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.
- Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes.
- To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.
- Stories, by Anton Chekhov.
- The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
- The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald.
- The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of The Dove, by Henry James.
- Open City, by Teju Cole.
- My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
– Max Larkin.
Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard.