28 April 2009

We Report, You Decide

According to James Wood at a lecture to creative writing students at Columbia (blogged about here):
"many of us take up fiction to experience and, hopefully identify with, certain or other characters. We look for books that play to “our awareness that a character’s actions are profoundly important,” Wood said, even if the writing must attend to “the difficulty, or even the impossibility, of knowing other people.” The creation of character is, therefore, the most important task for a writer of fiction—as well as the most reliable measure of his success.

Wood continued to sort out the matter by explaining two approaches to the creation of character: that of super-realists, like E.M. Forster (whose Aspects of the Novel is surpassed by How Fiction Works), who “want character to be as big as life” and can’t accept the limitations of fictitiousness; and that of anti-realists, like John Barth, who maintain that character ought to be “as small as the words on a page.” ...

While he did take a few shots at fellow critics like Harold Bloom (who has “a tendency to over-identify with certain characters”) and William Gass (a “formalist fatalist”), he generally kept his cool."

Gass had an opportunity to respond in an interview before his own lecture there, and apparently punted:
SPEC: James Wood spoke to students in Columbia’s Writing Program a few weeks ago, on the centrality of character to the fiction writer’s work. Toward the end of his lecture, as he was discussing different attitudes re: character-creation, he referred to you as a “formalist fatalist.” (To be fair, he also criticized Harold Bloom for being too invested in certain characters, to the point of over-identification.) Do you think that this is a common perception of your approach to fiction? Is there anything that you would say to revise or correct it? And, for the sake of fairness, do you have any thoughts on James Wood?

WG: I’m surprise [sic] that he had time for me.  I do identify myself as a formalist (in my sense of the word), and I am proud to be an elitist (in my sense of the word).  My formalism has nothing to do with pre-established structures.  It holds that the key to esthetic experience does not lie in terms but in relations - ideally internal relations: i.e., not as an apple lies on a plate, but as H and O make water.  For me, character is defined linguistically: it is any recurring subject that is repeatedly modified by elements of the text which stand as predicates to it.  So David Copperfield is indeed a character in Dickens, but so is a movie poster or a mountain in Malcolm Lowry.   A perfectly organized book would end up as Hegel said the Absolute should: every word would ultimately modify or affect one and only one subject.  This is nonsense as far as the world goes but fiction is not the world. It’s important relations are internal the way they are in a Cezanne still life.  I don’t know what he means by fatalist.

Perhaps it is someone who has given up trying to be understood.  By the way, I don’t pick fights, except with the church.  I am sure his opinion is well considered and well informed.
That "I don't know what he means..." is a bit of a put down in the discipline of philosophy that non-philosophers often don't get. Then, Gass's use of the word "opinion" seals it. It's subtle, but it's a jab something along the order of 'He doesn't really KNOW what he's talking about; he hasn't really demonstrated or proven anything. I don't really take him that seriously. His is merely an opinion—to which he is, of course, entitled—but it isn't philosophically grounded." Believe me, to Gass, Wood is beneath contempt, held in low esteem.

Feel free to click on Gass or James Wood over in the right-hand column for my own thoughts on these two.

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