Come back to the mall, Huck honey

I haven’t yet read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, but it isn’t necessary to, in order to see the bankruptcy of Walter Kirn’s review of it in the 17 August 2008 New York Times Book Review. Kirn begins by declaring himself a philistine. He is appalled that Wood is on familiar terms with Homer, Auden, and Ian McEwan. He litters his review with ad hominem mockery, calling Wood “vicarish” and quipping that Wood “flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic.” I happen to be in favor of intermittent viciousness in book reviews, but let’s be serious here for a moment: Kirn is making fun of Wood for being the sort of person who reads a lot of books. Perhaps Kirn has misjudged the audience for a review of a work of literary criticism?

Little matter is mixed with this impertinency. In an attempt to indict Wood’s method, Kirn writes:

Take his disquisition on detail, which comes down first to asserting its importance, then to questioning its all-importance, and then, after serving up a list of some of his very favorite fictional details, to defining the apt, exquisite detail much as a judge once defined obscenity: as something he knows when he sees it.

This indeed sounds like a clincher, except that Kirn has just described E. M. Forster’s method in Aspects of the Novel (unwittingly, no doubt—no such lumber in his study), and that book remains a classic. If the same method falters in Wood’s hands, we need to be told why. By this point, few of Kirn’s readers will trust his mere assertions.

Perhaps the review’s only substantive claim is Kirn’s complaint that Wood neglects “story, plot and setting, as well as the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar that has impelled such messy master­works as Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.” I haven’t read Johnson’s novel, so I’ll set it to one side. But I’m not a fan of Kerouac, and I think it could be argued that what makes Huckleberry Finn great is not Twain’s phonetic rendering of dialect but rather the sort of thing Wood prizes: the chance to follow a mind as it works out what it thinks of a social world. I think it could be argued, in fact, that the phonetic rendering of dialect is something that Twain’s modern readers agree to endure.

There is an issue here worth debating: If one praises a novel for “absorbing the anarchic,” ought the emphasis to be on the absorption or on the anarchy? My inclination is for the former. After all, we hardly need resort to novels to experience anarchy. Still, all things being equal, one probably prefers to read novelists who have managed to absorb a little more anarchy than others. In a recent review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland in the London Review of Books, Benjamin Kunkel praised O’Neill’s description of a Google Earth tour, writing that “The passage is exciting simply because it represents new territory, or at least new subject matter, claimed for fiction.” But it’s important to keep in mind that in practice all things rarely are equal. The flotsam of life sometimes appears in a novel not because the writer’s consciousness has made a new sense of it, but because he hasn’t. It’s then merely a distraction.

Indeed, in complaining that Wood overlooks “the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular,” etc., Kirn may be guilty of special pleading. In a review of Kirn’s novel The Unbinding in the New York Times Book Review of 11 February 2007, Matt Weiland wrote:

This is what Kirn does best—keen observation of American social fissures and class dynamics along with an ear for the jaunty rhythms of contemporary talk. . . . But this sort of thing, however well done, risks descending into a torrent of timely references, the sort of rage for information that James Wood has criticized as substituting for character in some contemporary fiction. Want to know what kind of car the characters drive? The Unbinding has a Ford Galaxy, a Cadillac, a Ranger, a Jetta, a Hyundai, a Dodge, a Civic and an Acura. Where they spend their time? There are mentions of Applebee’s, Costco, Fuddruckers, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Old Navy, Saks, Starbucks and Taco Bell. What they watch or listen to? Blue Man Group, Drew Carey, Tom Cruise, Neil Diamond, Madonna, Oprah, .38 Special and Bo Bice all make appearances. This may chime with Kirn’s aim . . . and it certainly fits with his theme. But it makes a short book feel like a long walk at the mall.

The difficulty with an “English department”

In The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), John Gross describes the troubles associated with turning English literature into an academic discipline, as that problem was understood in Britain in the late nineteenth century, where the experiment was first attempted:

How do you organize the wholesale teaching of imaginative literature, without putting the bird in a cage? How do you construct a syllabus out of the heart’s affections, or award marks for wit and sensitivity? Candidates will be expected to show a knowledge of human nature—which, human nature being what it is, represents an open invitation to wander on at random, to drain the subject of intellectual content. And since nobody wants that, a strong countervailing current is inevitably set in motion. Teachers turn with relief to the small, hard, ascertainable fact; they become preoccupied with sources, or analogues, or backgrounds, or textual cruces, or other interesting but secondary considerations. Such problems are of course by no means unique to English studies. They exist in many other academic fields as well. But they do present themselves with peculiar force and intimacy when studying the literature of one’s native language, and it could be argued that, armed as we are with microfilm and computer, we have not entirely solved them even now.