Friday, October 10, 2008

Half Useful

With much trepidation, and with a smidge of gleeful anticipation of a car wreck, I opened How Fiction Works by James Wood.

As feared, a lot of it is academic hazmat, grokable by the initiated few who know what the loaded words mean and who can plow through syntax as impacted as a gay man's colon after a pride parade party.

Here are a few of the howlers (imvho):

"Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life." - pp. 65.

The word "bullshit" rang so loudly through my head when I read that, I feared if you were sitting close enough you'd have heard it emanate from my ears.

On page 102, after grousing about a woman who complained about lecherous old men in movies grossing her out, he says:

"In other words, artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of - or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them. The idea that we might be able to feel that 'ick factor' and simultaneously see life through the eyes of the two aging and lecherous men, and that moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of it's own kind.

"A glace at the thousands of foolish 'reader reviews' on, with their complaints about 'dislikeable characters,' confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness."

Uh, no it doesn't. It means the author failed in appropriately setting the character in the story so they achieve their purpose. We don't have to approve of them or even condemn them. Hannibal Lector, anyone? But if a character we would dislike in real life is not framed or handled correctly, we have the double reaction of not liking the character and really disliking the author because he couldn't rise to the occasion.

I especially bristle at the "contagion of moralizing niceness" crack. Again, it's infantilizing the reader and not laying the blame where it should be, with the author.

When he tips his hand as an atheist and critiques the Biblical stories of David and Jesus Christ (page 143) as fiction, it only serves to disqualify a large portion of his judgment and assumptions. I don't really care that he views the reports of Christ as fiction, but he should have the good taste not to use them as examples of narrative fiction. So many of these kinds of atheist just don't grasp that it is discourteous the equivalent of "so's your mother." Not to mention the fact that translations of writings that old aren't the best examples for a book dealing with how modern fiction works. The farthest he should go back is Cervantes, methinks.

That said, there was some good stuff, too.

His definition of "free indirect style" as used in the omniscient viewpoint is transcendent. I cannot attempt to paraphrase or even provide excerpts, as they cover too much ground and are stated about as well as can be (though with the occasional dipping in academic hazmat, as indicated at the start of this post). This is the one section - "Narrating", pp. 3-28 - you should read yourself, somehow - library, Amazon "look inside", standing in a book store, etc.

I also liked his coinage of an idea I've (tiresomely) trotted out at parties, in that most philosophies - particularly utopian philosophies - never face the reality of human evil. They start with the implicit assumption that everyone will be nice and play along if conditions are good enough. Even with all the examples of human evil there are, they still think Hitler would've just stayed a house painter if the circumstances of his life had been more conducive. Anyway, Wood says: "The philosopher Bernard Williams was exercised by the inadequacy of moral philosophy. He found much of it, descending from Kant, essentially wrote the messiness of the self out of philosophical discussion. Philosophy, he thought, tended to view conflicts as conflicts of beliefs that could be easily solved, rather than conflicts of desires that are not so easily solved." - pp. 176.

Hear, hear!

I like his grousing about cliches, too:
"We have all read many novels in which the machinery of convention is so rusted that nothing moves. Why, we say to ourselves, do people have to speak in quotation marks? Why do they speak in scenes of dialogue? Why so much 'conflict'? Why do people come in and out of rooms, or put down drinks, or play with their food while they are thinking of something? Why do they always have affairs? Why is there always an aged Holocaust survivor somewhere in these books? And please, whatever you do, don't introduce incest..." - pp. 225.

...or the OGC (obligatory gay character), or the hip-just-because-s/he's-from-NY, or conversely s/he's-a-hick-because-s/he's-from-flyover-country, or .... (you get the drift)

I liked the final paragraph, too. I'm tired of typing today, so here's a graphic of it:


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