28 February 2008


JW: "The penultimate chapter in my new book, How Fiction Works, is entitled "Dialogue".

JH: "Great. I've been particularly anxious to hear what you have to say on that critical topic."

JW: "It's a pretty short chapter, actually."

JH: "Oh, I see."

JW: "I do like good dialogue."

JH: "Okay. I believe you. Can you give me a brief summary then?"

JW: "Yes."

JH: "Ahem. Well would you?"

JW: "Sure. Here goes: 'Henry Green writes good dialogue. He never intrudes on his characters' speeches by using excess explanatory words like "he said knowingly", or "she sputtered angrily", or "he explained", etc. Like a good dramatist, he lets the words speak for themselves, often doing double duty in the narrative."

JH: "That's it? Isn't there anything else?"

JW: "Well, V.S. Naipaul writes good dialogue, too. Except when he doesn't."


Martha Nussbaum

A quick break in our reading of How Fiction Works: Take a look at this slightly skewed review of what looks to be a terrific, if long, analysis of the issue of church and state we raised here: Martha Nussbaum's Liberty of Conscience. Nussbaum is a writer I trust to explore her subject matter thoroughly. This was also the topic of my long-ago Law Review note.

A tip of the hat to Arts & Letters Daily for pointing us to this review. BTW: aldaily is usually my first stop in my day's browsing.

27 February 2008

"Sailing in atmosphere"

Today, we look at "Language", the antepenultimate chapter of James Wood's How Fiction Works. Words must be well-chosen, unexpected, stylish. Bellovian. Still, with style, the poet in the writer threatens to overwhelm the point-of-view in character. Language, then, must be fitting and pretty—though never prettified.

Wood makes a stab at defining the nebulous concept "voice" (footnote 53, p. 150): "It is partly by shifts in register that we gain a sense of a human voice speaking to us... Likewise, by dancing between registers a character sounds real to us... Movements in diction capture some of the waywardness and roominess of actual thinking..." By employing a mix of erudition and vulgate—a "mélange" he calls it of different levels of diction—"[b]y insisting on equalising [sic] all these different levels of diction, the style of the sentence works as style should, to incarnate the meaning, the meaning itself, of course, is all about the scandal of equalising different registers." (pp. 151-2) In this last, he is speaking specifically about a passage from Roth, but it has applicability across the board.

Wood's definition is insufficiently robust to account for the "voice" that animates and takes over so much of what passes for popular literary fiction, e.g., The Lovely Bones, Vernon God Little. It is more than mixing levels of diction; it has to do with attitude and sentiment and it reflects the form, plot, and even story of the narrative. In fact, from Wood's depiction it's not entirely clear what he feels about "voice" in this broader sense—if anything. Yet, this "unique voice" is what literary agents and editors are eager to lap up and foist on the public.

Next, he moves to a discussion of metaphor. "Metaphor is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imaginative process in one move. ...Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story." (p. 153) This, of course, is all well and good, but it begs the questions: how does metaphor work? and what, precisely, does it mean "to work"?

"Metaphor which is 'successful' in a poetic sense but which is at the same time character-appropriate metaphor—the kind of metaphor which this particular character or community would produce—is one way of resolving the tension between author and character..." (p. 159) Okay. I guess we all saw that one coming. Not a real stretch. And not very informative either, though he provides a number of good examples in context.

I think we can agree that good fiction makes good use of figurative language. Figurative language (such as simile, metaphor, etc., etc.) falls under the rubric of "rhetoric". Rhetoric (the subject of another nonfiction book I've been working on) is traditionally opposed to logic, though both are means of persuasion; logic relying on the appeal to reason and argument, rhetoric to the senses, to emotion, and to the sentiments and mores of the community. Metaphors, in other words, provide narrative color and, as in any good work of art, shouldn't clash. Metaphors et al., to my mind, are useful in fiction to persuade us of the "reality" of the character.

Here again, Wood falls victim to his own schema. This is where his analysis stops. He says fiction 'works' when the metaphors (the figurative language, the rhetoric) seem organic to the character's own POV and not the author's. And he provides a number of sweet examples of metaphors and shows how they work. That's fine and a good and important lesson for fiction writers and prospective critical readers, as far as it goes. But it fails to see through the curtain of figurative language and recognize the essential illusion of fiction. It misses the forest for the trees and is why Wood can give no account for story, plot, and form and their place in understanding the function of fiction.

26 February 2008

"What is it like to be a bat?"

"Sympathy and Complexity" is the title of the seventh chapter of James Wood's How Fiction Works. Wood tells us fiction works by allowing us to put ourselves in another's shoes (as the cliche goes) and to ask complex moral and philosophical questions. He refers us to the work of two contemporary philosophers, Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams.

Nagel, in a famous 1974 essay "What is it like to be a bat?," argues that because bats are so radically alien from us, we cannot very well imagine what it would be like to be one. This is en route to arguing that 'consciousness' or 'mind' cannot be reduced (as we attempted in our previous post) to mere neuronal activity. Wood uses a rather glib recounting of this argument as a straw man which he promptly swats down with a quote from J.M. Coetzee's alter ego, Elizabeth Costello, to the effect that that is, after all, simply what it means to be a novelist. It is a deft, but pointless move. He leaves his 'ghost' again to ramble about in his fictional 'machine', neither of which concept, as we've noted in previous posts, he fully examines.

When we read fiction, we are not searching to find out what it is like to be any other sort of animal than the human one. Even John Hawkes in his marvelous Sweet William: A Memoir of an Old Horse, told entirely from the POV of an old racehorse, is engaged in the ultimate humanist question: "What is like to be a human being?" and "What does it mean to be human?" This, after all, is where our true sympathies lie. There are many other—and less interesting—examples. The point being: in fiction, we do not read to understand what it is like to be some sort of radically different being, we read to understand what it is like to be human. And that is something we share in common.

[It bears noting here that Nagel's 1974 understanding of neurophysiology is radically different from a more contemporary understanding. Again making it puzzling why Wood chooses him as an example.]

Wood brings in Bernard Williams to highlight the moral subtlety and complexity that novelists have brought to our understanding of what it means to be an individual human being. He states: "Of course, the novel does not provide philosophical answers (as Chekhov said, it only needs to ask the right questions). Instead, it does what Williams wanted moral philosophy to do—it gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric."

Here, Wood's humanism seems properly placed, if, like Williams's, highly individualistic in bias—though I can't be sure yet whether he has taken out a promissory note with respect to the place of 'morality' and 'moralizing' in fiction that, in the cashing, would lead us to further serious disagreement about the aims of fiction, no matter its precise mechanisms. Wood provides examples from Ian MacEwan and Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf.

Fiction works by allowing us to get a feeling for what it would be like to be in another specific 'character's' shoes in the middle of a particular situation, to truly sympathize with his/her individual plight as he/she responds and acts given his/her specific capabilities and limitations, and to get a grasp of the [moral] complexity of being just such a human and at the mercy of competing principles and desires. Stated this way (with an appropriately agnostic skew on 'character' and bracketing the concept of morality for the time being), I find myself, as writer, quite in agreement.

25 February 2008

The Ghost in the Wood(s)

In "A Brief History of Consciousness," the sixth chapter of How Fiction Works, James Wood traces the evolution of fictional characterization from King David in the Old Testament to Shakespeare's Macbeth to Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The differences lie in their respective audiences: David—the god, to whom the psalms and prayers are addressed; Macbeth—the audience, to whom the soliloquies; Rasky—the readers, to whom his interior is revealed over the course of the book. It is, in other words, a descent into subjectivity.

I return to Wm. Gass. In his book Finding a Form, in the essay "The Book as a Container of Consciousness" he explains:
..the consciousness contained in any text is not an actual functioning consciousness; it is a constructed one, improved, pared, paced, enriched by endless retrospections, irrelevancies removed, so that into the ideal awareness which I imagined for the poet, who possesses passion, perception, thought, imagination, and desire and has them present in amounts appropriate to the circumstances—just as, in the lab, we need more observation than fervor, more imagination than lust—there is introduced patterns of disclosure, hierarchies of value, chains of inference, orders of images, natures of things. ...It remains for the reader to realize the text, not only by reachieving the consciousness some works create (since not all books are bent on that result), but by appreciating the unity of book/body and book/mind that the best books bring about...[pp. 348,351]

The notion of "character" is at the bottom of Wood's inquiries in this book. He believes they have some 'reality', some 'truth' somehow. Clearly, he doesn't believe that fictional characters are flesh-and-blood entities and he doesn't believe we should judge them by whether we would want to have them as friends—that may be the case with memoir and autobiography, those popularity contests that now predominate the booklists. Obversely, he doesn't believe they are merely 'men made out of words'; their reality is more substantive somehow.

Maybe, they're zombies. Maybe not, since zombies, by all accounts, seem to have bodies. They're more akin to ghosts: identities without bodies. Disembodied consciousnesses. These are the sorts of things you have to believe in if you hold any sort of religious belief. The idea of the 'soul' as some sort of eternally-existing individuated entity is fundamental to the religious delusion. The 'soul delusion' necessarily precedes the 'god delusion'.

If, like this blog, you take an agnostic approach to such matters, you find yourself in disagreement with a fundamental philosophical position of Wood. The mechanistic view of 'soul' or 'mind' is that there is no such thing absent the 'body' or the 'brain'. They are functions of complex neuronal activity, which itself is a function of genetic attributes, etc., etc. And it is the utmost hubris to assume either of the former [soul, mind] exists absent the platform provided by the latter [body, brain]. By analogy, it would seem folly to assume that the consciousness or the character or the reality or the truth of fiction—as Wood would have it—can exist apart from the form of fiction or apart from the textual words in which they are presented.

I don't want to get too analytical here, but I think it bears exploring. Now, we can say of the current President of the U.S.: "George Bush has beady eyes." All good fiction readers know how to interpret the connotations of such a statement and may or may not agree. And anyone who knows what beady eyes look like can then go to a picture of President Bush, or indeed examine the man himself, and determine for themselves whether it is true. There may be disagreement in the interpretation, but we have a way of testing that statement's truth or falsity, or at least a common ground for argument.

However, if I say of the fictional Thane of Caldor "Macbeth has beady eyes," there's no real way to verify or falsify that statement—short of a pronouncement to that effect in the Shakespearean text. The only thing we can know about Macbeth is what we are given. But, that begs the question of realism here. What is it, in fact, that we are given?

What we are given is something like a model. This model is presented to us in the same words and language we would use to describe a real flesh-and-blood person's character. It's just that the flesh-and-blood part doesn't exist. The language fools us. Indeed, it deludes us (however usefully). It makes us believe this character is real and elicits responses from us as if this character were real. We see the character in action, we see the character carrying out his/her routines, we see the character responding to certain situations, we see the character making certain decisions. Often, depending on the book's POV, we see the character's limitations, we understand his/her current state of knowledge, we recognize his/her flaws. And, with certain exceptions, we see the changes the character goes through over a period of time (or their refusal to change). That is art.

And the question of how this art works is the question Wood is proposing to answer in his book. Yet, I don't see how he can quite accomplish what he sets out to do if he truncates his analysis at the purported middle-ground of 'realism' or 'truth'. His analysis does not give us an account of the forms of fiction, of narrative (in the technical sense), of dialogue, of action, of story, of plot, or, for that matter, of dramatic structure. He stops short of showing us how these tools and techniques work together to achieve this illusion of reality, this illusion of character, this illusion of truth to which he stubbornly clings.

21 February 2008

How much Wood?

A quick shout out to two bloggers who are also looking at Wood's How Fiction Works: Mark Thwaite at Ready Steady Blog and Nigel Beale at Nota Bene and Edward Champion's Filthy Habits.

Character: Once Again Into the Breach

"There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character." James Wood starts off his central chapter with this bit of hyperbole. But we buy it because it's JAMES F'in WOOD fer chrissakes! And we read on. "We can tell a great deal from a character by how he talks, and whom he talks to—how he bumps up against the world." Do tell.

Wood, in How Fiction Works carves out an interesting middle-ground for his view of character:
A great deal of nonsense is written every day about character 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. ...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. On the other side, among those with too little belief in character, we hear that characters do not exist at all.
And he goes on to insult again that bête noire of "aestheticism", William Gass.

So, Wood says, fiction works somewhere in the space between "I didn't like that book because I just couldn't identify with the main character" (the point of view I satirize in my review of Bernhard's The Loser), and "I didn't like that book because it wasn't really well enough written."

How? "My own taste," he says "tends towards the sketchier fictional personage, whose lacunae and omissions tease us, provoke us to wade in their deep shallows."

Understanding and defining fictional character is akin to understanding and defining the manifold and polymorphous human self. This seems to be Wood's point, though he is nowhere quite so explicit.
So the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility—let alone likeability—than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character's actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters.

Vitality, complexity, opacity of motive: these are the values Mr. Wood holds dear with respect to character. Reader—and more particularly writer—take heed!

Btw: if you haven't read the book or the on-line article and are wondering why Monty Python and The Office top the posts about character, Wood traces a certain sort of self-theatricalizing British character he loves from Shakespeare "...and on into the superb pantomimic embarrassments of Monty Python and Ricky Gervais's David Brent." There is a method in't.


Wood's next chapter on "Character" has appeared (in a slightly different form) in The Guardian here. You can read it for yourself. More later...

19 February 2008

The Devil Is in the Details

In paragraph 49 of his How Fiction Works, James Wood gives us a peek inside his skull: "I confess to an ambivalence about detail in fiction. I relish it, consume it, ponder it. ...But I choke on too much detail, and find that a distinctively post-Flaubertian tradition fetishes it: the over-aesthetic appreciation of detail seems to raise, in a slightly different form, that tension between author and character we have already explored. If the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style, it can no less be told as the rise of detail."

