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Jim H.

Again, one of my (and apparently your) favorite perennial topics. Let's make another run at it, shall we? It seems to me (wearing my fiction-writer hat now) the artist's task is to create a reality with a set of values, principles, rules, settings, inhabitants, etc., that works in certain narrative dramatic ways. Full Stop. This is how that thing we call "fiction" can comprise, say, Dickens and Calvino, King and Connelly, Dick and Delillo (I could go on...).

The critical venture—and here I think I'm reading James Wood aright—is to compare that fictional reality with his/her own preconceptions or sense of reality and pronounce on the plausibility (or credibility or lifelikeness or lifeness) of that reality; accept, reject, approve, dislike, etc.

There is that further critical venture (let's call it hermeneutical) which is to articulate the world/the reality presented in the text in all its complexity; this Mr. Wood does not necessarily feel it is his business to do—even though this is really to get at the nub of 'how fiction works.' The hard work of exegesis and interpretation does not, as a rule, appear in the periodical review format.

Jim H.


Many things to be said on this subject, but just as an aside: given the way such essays have regularly popped up over the decades, I wonder when that time was when American reality (or human existence) was so normal, or so stimulating, healthful, and glad-making, that fiction easily outstripped even the most strenuous endeavors of Reality. Must have been some time to have lived.

Steven Augustine


"The critical venture—and here I think I'm reading James Wood aright—is to compare that fictional reality with his/her own preconceptions or sense of reality and pronounce on the plausibility (or credibility or lifelikeness or lifeness) of that reality; accept, reject, approve, dislike, etc."

Aha, so *that's* why no one reads Kafka. The defining quality of a written fiction that pleases us is never an *engaging vitality of imagination*, rather, it's about "plausibility/credibility/lifeness"!

Confoundingly, "lifeness" is impressionistically vague (and therefore rhetorically capacious) enough a term for any book the reviewer fancies to qualify as having some... so... I still find myself yearning for an absurdly reductive gimmick with which to super-simplify my authority-starved taste in Art. Sigh.

But, enough fun. Should the writerly task/readerly voyage/ critical venture really diverge so dramatically? Is it possible to match up the tastes and temperaments from each of the three categories so as to leave everyone more or less happy? That is, can readers who like this "lifeness" stuff read writers who indulge in it, as recommended by critics who value it? Likewise, for the reader who finds the mechanical conventions of narrative trompe l'oeil, particular to "lifeness", tedious as hell: are such readers allowed to tell "lifeness" to take a hike?

If only we knew!

Luther Blissett

This was exactly Alejo Carpentier's position in his essay where he coins the term "the fabulous real," or what has come to be called "magical realism." He argued that reality in the former Caribbean, Latin American, and South American colonies was so extreme, so unbelievable, that the artist had to embrace an aesthetic that allowed for the representation of such experience. His *The Lost Steps* is an excellent novel along these lines.

Jim H.

Stephen: I read Kafka. Hell, I had tea once with Borges and, guess what, he was flesh and blood just like the rest of us in the room! I assume Kafka was as well since he succumbed to the Consumption. The three paths converge in/on/around the text and its pleasures.

Luther: Yes, sometimes it takes the magical to express the real. Vide: Genesis.

"To the preliterate man of integral vision a fable is what we would call a major scientific truth..." Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, "War and Peace in the Global Village." So, to project: our fables of today ... ? N'est pas?

Jim H.

Nigel Beale

"More than that, they should be seeking out fresh ways of using language to invoke the real, fresh ways of making language itself up to the task of engaging with all levels of "human existence." The writer's job is to "imagine what is not" first of all in imagining what words can do that they haven't yet been made to do."

This sounds a great deal like this:

“The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.”

Which of course is how Wood ends How Fiction Works.

I think many of those who putatively disagree with him, wouldn't, if they really read his text closely.

Jim H: As for hermeneutics, while Wood may not formally provide us with a 'theory' of interpretation, he does I think provide some of the most thoughtful direct exegesis and interpretation that you can find around today.

His ideas on character and 'lifeness', agree with them or not, give us a pretty clear indication of how he attributes merit...

What specifically are you suggesting when you say that he doesn't get to the nub of how fiction works?

Dan Green

"as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped"

In my opinion, here is the difference between us: Wood wants writers to grasp beyond existing categories in the name of "life" I want them to do so in the name of writing, of literature.

Steven Augustine

"I think many of those who putatively disagree with him, wouldn't, if they really read his text closely."

I love this sophomorically condescending argument more, every time I read it. I love the sheer doggedness of its repetition, presented, as it always is, without a *modicum* of reasoned support. The deployment of superlatives does not an argument make.

Given the apparent case you make for Wood's infallibility (ie, to disagree with him is to misread him), Wood's task (and yours, by extension) is to show his naysayers as *never right*; Wood's naysayer's task is to show, merely, that Wood is sometimes wrong. Show how the latter has never happened (or how the first case always does).

Stamping your feet and calling him "superb" just won't cut it.

Wood makes broad proscriptions about what *can't*, or *shouldn't*, be attempted or allowed in the crafting of a "useful" sort of fiction, and rests the weight of his argument on something as amorphous as the notion of "reality", and the *thinking* reader reacts instinctively with the reasonable response that there is more than one way to skin a cat; to each his own; come down off your imperious hobby horse, feller, and stick to the humble illumination of treasured texts.

The *thinking* reader is quite able to unpack a wedding cake of a sentence, such as the following, in order to identify its philosophical heart as frothy, sugared lard:

"The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional."

What, pray tell, does that actually *mean*?

Life as a "category" of *what*? Things to do before ceasing to exist? Ie, Experience? As opposed to... ? If we can't find another "category" of *something* against which "Life" is juxtaposed, we'll have to conclude that the word "category" is filler in this sentence; strike it out (making the sentence *sound* less technical, sadly).

"Free servant of Life": whose Life? One's own? When? "Life" as the abstract congregate of everything that has, and will have, ever "lived"? Gay Weimar Bordello "Life"? The American greeting-card, t-shirt sense of "Life" (a bowl of cherries; a dame; a roller coaster...)? The dorm-room quasi-philosophical pot-fueled sense of The Great Oh Wow?

Or just another "poshly", Nabokov-irking generality? And how does one "serve" this vague, clumsily personalized concept? (Oh, if only Nabokov were around to go after Mr. Wood's big, bold, vacuous terminology today). Does one "serve" "Life" by planting flowers? By writing, erm, Novels that *everyone on Earth will treasure forever, regardless of culture, era, temperament or literacy*?

And what about this junk word "acting"... surely Wood could have come up with a better verb than this? How about "writing" or "thinking", for starters? Is Wood referring to every minute of the writer's life, or the time that writer is actually typing away, or does working through a plotline on the tram count, too, and, if so, how would "acting" a certain way, on the tram or the can or over the keyboard, influence the resultant text?

Next: the word "conventional". "Conventional" in what sense? Surely, in the larger sense, until such point that gravity reverses polarity or the melting point of marble becomes water's former boiling point, Life is *eternally*, irremediably, "conventional".

On the socio-economic level, the word is relative, obviously; "conventional" for a 55 year old French banker, c. 1935, is possibly "exotic" for a 20 year old Jamaican guitarist on the poppy trail, c. 1968. Are any two lives so similar, in every detail, that "conventional" can ever be used in a *factual*, as opposed to statistically-flattened, or conversational, sense?

Show me absolutely *anything* that Mr. Wood would confidently describe as "conventional" and I can show you quite a few of the many ways in which it is decidely *not*. The word is either absolutely applicable, or not at all: same difference: it's meaningless in its sentence.

So, the Jamaican guitarist, "acting" as though the ungraspable category "Life" were on the verge of becoming "conventional", takes Mr. Wood's vague advice and writes a novel that manages to surprise him (the guitarist), and all of his friends ... while boring the poor banker to death. Success? Failure?

Or are we back to Square One, with *some* readers preferring one sort of thing, and others preferring something quite different, and Mr. Wood (with his endearingly aphid-like dependents) a self-appointed hall monitor, blowing his whistle and tattling on the writers who break his little rules by running too fast or otherwise horsing around?

Or, put it this way: there are some who cannot *abide* the works of Henry James; prove them *wrong*. I'm willing to wager you probably think you *can*, but that just proves how ill-equipped you are to argue *any* of this.

How about this for a valediction, instead of Mr. Wood's:

"The true writer will write. And write. And write. And not everyone will get it."

Some will like the results, others won't, some books will sell millions, others none, and neither case will be a default reflection of intrinsic artistic value. Intrinsic artistic value, in fact, will not only be impossible to establish, it will be as impossible to *define* for any more than a few minds subscribing to a given worldview at a given moment.

But the disciples aren't having it, of course. They suffer a mysterious loss of imaginary status if their much-projected-upon avatar, with his spurious methodology and weddingcake sentences, is considered to be anything less than The Great Wan Hope of Murrican Letters. Christ, who wants to look up to a guy who merely argues his preferences in careful critiques of texts he actually "gets", right? I can see how Wood is under lots of pressure to be Torquemada-the-Baptist. Am I obligated to buy into the pantomime? No.

