RETHINKING LITERARY CRITICISM: SEEKING A NEW BALANCE

Blogger Jim Harmon (http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com) left a comment on my post “Theorizing Character: A Few Pointers”, recommending an article on characters published in The Guardian by James Wood: “A Life of Their Own”. I didn’t know who Woods is: a major literary critic employed in publications such as The Guardian itself, The New Republic, and currently The New Yorker magazine (he’s also a part-time associate professor at Harvard). As it turns out, Wood is the author of a best-selling non-academic volume, How Fiction Works (2008, 2019) which can be said to be the heir to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927). The article on characters published in The Guardian is actually a central part of Wood’s volume, and a continuation of Forster’s discussion of characters as flat or round, among other matters. My focus, however, is not character today but literary criticism. The date seems, besides, particularly appropriate, as Prof. J. Hillis Miller, who did so much to introduce deconstructionism decades ago, has just passed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Hillis_Miller). I would define deconstructionism as the last gasp of traditional literary criticism before the total dominance of the literary theory which it helped to introduce from 1990 onward.
Wood’s volume is a deliciously old-fashioned study, devoid of all theory, about how realist fiction works. The title of the book is, actually, incorrect because even though there are some comments on what we habitually call genre fiction, Wood is only interested in realism. He adamantly denies that this is a genre, as many including myself claim, even though I remain more convinced than ever after reading his volume that realism is indeed a genre dealing with the life crises of mainly middle-class characters living in contexts identifiable as historically accurate or representing the mundane present. Wood says that no realist novel needs to mention Trump and that gives you an idea of what he means: in realist fiction, the socio-political reality that so interested 19th century novelists is missing, to the point that I wonder whether Covid-19 will ever feature in it. Realism of the kind Wood loves functions as if referring to issues beyond the characters’ personal lives is in bad taste. A problem, as Wood notes, is that since writers themselves have started being bored by the inner life of the average individuals often described in realist fiction, they have started moving towards more overtly autobiographical fiction, even half-abandoning the fictional. But I digress.
The question that seems to confuse the study of realism is that part of the definition of the genre is the use of literary prose and the foregrounding of form over plot. This is, I think, a direct consequence of dealing with the minute events of life as it is on planet Earth: you need to make matters interesting from an artistic point of view or risk alienating your reader out of pure boredom. A novel about nothing, as Flaubert wanted to write, needs to rely on a solid linguistic artistry and narrative technique to engage readers’ attention, whereas a plot-driven novel can do away with literary prose and formal experimentation because the point of engagement, so to speak, is provided by what happens.
Take, for instance, a detective novel. This genre is 100% realist in the sense that, unless supernatural elements intervene, the detective works against a background that readers accept as a representation of real life. Indeed, many detective fiction works are successful not so much because of the case they explore but because of the description of the social and geographical background (yes, I’m thinking of Nordic noir, or of Tartan noir). The best detective fiction is as good as any realist novel (using Wood’s vocabulary) at using free indirect style, strong characterization, plenty of details based on good powers of observation and so on. The main difference is that detective fiction writers do not use prose full of artistic literary elements (though I have thought here immediately about classic US noir’s invention of hard-boiled dialogue). I am not saying that detective fiction cannot be literary like the works of, say, Vladimir Nabokov; what I am saying is that if it is literary this is an added element and not part of the core of the genre. Readers, in short, do not read detective fiction for the literariness of the prose and any experiments in narrative structure but this does not mean that no novel in this genre is literary. I would say the opposite: that the best genre novels enter the particular genre canon because of their literary values. No reader loves a poorly written novel.
Wood, in contrast, focuses on a long selection of realist writers, from Miguel de Cervantes to Ali Smith, to lovingly enthuse about the beauties of their literary achievements in selected passages from their books. His clever, insightful, theory-free application of close reading is truly enjoyable and I hadn’t realized I was missing this so much until I read his little volume. I was reminded, above all, of Erich Auerbach’s classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, 1946), which I read as an undergrad student in the 1980s. By the way, Wood notes that his book is being used as a handbook in many university courses but I have my doubts about its usefulness, simply because most of the literary authors he mentions (the canon complemented by a 21st century selection) might be unknown to undergrad students. Part of the value of Wood’s book comes from enjoying analyses of literary classics (or prestige new fiction) one is already familiar with, and as an introduction it can be a bit overwhelming for someone who has never heard of Thomas Mann or Karl Ove Knausgaard. But I digress again…
Wood does pay attention to detail, and does it amazingly well, because he can do it. He is, after all, a literary critic working in the media, whereas we, scholars, are no longer allowed to produce literary criticism but just theory-framed issue analysis. I have always argued that all types of fiction need to be subjected to the type of illuminating close reading that Wood offers for literary fiction because only good textual criticism can help a genre progress. If we only focus on the plot elements or on the identity politics affecting characterization then we end up encouraging a type of writing that, while satisfactory on those fronts, is weak as literature. Beyond the type of story you enjoy, you need to be demanding about the quality of its writing; that seems pretty obvious to me. I love science-fiction, as I have noted countless times here, but this doesn’t mean that I am willing to put up with bad writing.
In fact, now that I am reading lots of science-fiction novels, for reasons that I will eventually explain, I am getting really fed up with the sloppiness dominating the genre today. Ursula K. Le Guin was a marvellous writer (and I can say that having read also all her realistic short stories) but many of the writers I am going through these days are either awful or, in the best cases, pedestrian. There seems to be, besides, a regrettable divide between the good prose writers and the good plot-makers. Lavie Tidhar writes lovely literary prose but his Central Station has no story. Everyone loves the space opera series The Expanse by James S.A. Corey but, though the plot is thrilling enough, I fail to be excited by the lack of authorial insight into the characters and the flat dialogue which is never conversation. Nobody, however, among my science fiction colleagues is commenting on these matters, as if proper literary criticism was taboo (that is left for the formidably clever readers in GoodReads and the media reviewers).
Intriguingly, Wood partly undermines his argumentation about the intrinsic difference between realism and the so-called narrative genres when he writes that realism, “seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are” (205), goes beyond verisimilitude to be what he calls “lifeness”: “life brought to different life by the highest artistry” (206). He insists that this is the reason why realism cannot be a genre, yet at the same time Wood claims that lifeness is what allows the genres to exist, from magical realism to the western. The novelist, he says, must always “act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable ageing” (206). There is plenty to unpack here but in essence two ideas emerge: a) if an impression of lifeness is a mark of the best fiction, there is no reason why it should not be found beyond the novel of everyday life, as long as the writer is willing to employ the “highest artistry”; b) if lifeness allows all genres to exist, there is no reason to think of realism as a strand of fiction apart from all genres (in fact, I don’t quote understand the idea that some kind of fiction has no genre for all fiction obeys generic conventions). In short, any novel of any type can be literary if the writer displays the “highest artistry” and all novels of all types aspire to tricking the readers into accepting that what they are reading is a slice of life of the context chosen for representation. When we read The Lords of the Rings, we get carried away by the illusion of life that Tolkien conjures up for us, even though we know very well that Hobbits do not exist. When we read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables we enjoy the same magical trick but from another angle. That Tolkien’s Middle-earth has never existed but Hugo’s France has is irrelevant, or, if you wish, a matter of the reader’s preferences. What matters is that both books are great works of fiction full of lifeness.
Seeking a more formal approach to science fiction, I ended up reading Peter Stockwell’s The Poetics of Science Fiction (2000), a volume that tries to undermine the type of subjective, impressionistic criticism that critic-reviewers like Wood produce by offering a scientific approach based on stylistics and cognitive linguistics. Whereas Wood is after a certain notion of beauty, admiring the writer’s personal ability to manipulate prose for his/her ends, Stockwell takes a whole genre to explore how it works at a macro level. His assumption is that if you map the linguistic and stylistic resources that a genre uses, then you will be able to say whether a particular text uses them well, beyond offering a personal opinion. It is a commendable position, but also one that forgets that writing fiction is an art, not a scientific endeavour. You can apply all the mathematics in the world to explain why Michelangelo’s David is so beautiful, but this will just result in an extremely limited impression of its appeal. Likewise, you may describe in all detail, as Stockwell does, all the types of metaphor used in science fiction and how readers understand worldbuilding but this doesn’t explain why Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) hit such a raw nerve when it was published and why it has become such a huge classic. In a way deconstruction came about to bridge the gap between impressionistic personal criticism and this new brand of objective stylistic criticism to re-introduce formalism, which had been already all the vogue in the early 20th century. In the end, though, literary theory has bridged no gap but left us with no guiding compass to truly read the texts.
You might think I am exaggerating but I am reading these days plenty of academic writing in which textual analysis has practically disappeared under a tremendous barrage of secondary sources, and in which building a theoretical frame matters more than introducing the author. Wood’s book has made my discomfort with this practice more nagging than usual, and I am wondering why I never see any analyses of the beauties of genre fiction, which are many. I do not agree that genre fiction should be the subject of clinical description, as Stockwell proposes. And the other way round: possibly only 10% of all genre fiction can sustain literary analysis in Wood’s style. But how about downplaying the role of theory and of identity politics, and looking at how texts are actually written? How about expressing more appreciation for how the writers we admire do what they do with words? I’m not asking for a return to pure formalism, but for a better grasp of writing itself and for a celebration in all genres –including realism– of that elusive thing Wood calls lifeness. It seems to me that is the very reason why we love reading fiction, whether as plain readers or as as professional academics.

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