misjudgment in titling, a categorical concern rather than one of content. While its title might suggest otherwise, How Fiction Works is not really a primer on fiction; it isn’t in any qualitative sense a reaction to Aspects of the Novel (though Wood’s frequent reference to the book compiled of Forster’s 1927 lectures at Trinity College-he says that Forster’s work now “seems imprecise”-does unfortunately beg such comparisons), and it doesn’t properly belong alongside John Gardner’s maddening little polemic The Art of Fiction, or Hallie and Whit Burnett’s Fiction Writer’s Handbook, or any of the countless lesser fiction primers out there. It belongs to a different category altogether, one that’s not a primer, not a personal treatise like Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life or Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird either-but one more like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, or even Joseph Conrad and Henry James’s prefaces. These are meditations on writing from a writerly perspective by writers whose mastery and depth as readers and practitioners call for us to sit at their feet. Wood certainly has earned himself such a voice, and he employs that voice to argue alongside the most distinguished writing on writing.

All serious writers on writing owe a tacit debt to James and Conrad, and Wood makes explicit his debt to the latter. Late in his book Wood admits that he’s “asking you to do what Conrad said fiction should make you do-see.” We can’t help here but return to Conrad’s initial claim in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel-it is, before all, to make you see. That-and no more, and it is everything.” This preface and James’s short essay “The Art of Fiction” could, taken together, stand as the canon of early twentieth century writing on writing until Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. In the writings on writing we find afterwards, we forever hear echoes of their overarching claims-as we do in the lectures of Flannery O’Connor, collected in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Writings, wherein O’Connor, like James Wood, tells us that “Conrad said that his highest aim . . . was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe.” Wood’s similar allusion to Conrad’s preface ties his argument to a tradition I feel has begun in good standing, just before Conrad, with James.

In “The Art of Fiction,” James makes a simple enough claim: “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary,” James writes, “is that it be interesting.” Does this seem a little imprecise, as well? Sure. It’s awfully hard to dismiss that brief, damning dependent clause: “without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary.” But it also feels as true as any claim we find elsewhere in writing on writing after the master. And the arbitrariness James accepts was some of Forster’s impetus in giving the lectures that became Aspects of the Novel, an organized and pointed book that sets forth definitions that feel as fresh today as they must have eighty years ago.

In Wood we don’t ever feel we’re encountering arbitrariness; but neither do we find as timeless or pellucid claims as we find in much of Forster’s work. In Wood we don’t find anything that approaches Forster’s description of an old lady who after being “accused . . . of being illogical” asks, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Or as invaluable a definition as Forster’s claim that a novel is “any fictitious prose work of over 50,000 words in length.” Or that the difference between plot and story is as simple as this formulation of causation: “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” When Wood sets up to question one of the most enduring of Forster’s claims in Aspects of the Novel-the distinction between “flat” and “round” characters-he doesn’t quote directly from Forster. Unfortunately, it turns Forster into something of a straw man. Wood claims that Forster’s privileging of round over flat characters is too simplistic:

If by flatness we mean a character, often but not always a minor one, often but not always comic, who serves to illuminate an essential human truth or characteristic, then many of the most interesting characters are flat. I would be quite happy to abolish the very idea of ’roundness’ in characterization, because it tyrannizes us—readers, novelists, critics—with an impossible ideal.

Wood feels that by allowing primacy a priori to round characters simply because they change, and lowering the status of flat ones accordingly, we look over-stringently at the way characters are formed. But Forster made clear he agreed. “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round,” Forster writes. He proceeds to say that Dickens stands as our shining rebuttal to making a rule like this one. Forster seems to acknowledge above all else that making rules about fiction is a fool’s errand-that as James said a quarter century or so earlier, we risk “arbitrariness” even in such specific claims. (Really? Fifty thousand words? Not forty-nine nine? Forty-eight?)

Perhaps this is what comes at bottom of the response we’ve witnessed to Wood’s new book. What a dicey game it is, indeed, to make hard and fast rules about the novel! We can only argue so much with an attempt to do so. In some strange way, the closer we come to tweezing the pulsing worm of law out of fictional text, the quicker it squirms from our grasp. If the novel is to be novel, it depends upon the breaking of rules. But here’s precisely where we’re indebted to Wood for his work-we can’t break rules if we don’t know what they are, and as Forster’s old woman asks: How do we know what we think till we see what we say? We depend upon our greatest critics and writers-and Wood clearly belongs to that pantheon-to articulate our rules for us. If we’re lucky, we get as good and maddening a piece of advice as the one James leaves us with at the end of “The Art of Fiction”: “Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible-to make perfect a work. Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize.”

Like Fitzgerald’s perseveration on the title of the least imperfect American novel, maybe what made Forster’s book so successful was its willingness not to try and be definitive while defining and defining and defining. He set out to do just what he did: illuminate some aspects of the novel. Wood has done so, as well, and he’s done so with the great erudition and alarming breadth of reading we’ve come to associate with him. He just couldn’t call his book Aspects of the Novel-that title’d been taken. So perhaps all this din comes down to the fact that had Wood’s new book been titled Lectures on Fiction, or Things I’ve Noticed About the Piles of Books I’ve Read, or even Some Smart Observations About Fiction, the ugly response the book has garnered might have disappeared in favor of a round of justified huzzahs.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter