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.

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