The Establishment and the Novel
The misrepresentations continued:
13 – “Our memories are aesthetically untalented”; 14 – preeminence of the “subtle“; 15 – plot in the novel; 16 – value of place; 17 – quality of plot; 18 – limited engagement; 19 – fiction no use; 20 – fiction no remedy; 21 – fiction “makes nothing happen”; 22 – writer as “good valet”; 23 – “No one is literally run off her feet”; 24 – the petty terrorist
Misrepresentation 13 – “Our memories are aesthetically untalented”: After misprising purview in the first part of How Fiction Works and beyond, in section 39 Wood claims that “Our memories are aesthetically untalented” and implies that we have the modernist novel to aesthetically point this out. Fingers crossed that science has not already disproved the claim. Further down the Orwellian memory hole goes the fact that ancients wrote epics in aesthetic verse to make easy for bards to memorize.
Misrepresentation 14 – preeminence of the “subtle”: “Subtlety of analysis is what is important,” says Wood. Not striking analysis, subtlety, which is another word for nuance – the establishment’s all-time favorite word for the truncated range of its preferred fiction. Nuance is even more cherished than “limn.” Subtlety – that by which never have so many nuanced so much to limn toward so little. Wood portrays the novel as sort of subtle styled character sketches of great sensitivity – a basic misrepresentation of the nature and scope of fiction, imaginative literature in full.
Misrepresentation 15 – plot in the novel: Essentially banished from HFW is any semblance of prominent discourse theorist Bakhtin’s “chronotype” – the space-time “matrix which governs the base condition of all narratives and other linguistic acts,” or as scholar Radu Surdulescu describes it, “the specific sense of space and time (in other words the social and the historical components) which characterizes every genre, according to its specific ideology. If in the ancient works the social element played a background role, in the novel it has a direct, molding impact upon the characters: they and the society influence and change each other as it happens in actual history, and this accounts for Bakhtin’s interest in the dialogic consciousness of the novel,” including that of free indirect style. This “base condition” gets the opposite of emphasis from Wood in HFW. Adios, Setting. Goodbye, Plot. So long, Social. Goodnight, Public. It’s intimate purview essentially first, middle, last. Form doesn’t come from content, goes the establishment creed, content comes from form: it matters not at all if everyone is writing about toads hopping along a road with a mirror strapped on; what matters is how and why the toads’ mirror shines. Toads everywhere for all – why not? if form is the essence of the artwok.
While Wood disparages the narrative technique of plot as juvenile, it’s really Juvenal he shuns, the pointed artist who does not at best blur meaning or outlook, time or detail (though such work like Juvenal’s art is far from devoid of ambiguity). Thus in part the flatness, the precise fog of style that shoves not only plot but also distinct point, those great content carriers of the world, too far down, unrealistically so. What is plot? A kind of map of events or action, expanding from place and time, explicit or implicit. Plot, the mixing grounds of the world, the motion and stuff of life, is the furthest thing from “juvenility.” While sensitive sketches of soaring subtlety make for an accomplished part of fiction, to essentially implicate this confined range as the whole is as false as it gets. Fiction works to proven extent far beyond style, view, perception, character, and voice – purview. Plot is where adults live, while children live relatively oblivious to its vast reaches. Plot is what adults especially can see and affect to varying extent, the goods and the bads that people often relate to one another, or might, the new and the old, the news, what goes on, what’s happening, what might. While it certainly is true that there is plenty of juvenility and void in the plots of the establishment, not to mention falsity, plot is only as juvenile as one chooses to make it. Plot is for grownups. Plot is essential to the full human condition that is the novelist’s job to convey, and reconfigure.