We are now reaching the soul of his book. Wood is beginning to distinguish himself from two giants of contemporary criticism: Roland Barthes and William Gass.

Of detail, there can be too much or too little, according to Wood; but what it must never do is explain its presence. Never apologize, never explain. Never comment. Let the detail itself illuminate the character, even if it is superfluous. These gratuitous bits are "reality effects" (Barthes's term for the illusion of reality fiction delivers). Wood agrees, but only up to a metaphysical point: "fictional reality is indeed made up of such 'effects', but realism can be an effect and still be true. It is only Barthes's sensitive, murderous hostility to realism that insists on this false division." Details are more than mere effects, more than the furniture of the narrative. They somehow give us the truth.

William Gass, another detail-oriented realism-murdering critic, takes the hit of over-aestheticization in his essay "The Test of Time," quoting from Thoreau:
Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods, and, partly with a view to the next day's dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight, serenaded by owls and foxes, and hearing, from time to time, the creaking note of some unknown bird close at hand. These experiences were very memorable and valuable to me,—anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. (Walden, chapter 9, "The Ponds")
We cannot say with certainty what will live, and survival, by itself is no guarantee of quality; but I think we can say something about what is deserving. Thoreau's two unsimple sentences put me out on that pond, in prose as clear as its water is. ... There's no moment too trivial, too sad, too vulgar, too rinky-dink to be unworthy of such recollection, for even a wasted bit of life is priceless when composed properly or hymned aright...

Gass is saying that it is not the 'what' of fiction, but the 'how' that allows the work to stand the test of time. For Wood, it is not so much the 'how' as the "what and only the what' and the 'how much'.

De gustibus non est disputandum

James Wood ends the third chapter of How Fiction Works with this observation: "Flaubertian realism, like most fiction, is both lifelike and artificial. It is lifelike because detail really does hit us, especially in big cities, in a tattoo of randomness. And we do exist in different time-signatures. ...The artifice lies in the selection of detail."

You've gotta' love that 'tattoo of randomness.'

R.I.P. Alain Robbe-Grillet

We take a break from our reading of Wood's book to note the death of Alain Robbe-Grillet, a French novelist who had some things to say pertinent to our discussion here. Below are quotes from his essay 'From Realism to Reality' in For A New Novel:
All writers believe they are realists. ... Realism is not a theory, defined without ambiguity, which would permit us to counter certain writers by certain others; it is, on the contrary, a flag under which the enormous majority—if not all—of today's novelists enlist. And no doubt we must believe them all, on this point. It is the real world which interests them; each one attempts as best as can to create "the real." ... Realism is the ideology which each brandishes against his neighbor, the quality which each believes he possesses for himself alone
...the novel is not a tool at all. It is not conceived with a view to a task defined in advance. It does not serve to set forth, to translate things existing before it, outside it. It does not express, it explores, and what it explores is itself.
Realism [according to Western academic criticism]...merely requires from the novel that it respect the truth. The author's qualities would be, chiefly, perspicacity in observation and the constant concern for plain speaking.
The style of the novel does not seek to inform, as does the chronicle, the testimony offered in evidence, or the scientific report, it constitutes reality. It never knows what it is seeking, it is ignorant of what it has to say; it is invention, invention of the world and of man, constant invention and perpetual interrogation.
[As a novelist] I do not transcribe, I construct. This had been even the old ambition of Flaubert: to make something out of nothing, something that would stand alone, without having to lean on anything external to the work; today this is the ambition of the novel as a whole.
In this new realism, it is therefore no longer verisimilitude that is at issue. The little detail which "rings true" no longer holds the attention of the novelist, in the spectacle of the world or in literature; what strikes him—and what we recognize after many avatars in his writings—is more likely, on the contrary, the little detail that rings false.

18 February 2008


We continue blogging our reading of James Wood's How Fiction Works. Today we will be looking at the third chapter, "Flaubert and the Rise of the Flâneur." This is Wood's second chapter concerning Flaubert. In Chapter Two, he pointed out Flaubert's use of "different time signatures" to present details in a realistic, almost cinematic manner; there is a sort of temporal foreshortening in modern writing wherein short-term occurrences sit side-by-side with long-term or even eternal occurrences.

In this chapter, he cites the invention of the flâneur as a sort of "porous scout" for the author, a walking camera (or sponge) whose perceptions and impressions control the narrative. This combines the idea of the close third person POV with the modernist attention to detail; we only see what the character sees and we only see it the way s/he does.

