A few points about James Wood's essay "The Blue River of Truth" (The New Republic, August 1, 2005).
1) Wood begins his essay by quoting two "anti-realist" statements (one by the novelist Rick Moody) and declares them to be "typical of their age." Realism, we are told, is now widely considered "stuffy, correct, unprogressive." It's a little hard to know whether Wood considers this attitude "typical" only of critics and other commentators on contemporary fiction or whether this is a "finely characteristic" belief about realism held by most writers and readers. If he means the latter, he couldn't be more wrong. Judging from the fiction that actually gets published and reviewed, the vast (vast) majority of literary fiction is still safely realistic, even to the extent of focusing on "Mind," the source for Wood of most of fiction's satisfactions. (I have in the past referred to this kind of fiction as "psychological realism," but since Wood has expressed a dislike of the term, I won't use it here. Nevertheless, any honest assessment of the kind of novels showing up on Borders' and Barnes and Noble's fiction shelves would have to conclude that pyschological realism is still the order of the day. That Wood would disregard this fact is not that surprising, since most of these books are thoroughly mediocre and, if anything, illustrate quite persuasively that this mode of realism is indeed, as John Barth once put it, "exhausted.")
2) "The major struggle in American fiction today is over the question of realism," writes Wood. "Anywhere fiction is discussed with partisan heat, a fault line emerges, with 'realists' and traditionalists on one side, and postmodernists and experimentalists on the other." I think this is wrong as well. Postmodernism began to be superseded by various neotraditional practices in the mid-to-late 1970s, although some of the true postmodernists--Barth, Coover, Sorrentino--did continue to produce interesting work on into their literary dotage. And compared to the "experimental" work of these writers--Lost in the Funhouse, Mulligan Stew, etc.--the more adventurous writers who followed them are hardly radical innovators. I think Richard Powers is a great writer, but he's hardly a programmatic metafictionist. T. Coraghessan Boyle has settled into a more or less conventional kind of satire. In my opinion, David Foster Wallace is closer to being a psychological realist--albeit of a somewhat twisted kind--than he is a postmodernist. There are other, less well-known writers who continue to explore the possibilities of self-referentiality or who have revived a form of surrealism, but let's not pretend that they have a very high profile or constitute some kind of "movement" against realism comparable to the postmodernism of the 1960s and 1970s. If there is a "struggle" in current fiction, it is between those who write a conventional kind of character- or plot-driven fiction more or less auditioning to become movies and those who still seek to discover what the possibilities of fiction might be beyond its role as source of film adaptation, what fiction can do better than other narrative or dramatic arts. Realism itself doesn't necessarily have anything to do with this.
3) I agree with Wood that too many people think of realism as a "genre," confusing realism per se with "a certain kind of traditional plot, with predictable beginnings and endings." Moody is quoted as deploring realism's "epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement. . . ." But these things are more properly associated with orthodox narrative conventions (embodied in "Freytag's Triangle") than with realism strictly understood. Indeed, one could argue that truly realistic fictions would avoid neat divisions of plot and anything at all "predictable," since "real life" does not unfold like well-made stories. I also agree that the great 19th century realists were actually radicals in their time, overturning as they did the picaresque and romantic modes of storytelling they'd inherited from the first generation of novelists in favor of narratives that focused more on details of setting and on creating plausibly "lifelike" characters. And I certainly agree that "There is no writing without convention," making it most important to "be alive to the moment when a literary convention becomes dead," not to assume that the ultimate goal is to free fiction from convention altogether.
4) Perhaps my biggest problem with James Wood's approach to fiction is embodied in this statement: "There is, one could argue, not just a 'grammar' of narrative convention, but also a grammar of life--those elements without which human activity no longer looks recognizable, and without which fiction no longer seems human." Much of the fiction Wood reviews unfavorably is, in one way or another, ultimately charged with this offense, that it doesn't "seem human." He so conflates a particular aesthetic strategy with the representation of the "human" that the writers of whom he disapproves are more or less declared "inhuman," their work morally grotesque. (This seems to me the upshot of Wood's recent dismissal of Cormac McCarthy, for example.) But this is a wholly unjustified substitution of "human" for "realistic." Since all writers are human beings writing about their own human experiences or those of other human beings, how can any work of fiction be something other than "human" at its core? It may not provide James Wood with a sampling of the human that meets his high moral standards, but to suggest that the dispute between realists and anti-realists is over who gets to be more "human" seems to me supremely unjust, if not simply absurd.
Furthemore, it turns out that what a work of fiction needs to be "recognizable" as human is to conform to W. J. Harvey's "constitutive category":
The four elements of this category are, he suggests, Time, Identity, Causality, and Freedom. I would add Mind, or Consciousness. Any fiction that lacked all five elements would probably have little power to move us. The defense of this broad idea of mimesis should not harden into a narrow aesthetic, for it ought to be large enough to connect Shakespeare's dramatic mimesis, say, with Dickens's novelistic mimesis, or Dostoevsky's melodramatic mimesis with Muriel Spark's satiric mimesis, or Pushkin's poetic mimesis with Platonov's lyrical mimesis.
As far as I can tell, what this means is that fiction needs to be "realistic" enough that it doesn't collapse into the "entirely random and chaotic." (Although in adding "Mind, or Consciousness," Wood again ups the ante. Now it must not only depict "plausible human activity," it must do so with psychological plausibility.) Does Wood really think there are many works of fiction that don't meet this minimal standard? Is experimental fiction merely a descent into chaos? In order to rescue the innovative fiction he apparently likes, Wood broadens his definition of "plausible" even further: "Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and Hamsun's Hunger and Beckett's Endgame are not representations of likely or typical human behavior; but they draw their power, in part, from their connection to the human." Well, of course they do. How could they do otherwise? The question is whether in so doing they have done it artfully, and whether the art involved had to be "realistic" in the less sweeping sense of the term. ("Melodramatic mimesis"?)
5) This is perhaps the most provocative thing Wood has to say in his essay: ". . .both sides in this argument are perforce Flaubert's children--Flaubert being at once the greatest realist and the great anti-realist, the realist who dreamed of abolishing the real, the luxurious stylist who longed to write 'a book about nothing, a book with no external attachment.'" Unless Wood deplores Flaubert for his "luxury," for his effort to transcend mere documentary description, one now wonders why he finds fault with the anti-realists. If they too are among Flaubert's children, then they are only attempting to live up to his ideal of the autonomy and integrity of literary art. They just don't think that realism as he understood it is the only way to accomplish this. Wood says further of Henry James that he "found Flaubert's realism exemplary but lacking, because he felt that it did not extend to a subtle moral scrutiny of the self." If Wood agrees with James, then we have arrived at his real complaint against the anti-realists: It's not that they fail to recognize the centrality of "realism" (Wood has already defined the term so broadly as to essentially render it meaningless, anyway), it's that they fail to engage in "moral scrutiny." He objects to this group of Flaubert's offspring not on aesthetic but on moral grounds.
6) In his concluding paragraph, Wood asks us to "imagine a world in which the only possible novel available was, say, Pynchon's Vineland and books like it. It would be a hysterical and falsifying monotony. By contrast, a world in which the only available novel was, say, A House for Mr. Biswas would be a fearfully honest, comic, tragic, compassionate, and above all deeply human place." Now, I happen to like both of these books (Vineland less than either V or Gravity's Rainbow, however). I'm glad we live in a world where both kinds of books are available. It would seem, however, that Wood could be perfectly content in the world occupied only by Naipaul. No variety is necessary because this would be a "deeply human place." (What kind of place would the Pynchon world be? Superficially primatial?) Note as well the way in which this comparison is made in the form of moral judgment. Pynchon is "hysterical" and "falsifying." Naipaul is "honest" and compassionate." James Wood is perfectly entitled to elevate Naipaulian realism and denigrate Pynchonian anti-realism (if that's what he wants to call them--I don't think either term does either writer much justice). I do wish he wouldn't call those of who like the sort of thing a writer like Pynchon does hysterics and liars.