But, yes, Wood *is* such a convenient crutch for LitCritter-wouldbeez who wouldn't have a *clue* where to start if they had to illuminate a text, or perform comparative evaluations, without Wood as an attitudinal crib (for evidence please check out Nigel Beale's bumbling comparison of Yeats' most-commonly-known-poem... of course... to Harold Pinter's scrappy, anti-euphoniously outraged verse... in the world's most reactionary, hamfistedly amusing attempt to show up Pinter as Yeats' poetic inferior: well, Duh! And Rembrandt paints trompe l'oeil rings around Otto Dix; next... ?).

I'll grant Wood (n.p.i.) this: it must *suck* to have all his woodbeez (of varying degrees of intelligence) arguing his case, as stand-ins, for him; must also suck to go on record with flimsy arguments that will float around the Internet forever

I thought his review of "Exit Ghost" was fair enough, though. Grant him that.

Hugs and back rubs,


Nigel Beale

Persistent and/or willful misreading and use of insulting language aside:
It appears you have shown up to class once again without having read the assigned text. Please now pay attention:
1) No case was made for Wood’s infallibility
2) Wood is opinionated
3) Any attention starved “sophomore” can easily dismantle sentences taken out of context. It takes a bit more cortex and simple reading to understand, in this case, for example, the ‘sense’ of the word convention, a sense which is developed throughout the course of the whole of Wood’s book in relation to William Gass, and others.
5) All you have really said is that Wood’s lifeness doesn’t do it for you in fiction. Why not expend some your boundless energy on explaining what exactly does?
6) Please reader, do go to http://nigelbeale.com/?p=831 and read not my ‘bumbling’ comparison of Yeats and Pinter, but in fact, highly regarded literary critic David Solway’s. For it was he who chose these poets in response to my request to discuss what constitutes a worthy poem, and what doesn’t. I think it represents a valuable exercise, and that Solway offers some impressive insight. You can listen too here http://nigelbeale.com/?p=797 if you are interesting in more of what Solway has to say.
6a) Visit also to witness how Steven, after his usual spate of insulting, fluorescent picaresqueness, scurries to the sidelines when ever serious discussion looms. http://nigelbeale.com/?p=876
7. In short Steven: by all means disagree, but try something new: do it with civility; while your flourid, effusive commentary may entertain some, and animate the odd discussion, for the most part it represents what is worst about the literary blogosphere: rude, bullying, name calling; misrepresentation, and bombast.
No Hugs. Back rubs maybe.

Steven Augustine

1. Welcome to the Local Chapter of the Culture Wars.

2.If I can save the wild imagination of just one budding novelist from the gummy poison of Wood's normative proscriptions, I'm happy with the effort; arguing for the writer's right to access and display the full range of her/his imaginitive gift is what I do for pleasure.

3. You haven't refuted a *single* point, Nigel. And I won't go into the "history" behind my snarky insults towards you, here, but there *is* one, as you know; I'm civil until provoked, baby. You and your Linkin' Buddies will have to get used to that one. If anyone else should think me cruel, evil, heartless, ill-mannered or uncouth, I'll just have to live with that.

As to the "worst of the literary bloggosphere": it's *my* opinion that the problem is the same as the one in "print" (times ten): far too much "product" and not enough of interest and *very* little treasure. Oh, and lots and lots of silly posing in the self-congratulation cult.

Steven Augustine

BTW, Nige: before I said a *single* "insulting" thing about Nigel Beale, did you or did you not put up a series of posts (not comments: *posts*) on your blog, featuring an edited collection of a few of my old Wood critiques (culled from various sites), referring to *me* as a "horsefly" (exact word) buzzing about with these annoying, supposedly empty-headed anti-Wood comments of mine?

But that's not an "insult" because, of course, *you* wrote it (whilst wearing that styrofoam halo).


And what about the very humorous post in which you *initially* claimed the words of other writers, on the topic of Nietzsche and Plato (in another attempted whack at me), as your *own*.... before you were caught out and forced to use quotation marks?

Do you deny this?

Steven Augustine

As in:


Nigel Beale

Pointing to one ill considered post adapted from widely available material substantially re-written to suit my immediate purposes, confirms to me that you are in good company with Toast, and unworthy of future engagement.

Steven Augustine

Ha ha! That's certainly one way of putting it, Nige.



Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

who is nigel beale and why do steve and toast h8 him so much =/

Steven Augustine

Wrong verb, Schopi

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