Again, there is nothing controversial here: writers are always chastening their workshop fellows for using description as mere decor, or as travelogue. Description must characterize, they say, or perform some double function—more, say, than mere mood setting. When we see the streets of London through our hero's eyes, we are given privileged insight into his state of mind. This fiction does better even than, many would claim, film.

17 February 2008

Flo Bear

"Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him." So James Wood begins the second chapter of How Fiction Works. This seems non-controversial.
"We hardly remark of good prose that it favours the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible." Wood at 32.
Ah, the protagonist of this study strides upon the stage. Flaubert. We are either of him or in contradistinction to him. The telling detail and the essential gesture, the cool cinematic eye, the tale that tells itself: however romantic they feel in Flaubert (for whom the act of writing is a heroic act of self-sacrifice, an Atlas shrugging off a world, if you will), these are the 19th Century precipitants of the so-called 'death of the author.' The withdrawing valet becomes the absent god. T.S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Monroe Beardsley, and the New Critics, generally, warned us about resorting to biography and authorial intentions in our attempts to understand texts—they understood the potential authoritarian implications. Barthes merely drove the point home.

Yet, nowadays we live in a world of James Frey and JT LeRoy. A world of Oprah and the ascendancy of the memoir. Post-modern identities. Authenticity. Confession. The cult of CELEBRITY. Personal struggles illuminate texts, indeed imbue them with meaning. Are we, then, witnessing the re-birth of the author (what's the correct word here? resurrection? reincarnation?)? Is AUTHOR-ity once again on the rise?

Let's turn our attention back to the work, Wood seems to be telling us. Let's focus in on those luscious telling details. He hasn't yet (on my reading) explicitly staked out a position on this 'death of the author' vs. the 'cult of celebrity' brouhaha; though, with his emphasis on textual detail and stylistic modernism, it feels like he is leaning for the former. This is, in any case, orthogonal to his real subject in this book: realism. And I'm pretty sure we'll have a bone or two to pick with his uses of the words 'truth' and 'reality' with regard to fiction.

16 February 2008

No, Not that James Woods

Disambiguation. A good word I learned, frankly, from Wikipedia.

The other James Wood (no 's') gives a close analysis of the free indirect style in a passage from Henry James's What Maisie Knew. He focuses on one word in one passage that shows James's true mastery; that is to say, he shows us how James steps back and allows us to see the scene through the eyes of Maisie through the use of one perfectly-modulated word: embarrassingly. [Of course, you can hear the chorus of MFA students bellowing in the background about the use of -ly adverbs.] Wood then traces the use of this technique back, interestingly, to the mock-heroic poetry of Alexander Pope. All he is really saying is: the writer needs to stand back and let the language reflect the character's own POV. The writer's style interferes with our being able to see the world through the eyes of the characters. With any given word or phrase or literary device, as a writer, ask yourself: "Is this my character speaking or am I intruding?" Call it "method writing"—after so-called method acting. The greater artistry, Wood is telling us, comes in getting the characters just right.

Now, what's fun about Wood's first chapter, called "Narrating", is his delicious take on other writers. He takes Updike to task for grievous authorial interference (or, offsides in soccer jargon) in Terrorist. He takes a first run at Nabokov, in Pnin saying: " Nabokov is here using a kind of free indirect style, probably without even thinking about it." I guess VN got lucky, huh? Wood notes how Faulkner's, Joyce's, and Shakespeare's characters all manage to sound like Faulkner, Joyce, and Shakespeare respectively.

But then, then my friends, he breaks out the stiletto: "David Foster Wallace is very good at becoming the whole of boredom." Pow! Do you get the feeling he doesn't particularly care for DFW? Wood praises Chekhov's use of what he calls the unidentified free indirect style, or the "village chorus." Then, he shows how Wallace takes that style to extremes in imitating the jargon and mangled lingo of Madison Avenue. Wallace's predecessors, he notes, include Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Pynchon, and DeLillo who let the "debased" language of the contemporary American idiom debase their own language. His point is a good one. There really is a balancing act, let's call it 'artistry', involved. But, then, Wood really drives the point through the heart of DFW. And twists.

In concluding this section, Wood gets it just right, I think:
So the novelist is always working with at least three languages. There is the author's own language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; there is the character's presumed language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; and there is what we could call the language of the world—the language which fiction inherits before it gets to turn it into novelistic style, the language of daily speech, of newspapers, of offices, of advertising, of the blogosphere and text messaging.

In essence, the novelist is a bit of a juggler. The balancing act is to keep these three balls (if you will) of language in the air simultaneously. Writers often talk about getting the words just right. Wood provides the matrix, or context, in which we can locate this rightness.

15 February 2008

James Wood Needs a Blog

I've just received my copy of James Wood's new book: How Fiction Works. It's out in England, but not the U.S. yet, so I ordered it on amazon.uk.

