Monday, November 24, 2008

A critic on a critic

Wood's unwillingness to confront the contradictions in his thinking about these matters--to distinguish between realism and reality, artifice and experiment, character and person--points to a larger problem. Wood is a daring thinker, but he is not a particularly rigorous one. His powerfully associative mind tends to run him into logical cul-de-sacs that his supreme self-assurance prevents him from noticing. He often wanders from topic to topic, always too willing to be seduced from his path by the dappled description, the blooming detail. The general question tends to make him especially approximate; reading his critique of the gaseous George Steiner, I sometimes feel like I am watching two men beat each other with balloons. As at the larger scale, so at the smaller. Wood asserts that Mann's fiction is childlike because, among other things, it contains a lot of children. He says that human free will is not necessarily important to God, since God could have made us less free. While we might grant him enough room to argue that Morrison loves her characters too indulgently and then, four pages later, that she loves them less than she loves her language, we must draw the line when he tells us that Hamsun's characters "lie both to themselves and to us" and then, later in the same paragraph, that in his work "a character can lie neither to us nor to himself."

Wood's critical authority has become so daunting, it seems, that even he is afraid to challenge it. His argumentative method rests far too heavily on hand-waving, and while he is superb at turning a phrase, the fact that something sounds good doesn't guarantee that it makes any sense. Wood never stops to ask himself what his favorite formulas actually mean: characters who feel "real to themselves," who "forget" they're in a novel and so forth. These are obviously only metaphors, but metaphors for what? What, for that matter, does "lifeness" mean? And to what extent is Wood willing to take responsibility for his assertion, near the end of How Fiction Works, his new treatise on novelistic technique, that we should "replace the always problematic word 'realism' with the much more problematic word 'truth'"? Is something true (or beautiful, or good) just because James Wood says so?

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