Goethe claims: “What is a novel but a peculiar and as yet unheard-of event? This is the proper meaning of this name; and much which in Germany passes as a novel is no novel at all, but a mere narrative, or whatever else you may like to call it.” Or if Bakhtin and Goethe are thought to be so very far beyond the “common reader,” one might turn to Mary McCarthy’s suggestive essay, “Characters in Fiction” (1961) in On the Contrary:
The distinctive mark of the novel [as compared to other forms of fiction] is its concern with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics. If I point to Jane Austen…Eliot… Tolstoy… Faulkner, it will be admitted…different as they are…they have one thing in common: a deep love of fact, of the empiric element in experience. I am not interested in making a formal definition of the novel…but in finding its quidditas or whatness, the essence or binder that distinguishes it from other species of prose fiction: the tale, the fable, the romance. The staple ingredient present in all novels in various mixtures and proportions but always in fairly heavy dosage is fact.
McCarthy traces the early history of the novel, ‘the birthmarks’:
The word novel goes back to the word “new,” and in the plural it used to mean news – the news of the day or year…. Many of the great novelists were newspaper reporters or journalists [and “students” of criminals and prisons] “confirmed prison-visitors”…Defoe…Dickens…Dostoevsky…and Victor Hugo …Tolstoy…. Coming to the twentieth century, you meet the American novelist as newspaperman: Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, O’Hara, Faulkner himself…. Novels carried the news – of crime, high society, politics, industry, finance, and low life…. The epic, I might put in here, is the form of all literary forms closest to the novel; it has the “boiler plate” [“durable informative matter”], the lists and catalogues, the circumstantiality, the concern with numbers and dimensions. The epic geography, like that of the novel, can be mapped, in both the physical and social sense…. Whenever the chance arises, Jane Austen supplies a figure.
McCarthy’s fact-struck essence is as central to the novel as Wood’s notions of purview, and more substantial than what little constructive sense Wood can make of the ostensible Flaubertian “spring” of style-obsessed fiction. In HFW, the misrepresentations are so pervasive that the book would not be worth critiquing at length if Wood were not so relatively prominent, so typical of establishment views, and yet also frequently keen within a range when analyzing the works of Western authors as notable as Morrison, DeLillo, Pynchon, Wolfe, Coetzee, Rushdie, Updike, Roth…and Franzen somewhat. Wood’s quality work is continuously undercut by his establishment ideologies: studied intelligence is warped by ideological commitments manifest as various prejudice, bias, ignorance willful or otherwise. Thus we see the public and society, history and the (f)actual in fiction poorly accounted for in HFW, in Wood’s essays on the “social novel,” and elsewhere.
Misrepresentation 16 – value of place: How important is place, for example? Every novel consists of at least two or three fundamental places – the imaginary place of the story (author sustained) and its connection to real place, and the new places co-created by reader imagination. A sort of levitating sense of place may be created in quality fiction, and some nonfiction. This sense of place may function directly and metaphorically and must work for story. (It should go without saying that place, as detail, may be extremely concrete or almost entirely implied.) Place in story may be illusory, even as naturalism. And though place is a key and central part of how fiction functions, it is only one part of the several key components of plot. Fiction does more than plumb the depths of style, or voice, or mind. It certainly explores those but also the world and nature beyond.
Misrepresentation 17 – quality of plot: Just as readily as plot, and just as falsely, can style and view and character be put down as “essential juvenility.” Does not style mask the inherent, the more real? Are make-believe characters not for children? Are the views of such characters not at least two steps from reality and thus essentially not real? All may be made to function poorly. However when well done, these elements of fiction draw reality or nature out of itself, as much as plot may as well in challenging our understandings of the real and the possible – the nature of the human condition (biology and psychology…human will…environment and society). A cut to plot is a cut to fiction and life, a cut to the ever hungry always thirsty imagination. Plot is not only great apparatus but profound creation.
When Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” in deciding – against the mores to which he was “sivilised” – to oppose Jim’s returning to slavery in Twain’s classic novel, the moment is complex and compelling due to a wonderful intersection of plot, voice, character. The world has gone against the truth, and so young Huck chooses to go against the world as it was instilled in him and as it looms and attacks. This moment is not only great as a function of plot (and more), it furthers all the key elements of story. In the moment, these elements are mature: plot, style, even the would-be adolescent character. (Of some note perhaps, the free-living boy who was the real life model for Huckleberry Finn, Twain recounts, grew up to become a judge farther west, after “lighting out for the territory,” one may presume.) A perhaps more obvious example: Is the plot of the classic novel (the very grownup) Middlemarch “essential juvenility”? Or the sober and deft, vibrant and instructive grounds and motion of an adult world. If “modernism” has reduced plot to juvenility, or deemed it so, this is not plot’s problem but modernism’s false representation.
Misrepresentation 18 – limited engagement: Wood’s too often slavish delimited devotion to the closet of his preferred linens contradicts his closing statement of the book, that “the true writer, that free servant of life, must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming unconventional.” Yet even this is too weak. Not “as if” – is. Life is beyond anything the novel has grasped and life is always verging on unconventional, let alone the far-more gripping prospect of the revolutionary. Or why write? Why not just pass around copies of past masters? One would think the answer would be obvious, for as great critic Edmund Wilson made note:
The experience of mankind on the earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered…
Fiction and criticism should take as large task the responsibility of un”sivilizing” toward ever more liberatory ends. Fiction writ whole is experience, knowledge, innovation stretching through and far beyond voice, style, character, far beyond status quo limnits. “Free servant” we must reject. “Free writer” works – or “free explorer.” Purview meld as “basic novelistic tension”? Actually, the basic “tension” of novels comes much moreso from the old standbys – conflict within and between character and plot (inclusive of setting: time and place), and imbuing those elements with vitality of imagination and empathy, insight and vision. Vitality – not merely in the aesthetic, not merely in the normative, not merely in the intellectual, not merely in the emotive, not merely in the experiential, not merely between any and all of these, not merely in any one thing but of the human condition, real and possible. Vital conflict, character, and plot. (Purview too.)
Decrying in reviews and articles what he sees as an excessive focus on the world beyond the human interior, Wood claims: “Some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character…” and “Zadie Smith is merely of her time when she says, in an interview, that it is not the writer’s job ‘to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works’.” Smith and Wood are both at best partly correct. To most fully portray the human condition, novels need lively depictions of both the internal realms and the external ones – the private and the public – because not only do both realms comprise the personal in the first place, the personal must also live within itself as well as out in the world. That is, the public and the private make up the personal, inherently and in action and consequence. This is the human condition. In diverse and profound ways, we are the world and the world is us, to extents far beyond any notions of private “language and the representation of consciousness.” The most vast public realities infuse and help define, reveal, create the most intimate internal ones (including “how somebody felt”), and vice versa.
Misrepresentation 19 – fiction no use: Then there’s the mental sinkhole of Wood’s notion that “We don’t read in order to benefit” practically, usefully. Wood claims people don’t read fiction for educational reasons, such as improving one’s vocabulary (is there a better way?). He claims people don’t read fiction to gain experience, to be worldly, to enrich their other experiences. (One might as well claim that people don’t live for such.) He claims people don’t read fiction for ethical reasons, to foster principles, commitments, convictions. To hell with Horace and the Victorians. “Entertain and instruct”? Not over my status quo body of ideology. One must disregard plenty of novelists and readers, both literary and popular, to hold such a view. Not only Victorian scholars could cite an unending supply of belief-busting examples and analyses in this regard. We read fiction to learn about people and the world. We read to learn how others see, feel, and understand all sorts of realities and possibilities, as topical or as eternal as one can imagine. “We don’t read in order to benefit” practically? Such mental chasms, throughout, undermine How Fiction Works and other establishment literature. Again, Wilson:
In my view, all our intellectual activity, in whatever field it takes place [including art], is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience – that is, to make life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among them.
