May 28, 2015

"The novel, when it's done right, seems to me to offer comprehension and forgiveness for all."

James Wood: The Book(s) of Life

The book critic James Wood doesn’t worry about the fate of the novel — after years of reading them, writing them, reviewing them in The New Yorker and teaching them at Harvard.

In his new book, The Nearest Thing To Life, Wood never once writes about the novel as the kind of tired contrivance that’s driving ‘reality hunger’, that’s being outpaced by new journalism, film, social media, or video games. Novels, he argues, scratch an itch most things can’t reach. And he’s persuasive. He reminds you that this unwieldy form — the long-written lie that tells the truth — has passed the test of its readership continually now for centuries.

In the time of Robinson Crusoe, the very idea seemed dubious enough that William Taylor, that book’s publisher, felt the need to promise in a preface that he

believe[d] the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it: And however thinks, because all such things are disputed, that the Improvement of it, as well as the Diversion, as to the Instruction of the Reader, will be the same.

A kind of beginning: it might be real life, or might as well be real life, for all that you take away from it in reading.

Today, fiction functions as the nearest thing to scripture for a secular age. Wood, who has written about his frustrated relationship with the Christianity of his parents, feels that the novel’s power and popularity comes from its comedy, its secularism, from leaving behind Christ the King and picking up where Jesus the forgiver left off in the Book of John:

That sense of forgiveness is, I think, one of the things that most moved me, and moves me, about fiction. In part for personal reasons: that I was growing up in a somewhat unforgiving world, that there was a lot of official talk about Jesus as a forgiver, but it seemed that too often was just rhetoric, which was sad. What was grinding against that was a more evangelical emphasis on sin and correction and therefore punishment — certainly judgment. Forgiveness was hard to come by. The novel — storytelling, when it was done right — seemed to me to offer comprehension and forgiveness for all, for every type of person.

So, Wood concludes, beyond powers of instruction and revelation, love and empathy, horror and humanity, greatness in a novel means never finally pronouncing on the goodness or badness of character or action. The great novelist proceeds according to her own distinct rules, three simple ones: “There’s nothing new under the sun,” “nothing human is alien to me,” and “every thought is permissible.”

James and Chris discussed ten books in this podcast.

– Max Larkin.

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard.

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  • Cambridge Forecast


    This ROS talk brings to mind a deep disagreement between Professor Wood of Harvard and his interlocutor, Prof.Peter Gordon of the same school, a famous European intellectual history
    specialist. The disagreement hinges on Wood’s concept of “hysterical realism”
    described in the “New Republic” more than a decade ago.

    Think back to various ROS discussions on novelists and novels such as those on David Foster Wallace and “Infinite Jest” or Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.”

    James Wood sees these novels as representative of what he calls “hysterical realism” where whirligig subsumes clarity of character delineation. In a “New Republic”
    piece (July 24, 2000 issue of The New Republic), Prof. Wood traces this style to Charles
    Dickens and these novels and their ilk to Charles Dickens and his novels. They
    are said to be in Dickens mode ie episodic grotesquerie vignettes. Professor
    Gordon disagrees and considers (say) Zadie Smith’s book(s) as outstanding
    explorations of our moment.

    We are told:

    “Hysterical realism, also called recherché postmodernism, is a
    term coined in 2000 by English critic James Wood to describe what he sees as a literary
    genre typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose,
    plotting, or characterization, on the one hand, and careful, detailed
    investigations of real, specific social phenomena on the other.

    Wood introduced the term in an essay on Zadie
    Smith’s White Teeth, which appeared in the July 24, 2000
    issue of The New Republic.[1] Wood uses the term to denote the contemporary conception of the “big, ambitious novel” that pursues “vitality at all costs” and
    consequently “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being.”

    He decried the genre as an attempt to
    “turn fiction into social theory,” and an attempt to tell readers
    “how the world works rather than how somebody felt about something.”
    Wood points to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon as the forefathers of the genre, which continues in writers like David Foster Wallace. In response, Zadie Smith described hysterical realism as a “painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others he was sweet enough to mention.”[2]
    Smith qualified the term, though, explaining that “any collective term for
    a supposed literary movement is always too large a net, catching significant
    dolphins among so much cannable tuna.”

    Wood’s line of argument echoes many common
    criticisms of postmodernist art as a whole. In particular, Wood’s
    attacks on DeLillo and Pynchon clearly echo the similar criticisms some other
    critics lodged against them a generation earlier. The “hysterical”
    prose style is often mated to “realistic”, almost journalistic,
    effects, such as Pynchon’s depiction of 18th century land surveys in Mason
    & Dixon, and Don DeLillo’s treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra.”


    Richard Melson