Try as I might, I couldn't find a James Wood blog on the internets (you know, that series of tubes...) so I will be posting some of my responses to the book as a fiction writer as I work my way through it. You might find more of the same over at Mark Sarvas's excellent litblog: The Elegant Variation.

I will say this, I think Wood starts his book at just the right place; one of the first and most important decisions a writer has to make concerns the point of view of the story. All serious novelists struggle with it. Many do a draft in one POV, then re-write in another. Thus, Wood's first chapter is called "Narrating" and addresses this crucial early step in the writing process. I'm sure he agonized over how and where to start his book. I think he got it just right.

He argues for the primacy of what he calls the "free indirect style", or what others refer to as "close third person POV". Writers often say it's like a little homunculus (or angel) hovering over the shoulder of whichever character predominates the scene. The viewpoint then shifts freely from character to character throughout the book. Wood gives a convincing argument for the obsolescence of the so-called omniscient POV as a relic of a by-gone era (though it seems there's a place for an ironic omniscient POV after the work of Donald Barthelme). An "antique cheat" he calls it, borrowing a phrase from Sebald. He does not so persuasively dismiss the first-person POV; he spends only one paragraph on the so-called unreliable narrator, but he nails that oftentimes confusing concept.

One shortcoming of this first chapter is Wood's failure to distinguish between narrative in general and narrative as a specific technique of fiction-writing. To wit: there are several ways to tell a story—through dialogue and action or through narrative. On this score, you might find a story told in the form: "John spent the next three years in prison. The day he got out he went to the nearest WalMart and bought a gun. He went home and stared at the gun until evening. Then, when night fell, he took his new gun, loaded it, and went to his ex-wife's house and shot the man who'd stolen her and had him sent away." That is straight narrative. In Forster's and MFA terms, it is 'telling' not 'showing.' Narrative is a way of telling a story by condensing time and has its effective uses—though what those are you won't learn from Wood.

The same story, of course, could be told quite differently and at greater length by focusing more closely on our protagonist's daily routines, say, in jail. Showing him getting his bus token as he leaves, his wobbly knees as he climbs on the bus and heads away from the prison and into a new and frightening world of freedom. His voice quivers as he asks the bus driver how to get to the nearest WalMart. Through his eyes, we see the overflowing shelves of toys and cheap clothes and appliances and useless bric-a-brac in the giant warehouse-like store and we start to feel how much like a prison this icon of consumer culture seems until, with him, we find ourselves at the gun counter. The whole gun purchase could be comic or tragic as the clerk is shown to be incompetent in not doing a background check and our ex-con a slick, motivated operator with a deft way of avoiding direct questions, etc., etc. Much, if not all, of this could and should be shown through dialogue and action as opposed to narrative (strictly speaking). It is a more specific, closer, and more detailed technique.

I believe there is a good answer to the question of when and how to use narration in the specific sense in writing fiction (witness, e.g.. One Hundred Years of Solitude), but I do not feel Wood has given it, choosing to focus instead on narrative in the broader sense to include dialogue and action.

More to come as I read further.

13 February 2008

'Thomas Bernhard' Is Such A Loser

I just finished reading Bernhard's novel, The Loser, and I've got to tell you what a loser that guy is. It's a good thing he published his book in German first, he could never get it published in America today—especially if it was his first novel. I started reading it because so many people I respect and admire had told me 'Oh, you've got to read Bernhard. He's brilliant.' And all the reviews of his book I could find said what an amazing writer he was. So, I read it.

What a waste! Here's what happens: Nothing. Or, next to it. The whole story is about this guy who doesn't even have a name (let's call him 'Thomas Bernhard' in single quotes). On the way home from a friend's funeral he stops off at a country inn where he stands around and waits for the innkeeper to notice him. When she finally does, he debates in his mind whether to tell her if he will want to have dinner that night at the inn. He unpacks his bag, has a cup of tea, and watches some men unload a beer truck then goes further off into the country to visit the house of his deceased friend. He chats for a few minutes with the groundskeeper at the house and then listens to a record. That's it. That's all that happens, and most of it in the last twenty pages or so.

No self-respecting literary agent in this country would agree to represent this work and no editor would risk taking a chance on publishing it because it doesn't have anything resembling a plot. Most, if not all, the 'action' (if that's what you want to call it) takes place in 'Thomas Bernhard's' head. And that is all back-story. The dead guy, Wertheimer, never appears except in 'Thomas Bernhard's' remembrance of him. The other main character (who never appears either) is Glenn Gould, the famous 20th Century piano artist. [You will find a video of him playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, an important piece in the book, in an earlier post on my blog.] American publishers run away from this kind of stuff like moderate Republicans from Dick Cheney.