Even the most dynamic or somehow compelling contemporary novels typically fail to explore accurately or adequately the very topics, situations, and worlds they take up (or fail to, however crucially related). Such lack quickly guts even the most finely styled purviews, taking the reader for a ride rather than to many a revelation. All dessert and no meal, and about as appealing after a brief bit.
Renowned scholar Noam Chomsky comments:
I think the Victorian novel tells us more about people than science ever will…and we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology…. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry (science), which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope.
The vast majority of readers are far less fanatic about the aesthetic qualities of fiction than is Wood – whose favored aesthetics are in any case not always so wonderful, as he admits from time to time – just so long as it works well, or well enough. Even that modernist idol of the establishment TS Eliot noted that “The ‘greatness’ of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards” but need be evaluated by normative criteria as well. This assessment caused scholar Bernard Smith to comment in his valuable book, Forces in American Criticism (1939):
To this has esthetic criticism at last come – to a realization that non-esthetic criteria are the ultimate tests of value. Whether they be called philosophical, moral, or social criteria, they are still the ideas that men have about the way human beings live together and the way they ought to live. The quest of beauty had become the quest of reality. It had become, in essence, literary criticism as socially conscious and as polemical as the criticism of the Marxists.
Either by way of bias or prejudice, Wood belittles the novel much utility. This is the ideology Wood lives and breathes and works under. Fiction is too dangerous to established interests, too powerful, moreso than nonfiction because of its extra aesthetic appeals, and because it can contain nonfiction, in virtually every sense; thus, the ideological controls are tighter for fiction than nonfiction. Fiction is too useful, too popular, too influential not to be domineered and gutted in central ways by the status quo.
At all levels of accomplishment fiction exists and can be crafted to virtually any intention: reactionary, establishmentarian, revolutionary, and so on. Stories “do far more than entertain…” reports Scientific American:
…how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions? The answers to these questions seem to be rooted in our history as a social animal. We tell stories about other people and for other people. Stories help us to keep tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe, imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society.
If Wood thinks people “don’t read in order to benefit” usefully then he may as well think fiction writers don’t write to benefit anyone usefully, but who can be so dim? He’s reciting ideology, having learned the lines well, having heard and read them often enough.
Misrepresentation 20 – fiction no remedy: In the midst of the all-but-everywhere-unpopular US invasion and occupation of Iraq, antiwar novels are maligned as categorically “belligerent,” by reviewer Richard Eder in the New York Times – the great media cheerleader and enabler of the criminal aggression – and nobody blinks an eye at such Orwellianism from the establishment press. No one from establishment literature so much as peeps in protest, let alone correction. No wonder, since no explicit investigative antiwar novel about the crime of the current conquest has been produced by the establishment, and precious few exist from any time.
Even before release for sale by its publisher, the proclaimed (yet self-nullifying) antiwar short novel Checkpoint from established writer Nicholson Baker, was denounced in 2004 by the New Republic’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times, in easily one of the longest “reviews” the book received. “This scummy little book” opened his review and set the tone of Wieselstier’s screed, a fraudulent and hypocritical defense of capitalism and subservient literature. A number of other establishment reviews were much more sympathetic than the pitiful New York Times hatchet job, however, it was easy to be so, since Baker himself carried the establishment water, doing war resisters no favors by putting a sometimes meaningful criticism of the US conquest into the mouth of a homicidal lunatic set upon committing a murderous crime, the assassination of President Bush, which basically nullified any serious effect the book might have. (The protagonist assassination intent, not the “supreme crime” of state aggression, was greatly publicized and primarily discussed and the book sold poorly). Regardless, the status quo smears by Wieseltier (a “liberal thinker” and one of the “ideas men of the liberal intellegentsia”) made sure that any other potential antiwar writers of the establishment would know the obloquy they would face in trying to bring out a more popular, more considered, more investigative antiwar novel. There has scarcely been a trickle since. What’s the use? Not much, if at all, according to Wood and the rest.
