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'.


Anonymous said...

This is great, but you realise that rather than encouraging people to read Wood's book you're actually saving them the bother. The summaries of the chapters are surely enough for anyone to go on. Or perhaps not, as readers often have their own reading. I was sorry to hear about the death of Robbe-Grillet. However, when it came to the nouveau roman I was more of a fan of Claude Simon.

Jim H. said...

Believe me, reading my blog is in no wise comparable to reading Mr. Wood's book. I don't quote at length or give nuances and examples. I'm just trying to follow the thread of his argument and come up with a response. Frankly, I'm not even sure I'm 100% right as I've not completed my reading. I'm formulating as I go. I encourage you to read How Fiction Works and come up with your own view.
Thanks for stopping by!
Jim H.