Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Writer Paul Freidinger on James Wood and How Fiction Works

The writer Paul Freidinger is my guest on this site for the first time -- first, I hope, of many. We both grew up in Central Illinois and probably played basketball and baseball against each other in the early sixties. Astoundingly, Paul had a poem in the same Florida Review as my "Wilbur Gray Falls in Love with an Idea," in the mid-eighties, and still we didn't actually meet and shake hands until four or five years ago. In addition to being a serious and remarkable poet, Paul is a gargantuan reader and reviewer of contemporary fiction. You would not, I think you'll agree, if you read the piece below a thousand times, peg him as a Cub fan. Enjoy.

For the last few years I’ve followed the reviews of contemporary fiction by James Wood whenever I’ve had the chance. I have to say I usually feel younger than he is although I am older by more than fifteen years. I feel younger because reading him leaves me with the sense of being vastly inexperienced in comparison to his depth of understanding the pantheon of Western literature. My lack doesn’t diminish the sense of pleasure and insight I receive when I read his reviews. In light of this, it took the gift of his recent book How Fiction Works to be motivated to read it. I’m left with the impression it should be required reading for any writer or anyone who has a serious interest in literary fiction.

I am not intending for this to be a full-length discussion of the book. I would hope to discuss other parts of it in the future. For now I would like to focus on a small section which I think a reader could apply to any book he or she may be reading. I should preface this by saying I hate the term “literary fiction,” and that distinction only serves to marginalize writers and readers alike. When I was young, I always wondered what made a book a classic. As I grew older, I decided a classic was simply a great story told in a superior way. I can also confess that I often disagree with Wood, as many qualified critics do. I think the value of his book is that it offers practical models to approach a wide variety of modern fiction.

I should point out that Wood is impressively grounded in the classics and the evolution of the novel and has a thorough grasp of Western philosophy. In his book he focuses on Shakespeare, Flaubert, Proust, Chekov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Austen, Henry James, Joyce, among others, attempting as he goes to trace the evolution to the modern novel and the use by authors of free indirect style. He speaks highly of writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, J.M. Coetzee, and V.S. Naipaul. Contemporary writers he likes include people as diverse as Ian McEwan, Norman Rush, Marilynne Robinson, W.G. Sebald, Josè Saramago, Roberto Bolaño, and Alexsander Hemon. He argues in favor of a realist fiction which respects the lineage of the tradition of those named authors, but he isn’t above embracing certain postmodern writers, as long as they don’t diverge into “hysterical realism,” narrative in its lightness that is neither unbearable nor grounded in the realm of a character’s possible life.

Of the current novelists, I want to draw attention to this one quote as a simple way to assess a book. Wood explains at length:
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 would call language of the world—the language that 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 this sense, the novelist is a triple writer, and the contemporary writer now feels especially the pressure of this tripleness, thanks to the omnivorous presence of the third horse of this troika, the language of the world, which has invaded our subjectivity, our intimacy, the intimacy that James thought should be the proper quarry of the novel, and which he called (in a troika of his own) “the palpable present-intimate.”
As it turns out, I read Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence at the same time I was reading How Fiction Works. About Rushdie’s Fury Wood wrote that “playful self-indulgence is a sign of an author in terminal decline.” The Enchantress of Florence is no less an example of this. I feel certain Wood would say it has a hard time staying grounded, that the author falls in love with his own cleverness, that Rushdie can’t be serious long enough to write the novel he is capable of. As a reader-reviewer, I can easily agree that Rushdie the author overpowers his characters. I wouldn’t say this is one of his best books. On the other hand, I would say that Rushdie remains a unique practitioner of fiction, suited as no other current writer is to articulate how Hinduism and Islam are bound and simultaneously antithetical and the tragic way Western Civilization continues to misunderstand Asia and create problems on a world stage born of our own ignorance. He is a brilliant story teller to boot, and for all of its faults, I loved The Enchantress of Florence.

Wood takes issue with two other books of which I am fond: Delillo’s Underworld and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I took the effort to track down Wood’s reviews of both books, and he pronounced both of them failures. He charged Underworld with having no center and being populated with dead characters. The Corrections, he went on to say, was a distillation of DeLillo’s book, concentrated on a single family’s dynamic, but suffering from the same lack of authenticity, the same absence of “living, breathable” characters. I love both of these books, and they have become part of my own ontology, part of the way I experience the world. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t evaluate some experience by the means I learned in reading DeLillo and Franzen. For me they are examples of how fiction can teach us to live, to judge experience, to gain a heightened sense of receptivity. I empathize with the characters easily, and I was sad to see both come to an end. Again, I would like to say that, in retrospect, James Wood helped guide me through them, after the fact, and reading his reviews helped me appreciate them more; perhaps, more because of their flaws. I have read two novels by Norman Rush and disliked them intensely. I read them because of Wood’s recommendations. An odd thing happened for me with Rush. Wood aptly demonstrates how Rush creates a style of language by cobbling it together in an unusual way. It turns out that he articulated something I attempt with my own writing: the process of forming a language with different registers that contain within them a kind of tension, perhaps unlike any ordinary spoken language, but one that forces a reader to pay attention and see the world from a new perspective. I guess my argument here is that one needn’t subscribe wholly to the church of James Wood to learn from him, and that poets have as much to gain from him as fiction writers.

I’ll continue with one last comment on the dangers, as Wood sees them, of a writer adopting the “language of the world.” Here, Wood cites David Foster Wallace as the poster child for good intentions gone awry. About Wallace’s use of this style, Wood fires, “the language of his unidentified narration is hideously ugly, and rather painful for more than a page or two.” He goes on to say,
the risky tautology inherent in the contemporary writing project has begun: in order to invoke a debased language (the debased language your character might use), you must be willing to represent that mangled language in your text, and perhaps, thoroughly debase your own language... In other words, the novelist’s job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring. David Foster Wallace is good at becoming the whole of boredom.
Whether or not you the reader buy his assessment, I think any writer today grapples with the challenge of how to use language effectively. I think Wood reveals himself in this prejudice, and I can list any number of reputable writers who would ignore his advice. Ignoring his advice would not minimize the writer’s task.

I will say, in ending, that this is one small component of Wood’s rubric. I’m advocating the value to a reader of intentionally assessing a writer’s language and whether the characters’ voices are true to themselves or simply an author’s desire to convey his own conceits at the expense of a character’s personality. I’m suggesting a reader examine whether a writer can resurrect our daily language and give a character an authentic voice, or whether he becomes a victim of the superficial, to the degree of being unable to make us care enough about that character to complete his story. The rest of Wood’s book takes one deeper into the formation of a novel and what is essential to its success. He offers equally sound advice as he takes the reader through the essential elements of the novel. Give it a chance, read the book. It might make you a better reader. It might even cause you to reconsider your own writing.

*All quotes are from James Wood’s How Fiction Works.

No comments:

Post a Comment