Rather than “read in order to benefit” practically, usefully, Wood states, “We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on – because it is alive and we are alive.” Not to learn about ourselves and the world? While people read fiction for the reasons Wood notes as well, they also read fiction – even the most complex literary sort – because they appreciate that quality novels may be experiences with much to teach, much to offer for use in very practical ways. In fact, Wood says as much himself, but only to a point. The “teaching” may only go so far, after which it is subject to dismissal, ridicule, or worse.
Fiction as useful, everyday practical, sociopolitical, momentous? “How quaintly antique this sounds,” to Wood, to the establishment, even as their fiction massively and quite practically bulwarks the status quo. It could not be, could it, that the establishment fears readers – teachers, pastors, parents, youth, soldiers – might find such fiction too ethical, too alive, too real, too useful? The establishment surely knows and certainly functions more purposefully in this regard than Wood ever lets on, and likely that contributes to the high valuation of his services. Such is the menace of establishment criticism (whether of liberal, conservative, or reactionary stripe) – The Menace of Liberal Scholarship, as Noam Chomsky once put it in the title of a Vietnam War era book.
“For all its eviscerations of the administration, [Jon Stewart’s TV news satire, which is at most essentially reformist ideologically and so a tolerable status quo player] ‘The Daily Show’ is animated not by partisanship but by a deep mistrust of all ideology,” says Michiko Kakutani, leading reviewer for the New York Times, in a positive review of the show, ostensibly oblivious to the ideological line she implies as ideology free. If imaginative work is worthy to establishment eyes, typically it’s not ideological, but in a neat coincidence, if work heads in an unacceptable line, then typically it is. As Terry Eagleton notes in Literary Theory: “Radical critics…have a set of social priorities with which most people at present tend to disagree. This is why they are commonly dismissed as ‘ideological’, because ideology is always a way of describing other people’s interests rather than our own.” In establishment formulation, powerful modes of literature, such as the “partisan” or “polemic” are often wielded as scare words. Readers are advised against such fiction (often whether it’s much divergent or not), for their own best interests in literature and life. Thus the establishment wars on, typically in denial of its powerful partisan lines and defining ideology.
When Wood claims that “We don’t read in order to benefit” practically, he is specifically referring to a Mexican police chief’s decision to have his officers read classic literature to build vocabulary, to gain enriching world experience, and to enhance ethical convictions and “commitments to the values they have pledged to defend” – that is, to help classically civilize them. Sounds refreshing, one would think. Hopeful logical. Useful practical. Educational ethical. Humanizing, at least somewhat. Better liberal and conservative works than totalitarian or reactionary ones, if progressive and revolutionary literature must be out of question in the moment. Wood and his primary readership hear auras very different, or at least profess to, marveling at the peculiar notion of utility in fiction – when not scoffing, or outright discrediting the real possibility in works of significant aesthetic achievement. The best they can typically come up with is that the aesthetic is (by definition) not useful – which not only merely begs the question, it falsely cheapens aesthetics – and has any number of the greatest thinkers and imaginative writers turning in their graves, if not laughing their skulls off.
Misrepresentation 21 – fiction “makes nothing happen”: While Auden famously wrote “poetry makes nothing happen,” Wood seems to have taken the literal notion largely to heart in regard to fiction, and yet fiction is far more censored than nonfiction, because it is more powerful. Nonfiction books explicitly condemning the US invasion of Iraq are far more facilitated and existing than any fiction counterparts. The same is true between nonfiction and fiction in video/movies/films. James Wood and his paymasters and their primary readership scarcely speak of or to such fiction. Anyway, it’s “belligerent.” So unthinkable or laughable, so vulgar or frightening (threatening) it seems to them. It’s as if they are not allowed to touch it. Or dare not. Politely, they say, it’s quaint or “antique,” as it may also seem to them. Or naively, well schooled, they say it’s in the “wrong form.” There’s no conspiracy. They are cultured. Such culture is used, consciously or not, as a type of social self-medication and anesthetic for the masses. Quite useful. So much that is vital, not to mention civilized, is missing in establishment fiction, and the privileged may not know but more typically know and don’t care, and work against knowing. The greatest irony is that they may even feel oppressed by liberatory fiction – aesthetically, intellectually, in every way.
