Podcast • May 28, 2015

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 ...

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.

Christ_and_the_Woman_Taken_in_Adultery_Bruegel
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.

May 7, 2015

Knausgaard: The New Novel Thing

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is sweeping the world in six volumes and 3,600 pages. It’s the novelized memory of a mostly ordinary Scandinavian life, a book whose boredom has been called riveting, transcendent, but also…boring. In ...

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is sweeping the world in six volumes and 3,600 pages. It’s the novelized memory of a mostly ordinary Scandinavian life, a book whose boredom has been called riveting, transcendent, but also…boring.

In our conversation, James Wood of Harvard and The New Yorker finds in Knausgaard’s patient meditations, in his small-ball Fjordic stakes, nothing less than the rhythm of eternity:

There’s nothing eloquent about the phrasing, but the simplicity and pungency and innocence of the truth-telling struck me immediately. And what I mean by that seriousness and innocence is an awareness precisely of rhythms of life and death. The sort of rhythms that the psalmist knows. You know the Psalm 121: the Lord will know your going out and your coming in. In the larger sense, the form of our life is our going out and our coming in. It seemed to me that’s absolutely a rhythm that Tolstoy knew. It’s a rhythm that Proust knew.

Meghan O’Rourke, herself a poet and memoirist of personal experience, senses tension as the Norwegian works out what we want from letters as well as life:

In Knausgaard, there is a profound question about masculinity in the contemporary age and especially in the social welfare state. At times, there’s absolutely this kind of fascist-nihilist energy… He talks about his friend reading all this anti-liberal literature and philosophy. There is a real tension in this book. I’m really curious to read the last volume, which I think contains quite a lot about Hitler in it. To me, so much of this project is about this question of where do we find value today. How does literature potentially help us or not help us do that? So, to me, the news is in that. And it has something to do with masculinity and its sense of being.

The author’s own line has been that the books themselves are embarrassing, that he would burn them if he could. Yet they served as a way to open himself up and write (and write and write) a way out of some of his deep problems with fiction. Bill Pierce, senior editor of AGNI magazine, told us the struggle nourishes a “reality hunger” in readers and writers, too:

The fiction that I’m writing now is quite different from what I was doing before precisely because it’s less concerned with external ideas, received ideas, of what ‘literary’ means. [Knausgaard’s] work is literary because of what it does, but not because of how it’s written. He gets us all asking…where does my truth really lie? It doesn’t lie in wrought sentences. He knows that we can easily lose interest. And the strange phenomenon in Knausgaard is that we don’t.

If Knausgaard inspired a “period” in fiction writing — a version of the Raymond Carver grip on the American short story — Bill Pierce thinks it “would be a time when cleverness and literary language are always put in the service of heart truths, of our deepest sense of what is it to be human and alive at this moment.”

Does that seem like what books should be doing in this moment? If you’ve read My Struggle, tell us what you made of it — and even if you haven’t read the man we’re calling ‘the Knaus’, tell us what you think makes “fiction” fiction and “literature” literary — and share what you’ve been reading instead.

 

Sheila Heti: Smash The Fiction Section
heti-sheila-how-should-a-person-be

The problem with writing a different kind of novel is that interviewers won’t stop asking you why you did it. Even so, as part of our preparation this week, I asked Sheila Heti why she wrote How Should A Person Be?, a five-year-old book, to be found in the fiction section, that’s hard to think of as “fictional”.

Heti tells the story of her very real friendship with a painter named Margaux, living in Toronto, both by republishing their emails and by making things up that they did together.

In Canada the book has no subtitle. Heti’s American publisher asked her to append “a novel from life”, a name Heti likes because it doesn’t really say anything (all novels evidently coming from life).

The book is much sprightlier and less morbid than any volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle (which Heti reviewed in the LRB). But Heti — together in a class with Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk — did experience her own version of the feelings he describes.

She says she wrote her first book, Ticknor, with Beckett and capital-L Literature in mind. Then her head “got turned around”: she felt an aversion to artifice grow into an interest in the ‘backstage’, in the process, in the pop culture of the moment, in things thought to be unliterary: like internet porn, say. To grow up as a reader is to live in the past, she said — and that means missing a lot of what’s happening in your own moment.

In his book, How Fiction Works, James Wood argues that all fiction writers are realists in one sense. Barthelme to Breton, J. K. Rowling and Eimear McBride, they’re all trying to say something true using something false. And the same could be said of Heti and her fellow travelers. They’re still imagining things; they just imagine less or differently. Heti called it “a very grown-up thing”: the idea that novelists might use their imaginations not to go to another world, but to go deeper into this one.

—Max Larkin.

The My Struggle Soundtrack

Also, we’re rocking out this week to the music that stirred Knausgaard most during his adolescent years and beyond. Art rock, punk, and glam, mainly, from the likes of The Cure, David Bowie, and Joy Division. Our show begins with one of the My Struggle keynotes: “The Great Curve” by the Talking Heads. Here are some others we’re listening to (on repeat).

— Conor Gillies.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLMx2iRCMRQ5_i6vmbIxGk03ASyrKn4dGw