Two readers were not so taken with last week’s account of a talk by James Wood, nor with the man himself. Wrote one, “I consider myself an intelligent fellow, with a fair amount of interest in ideas and literature, and I cannot stand James Wood. I don’t think his chatter comes near what a real artist works on when he writes a novel or
story.” This reader was not impressed with Woods’ ruminations on authorial voice and its necessary intrusions into first-person narration:
Does Wood really imagine that a writer thinks, “how do I… also manage to have my own style?” Doesn’t your “own style” take care of itself if you
solve the narrative problems of your story? For example, in The Sun also
Rises, does Wood believe that Hemingway had one way he could write the book
if he was just “talking like Jake” and didn’t have his “own style”, which he
then rejected in favor of a way he could do both? Doesn’t Hemingway’s “own
style” come precisely from how he imagines his narrator talks?
Yes and no. A writer like Hemingway achieves a greater degree of verisimilitude in his writing–his characters talking like “real” people–so it’s easier to overlook the presence of the author’s voice behind the narrator’s. But in a book like Henry James’s What Maisie Knew or, indeed, Vernon God Little, the author makes use of a larger vocabulary and more writerly expressions than his character could be expected to use. In Maisie the disjunction is so pronounced that it’s hard not to take the novel as, in part, an exploration of the limits of verisimilitude. It’s also a rebellion against the strict limits imposed on authorial voice by more naturalist strains of realism, and a blow for authorial liberty. It’s hard to turn from such a novel to something even as comparatively seamless as Hemingway and not start looking for the seams.
The difference between Hemingway and James (especially late James) is that for the former, character resides in voice–in the characters’ own language–and is best expressed through it. For the latter, the exposition of character requires a self-consciously literary language above and beyond the character’s own voice. You can see the author’s lips move, and you’re meant to. Wood, I think, is drawn to the latter type of writer–even bad examples of the type like D.B.C. Pierre. Last week I mildly called Wood’s positive review of Vernon God Little “surprising.” What I really meant was “unaccountable.” In the light of the talk on Bellow, though, you can perhaps begin to account for it: it starts to look less like a genuine response to the novel, and more like a rehearsal of a line of thinking that has been occupying Wood in his work on better writers.
This reader also questioned Wood’s reference to characters’ “confused consciousness,” which was, well, confusing.
Are we to presume that you can write a novel and include didacticism if the mouthpiece has a clear, “unconfused” consciousness? Or does Wood assume that the creation of a character automatically creates a “confused consciousness” if that character is used to communicate ideas? Here, as elsewhere, Wood veers away from the truly interesting issues involved and commits a cardinal literary sin: falling in love with his own phrases.
It was in the Q&A, off the cuff, that Wood used this phrase, and he used it interchangeably with “average consciousness,” which seemed closer to what he actually meant. It’s the reporter’s fault! This reader recommends Milan Kundera’s Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed as books “that deal more pointedly with some of the same issues.”
Another reader makes a point about Wood that had never occurred to me before, but that I agree with: he’s much better at detraction than applause.
I thought you were a bit tame and lenient with James Wood; because he is so obviously better, and more severe and demanding, than almost anyone else, he does not receive some of the criticism he deserves. His negative writing is, to my mind, by far his best; he is much weaker in praise, too often allowing his own religious preferences to become his central subject, and equally often expounding on various elements of voice and narrative, in both cases with obscured judgment. So, for example, the obviously ridiculous recent Booker novel receives praise for its voice, or Bellow gets applause for his language and religious anguish that evoke Melville. In neither case is there an examination of the inwardness of character or the fidelity to human complication that Wood so often uses as yardsticks to cudgel, quite rightly in my view, the likes of DeLillo and Pynchon.
Right, insightful, and well-said.
UPDATE: Stephany Aulenback, filling in for Maud seamlessly as ever, posts a long excerpt from Dale Peck in defense of negative reviewing.