Typical reactions to crossing oft unspoken ideological lines are all over the map, and include fear or laughter or contempt – “belligerence” – or incomprehension, but then comes the “gate-keeping,” the filtering, de facto censorship. The liberatory geopolitical novel of well known British comedian Robert Newman, The Fountain at the Center of the World (2003), his third novel, was spurned by dominant publishers because, as noted by Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press (the novel’s US publisher), “big corporate publishers [acted] like big corporate publishers,” rejecting the novel on ideological grounds – sometimes by way of “five-page, single-spaced screeds about the book’s politics,” Suzanne Charlé reports in The American Prospect. In 2004, my Iraq conquest novel Homefront was very politely, even respectfully, declined by a couple of the most liberal of US establishment presses for ostensibly aesthetic reasons. US state criminals can be relieved that novels revolving overtly and directly around “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself all the accumulated evil of the whole,” in the words of the judgment of Nuremberg, are an aesthetic impossibility.
Misrespresentation 22 – writer as “good valet”: In The Liberation of American Literature (1932), one of the central buried texts of liberatory lit criticism in the US, VF Calverton writes of the establishment:
That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas – it was such fiction that won its adoration…. Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another…
as Wood admits of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but warns and argues against otherwise.
In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.
VF Calverton is the now virtually unknown editor of the Modern Quarterly (for 17 years from 1923 until his death in 1940). Unlike Calverton above, Wood uses normative metaphors for writers and writing that are tepid and servile rather than expressive of liberty, justice, equality: “good prose…maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary.” What of human banter and individual expression? desirable in a valet? in an author? in one who “knows his place”? In Wood’s metaphor, good prose services, as if in human hierarchy, rather than serves for sake of humanity, as with Calverton’s trope. Wood calls “the true writer, that free servant of life…” tasked to reveal truth, yet he misrepresents and buries much of fiction’s real use for all, as if a truth too far. These may be a mere couple offhand metaphors by Wood – writer as “servant” and “valet” – but study of HFW reveals too much the establishment’s priorities and the full import of its “unsentimental composure” (often antihuman status quo limnits) to let these suggestive, indicative metaphors pass unremarked.
Footnote  – A kind note from an editor at a leading liberal publishing house: “The conflict between personal politics and public policy can be a difficult one, and your choice to illuminate this schism through the thoughts and experiences of Senator Sam Washburn is apt. As a whole, though, I simply wasn’t convinced that a novel was the right vehicle by which to explore this divide – much of the narrative seemed to be sacrificed in favor of ideological discussion and, as a result, didn’t really hang together as a whole.” Mine and every other “supreme international crime” novel, apparently. Homefront and all variety of excerpts of the novel were declined by literally hundreds of presses and journals. Publishers aside, the novel has been well received by readers… In The Shape of Content (1957), Ben Shahn notes that “we must look upon form as the shape of content… …form is the right and only possible shape of a certain content. Some other kind of form would have conveyed a different meaning and a different attitude. So when we sit in judgment upon a certain kind of form – and it is usually called lack of form – what we do is to sit in judgment upon a certain type of content.” What types we can often readily see.