[Disclaimer: The reason I know this is I'm currently trying to find representation for my own novel and I've encountered exactly these sorts of criticisms about one relatively minor character in my book. By contrast, nearly all of Bernhard's book is back-story.]

Never mind the brilliance of the social satire and the complex development of themes. Never mind the remarkable portrait of the power and, indeed, the cruelty of the pure artist and the ressentiment it engenders. Never mind the respective psychologies of the two musicians who gave up their art and sold their pianos because of their deep feelings of inferiority and insecurity. Never mind the Chekhovian ending and the pathos of one friend confronting the way he abandoned another in the face of their mutual loss. No. These are not the stuff of contemporary American fiction. Such things simply will not suffice.

No, I'm pretty sure Bernhard could not get The Loser published in the U.S. market today. No agent would agree to represent him because they couldn't simply "fall in love" with it. It's not upbeat or hopeful or bittersweet or even sentimental. No one would "like" the sad, bitter main character; they wouldn't be able to "identify" with such a loser (whether that's Wertheimer or 'Thomas Bernhard', I think, is an open question.). The book wouldn't sell because it might offend some people when the author makes fun of stupid people. It would probably turn a lot of readers off, too, because all the sensuous detail is pretty oppressive and depressing. What's more, there's no sex in the first hundred pages and there's no violence whatsoever—who's going to buy that? What's more, there's no redemption in the main character from what anybody can tell and he doesn't really seem to change. And, in terms of MFA criteria, the whole thing is 'told' not 'shown' and the author continually repeats himself.

Oh yeah, and nothing happens. The whole thing takes place inside the head of some guy who lost his only two friends. Besides, no one would want to read it because the whole book is one long paragraph. There simply are no places for bathroom breaks.

So, bottom line: Great writing? The translation seems appropriate. Great literature? Who's to say. A salable commodity in the current U.S. market? Doubtful.

11 February 2008

Bucky Balls

Here's a cool link, and here's another to the complete text of Buckminster Fuller's Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Read. What harm could it do?
Our earlier posts on Baby Steps touched in a cursory, bloggy, anecdotal sort of way on some the philosophical themes behind Fuller's ________________* theories.

* Fill in the blank: Nutty, Kooky, Interesting, Fascinating, Genius, Visionary.

10 February 2008


With a tip of the hat to 3QuarksDaily for pointing us to it, I encourage you to read the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lecture on Civil and Religious Law in England.

It brings up an important theme we raised in a previous entry. Revealed law depends for its application on the interpreters of the text/code/law. That is to say, certain people (priests, rabbis, imams... whoever) claim to speak for God. They set themselves up as mediators between the lay folk and the deity. There can be no disagreement, no appeal of their dictates. This is the danger of allowing religionists to wield secular power.

In fundamentalist Christianity, for example, preachers claim to speak for God. Their authority, they claim, comes from God. They claim the Bible is the inerrant revealed Word of God, whole and complete and without any admixture of error. This, on any rational view, is a naked power grab. For when you look at what they are claiming, you see the delusions and deceptions at play.

First of all, they claim the original text itself was actually dictated by God himself through His Holy Spirit and that the writers merely took some sort of inspired divine dictation without adding a single comma, jot, or tittle of their own. [Old Joke: Where do you find the Bible in a fundamentalist library (assuming they have one) catalog? It will be filed under 'S', for 'Spirit, Holy']. The Bible is the sole authority—not the tradition, not the commentary, not the priesthood. Sola scriptorum. Second, they assume the translations they use are accurate and claim it is only the translation of the original words they choose that counts—some translations are holier than others. Third, they pick and choose which passages of the Bible count and which don't. Thus, war-mongering preachers tend to ignore Jesus's injunction to turn the other cheek and love your enemy. They choose to apply selected Old Testament laws when they suit their purpose (homosexual behavior is an 'abomination') and ignore them when they don't (don't eat shrimp or pork, also 'abominations') because Jesus's coming superseded the code of the Torah. Fourth, they claim their interpretations of the text are solely legitimate. And fifth, they claim their applications of their interpretations to contemporary situations are authoritative. The only thing they lack is the power, in our secular society, to enforce their claims.

This, in short, is the universal problem.

Baby Steps: Link

Here's a link to a story on ABC News on precisely the same topic as our previous blog entry. Check it out!

ABC News

Also, for a video presentation, see here

[Couldn't quite figure out how to incorporate the video. Sorry.]