Misrepresentation 23 – “No one is literally run off her feet”: Just listen to those darlings, the poor. They say such endearing things about being “literally run off” their feet. As if! Everyone knows, says Wood, that “No one is literally run off her feet.” The very idea! of being harried or hurried by an assembly line, by another machine, by a manager, by a boss so that a worker might slip, trip, or collapse onto a chair, floor, the ground. It’s literally unimaginable (to a status quo star), which makes Wood literally wrong. No one literally gets run off her feet by injury or to injury on stressful or dangerous jobs; no one is ever pushed that hard. How quaint! “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter” was not really run off her feet in Joyce’s famed story “The Dead,” says Wood. Evidently so, yet Wood is blatantly wrong about “no one” being run off her feet in households and on other jobs – ask any soldier who may be literally launched and detached from her feet, or any other body part. Is it possible that Wood neither knows nor can imagine anyone like this? Has he never read Les Misérables? Has he never seen Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times? In both great literary works (also popular and useful), being run off one’s feet is among the primary themes, and in Hugo’s great novel of the people, little Cosette is one of the literal examples. Chaplin is swept off his feet by the assembly line and ground through the gears of a machine. Literal reality that impossible fantasy.
Even if we give Wood the benefit of the doubt that he is referring only to Lily in the story, he’s still misrepresenting the situation, which is ultimately ambiguous with regard to Lily being literally run off her feet. Joyce opens the story: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest.” “Literally” is intentionally and ironically “precisely the most inaccurate word,” Wood claims. Not necessarily, no. The author is under no obligation to clarify all that happens to Lily, to fix it with utter precision. In fact, Wood typically lauds authors who do not, authors who “blur” meaning, “blurring the question of who is noticing” the world, “all this stuff,” and what it might mean. Evidently Lily is not run off her feet, not with certainty. Rather, it’s ambiguous. Wood’s claiming that “no one is literally run off her feet” stands out as a blanket generalization, especially given how unimaginable an actual “literal” fall seems to be to Wood: “precisely the most inaccurate word.” Far from it. “Literally” is precisely the most ambiguous word.
In Les Misérables, threatened by her “guardian,” Cosette is ordered into the frightening dark to fetch water from a spring:
She emerged from the village…entered the forest at a run…no longer looking at or listening to anything. She only paused in her course when her breath failed her; but she did not halt in her advance. She went straight before her in desperation. As she ran she felt like crying. The nocturnal quivering of the forest surrounded her completely. She no longer thought, she no longer saw. …she reached the spring… Cosette did not take time to breathe… She drew out the bucket nearly full, and set it on the grass…. She would have liked to set out again at once, but the effort required to fill the bucket had been such that she found it impossible to take a step. She was forced to sit down. She dropped on the grass….
That’s literal enough, and no fantasy. Adding a slip and tumble in stride would have made it exact. Wood is wrong about people not reading literature “in order” to learn. He’s wrong about plot being “essential juvenility,” and on and on throughout How Fiction Works, until it scarcely seems a page goes by where he has got much of a pulse on the real, on the nature of the human condition whether in life or lit. Quality fiction of use? Moral bosh! Wishful thinking. Reductive. Unrealistic. Hugo Chavez should have passed around spelling primers in Venezuela to help improve literacy, not the one million free copies of Don Quixote he distributed instead, nor the 1.5 million free copies of Les Misérables in 2006 when he “inaugurated the Second Venezuelan International Book Fair…[and] addressed the opening ceremony after having handed out copies of a massive edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to workers of the ‘Negra Hipolita Mission,’ a social program aimed at helping Venezuelans in situations of extreme poverty,” reports the Cuban paper Periódico 26. “The Venezuelan leader said: ‘The Empire sows death with its weapons. In contrast, these are our guns: books, ideas, culture.’ Earlier, participants had attentively listened [to] and applauded the reading of the poem ‘Che,’ by its author Miguel Barnet, to start off the Book Fair tribute to the historical legacy of Ernesto Che Guevara…” “Books Liberate” was the theme of the book fair.
Doesn’t President Chavez know, like us, that lit is not for learning. We privileged people certainly have nothing to learn from it. Let the people eat primers! (One can imagine what good friends James Wood and the beloved Marie Antoinette might have been. Not that the point is them. The point is their either oblivious or willful establishment function.)