05 February 2008

Baby Steps

Okay, this is not going to be my last shot at this idea, but I had a discussion with my 12-year old last night on the way home from baseball practice that began something like this: "Dad? What's going to happen to us when the sun burns out?" "I don't think we'll live to see that," I said. "I didn't mean me and you, stupid. I meant the human race, life on earth." (This kid is capable of sustained discourse, so we thought out loud as we drove and arrived at some interesting thoughts which I felt could help provide some perspective for this blog.)

"Yes, I agree, son, life on earth as we know it will at some time in the future end." "How?" We brainstormed: Asteroid/meteorite, like the dinosaurs. Ice age. Dying out of the core. Flooding. Environmental disaster. Cataclysm of another natural sort. Total war. Nuclear winter. Sun burning out. Moon crashing in or flying out of orbit. Etc. (You'd be surprised at the power of a 12-year old's imagination when he's thinking about destruction.) Leastways, we concluded, it's going to happen sooner or later.

"What then, dad?"
"Well, son, the large reptilians had their day ruling the planet until some cataclysm killed them all out—they think it was meteorite hitting the Yucatan. We are the mammalians and, as of now, the highest evolved form of life. What could come next?"
"Good guess, son. And they would probably develop intelligence and grow large and dominate the planet in their own way."
"Cool. Hey, what if we built giant spaceships and started heading out to the stars looking for new planets to inhabit before then?"
"Brilliant question, son. Mars might be our first candidate."
"Oh yeah, I loved that rover we sent up there. I'd like to build robots like that one day."
"Great, son. Of course, if we wanted to go there we'd have to learn to live in a completely man-made environment."
"Like the Biodome?"
"Something like that."
"Boy, I sure would want to be around to see that."
"Well, I don't think it'll happen in either of our lifetimes, son, but what we can do is try to keep this in mind—let's call it "the project of humanity"—and live our lives trying to contribute to making it possible."
"Like inventing spaceships that can travel at the speed of light?"
"Sure, son, why not? Or, what about developing ways to keep us from getting sick? Or, what about achieving a politics that doesn't involve aggression and self-destructiveness? I mean, if we're all on one big spaceship and we start fighting among ourselves then we could destroy the ship."
"That's right, dad."
"And I think we would have to come up with some way of helping us remember from generation to generation why we're all sailing around in this great big spaceship. If we forget that we have this big survival project and that we're trying to seek out new worlds capable of sustaining life we're likely to get depressed or something."
"What about being able to morph so we can go down black holes into other dimensions and stuff?"
"Sounds about right, son, but ambitious. Just remember: baby steps. Think about what we can do with our lives to contribute to this big project of preserving life as we know it."
"Human life, dad."
"Right. But remember, distances in space are so vast that traveling around the galaxy or even farther will take enormous amounts of time. Generations upon generations. Tens of thousands of years—more than the life-span of human civilization. We're likely to evolve over that time and we'll have to have measures to adapt to space life."
"Just remember, son. Baby steps. Got any homework?"

04 February 2008

On the couch

A rich guy decides he wants have some fun, so he decides to go to see a shrink.  He is a habitual liar.  He vows to make up stories about himself while he is on the couch, to create a purely fictional life for the psychoanalyst to see what kind of responses he gets.  His analyst makes good faith interpretations of the man's false statements about himself (as presented) while on the couch.  The question is:  can the doctor arrive at any truth about the man himself?

This little scenario raises interesting questions on the theme we abandoned a few posts back, as well as many others.  For one thing, it is a metaphor for the relationship between the fiction writer and the reader or critic who feels she can infer something about the biography of the writer from the text of his writings.  Some readers feel that they could not possibly like a writer or his works because they do not like the characters he creates, and, by implication, the writer is necessarily like his creations.

This interests me at the aesthetic level because I am a fiction writer.  For inspiration, I draw on my own experiences as a springboard for my fiction ("write what you know").  But I use my imagination and I dramatize my experience; that is, I try to conform my experience to the form and rhetoric of fiction.  I do not believe my writing, then, bears any resemblance to my life nor my characters to me.  Still, when we speak of fiction we often speak of its 'truth'.  What, then, is that truth?  Does something 'true' about me leak out of my fictional characters' responses to their dramatic situations? Do my stories betray something about who I really am?

Should I be worried?

01 February 2008

Riffing on the Canine theme...

Fox knows
Tricks and still
Gets caught:
Hedgehog knows
One but it
Always works.


Who, then, are we and wherein lies wisdom?

Musical Interlude

Speaking of wisdom, the twelve-tone equal temperament scale (a/k/a 12-TET)—all the white and black notes in a standard piano octave—which allows the musician to transpose any song from one key to another and perfectly up or down octaves, seems to me a good candidate. One compromises the purity of certain intervals in order to preserve pure octaves, meanwhile barring the door to the big bad 'wolf'.