Writers of the literature establishment repeatedly disparage such insight as that of literary scholar Kenneth Burke in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) where he notes that “The contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art…. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable.” (To take Burke’s import here, we can set aside for the time being whether or not “pure art” is a notion that can actually be realized.) To foster sociopolitical consciousness, build support for unions, Venezuela has distributed copies of Charlie Chaplin’s classic film “Modern Times,” in which Chaplin as worker gets caught in the gears of a factory machine. Venezuelan business leaders are “outraged.” In the US, the establishment’s “seemingly apolitically” yet actually supercharged (ironically) utilitarian political view that great art cannot be political in much of any practical sense serves business owners quite well, while many workers remain stuck or crushed in the gears, or trying to scrape by on sub-subsistence wages, with poor to nonexistent benefits. Chaplin was hounded away from liberatory filmmaking and for a time barred from re-entering the US as part of the political persecution. While some establishment mouthpieces may believe aesthetics and practical effect are incompatible, most are not so deeply in denial. Big money – whether corporate, governmental, or individual – suffers from no such delusions and predominantly either denounces or withhold funds from art that does not service it. Examples are endless. Nick Turse at TomDispatch notes: “In reality, the military has been deeply involved with the film industry since the Silent Era. Today, however, the ad hoc arrangements of the past have been replaced by a full-scale one-stop shop, occupying a floor of a Los Angeles office building. There, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and the Department of Defense itself have established entertainment liaison offices to help ensure that Hollywood makes movies the military way.” Literary authors, and artists of all sorts, are cultured to follow suit (as we will continue to see here throughout).
Footnote 3 – People are literally run off their feet in machine lines, on farms, in athletic training, in the military, and in some demanding or excited households. Regardless of Joyce’s intent, and whether or not he uses “literally” “knowingly,” its function is ambiguous in the text. It’s as mistaken to claim that Lily fell as to claim, as Wood does, that she did not. Perhaps it’s necessary to note that I agree that Wood is making an interesting observation. One could write books about the many acute observations Wood makes, as many people have piecemeal. Unfortunately he too often ties his insight with sweeping misrepresentations: it’s “inaccurate” to be literally run off one’s feet. I don’t imagine it happens much in cloistered dens. Wood goes on to express a serious ignorance of not atypical features of low-income working conditions (at the least) and how they might be spoken of by workers, in presenting Lily as imagined example. Insightfully, he imagines well that Lily could tell a friend she was “literally” run of her feet while meaning it figuratively, the way in which rushed work events are sometimes spoken, but he misrepresents reality by entirely ruling out (“most inaccurate”) that she might mean it literally. The larger misrepresentation is that Wood generalizes far beyond Lily. Yes, to be run off one’s feet is a cliché. It’s a cliché that Wood seems to mistake for unreality. Cliché, third definition: “something overly familiar or commonplace.” “Run off her feet” may be either literal description of a fall or figurative description of rushed “scamper”ing work – as we hear via a meld of the purviews of Lily and the narrator. Wood rules out the literally possibility and thus badly misrepresents reality, even as he thoughtfully develops one half of an ambiguous passage. An establishment purview gets grand treatment (she couldn’t possibly mean it “literally”), and the low-income workers’ full reality is destroyed, by Wood not Joyce – since whatever Joyce’s exact intention, it’s a moot point in face of a passage that is far more ambiguous than Wood credits, a passage that is very much in the unstable multipurview meld mode Wood favors. Wood thinks he has figured out a “puzzle” within “our basic novelistic tension” and he may well have put some pieces together, but simultaneously he distorts reality, and inadvertently shows not only the expansive but the limited nature of his preferred UMM mode. Wood: “It is useful to watch good writers make mistakes. Plenty of excellent ones stumble at free indirect style.” Critics too, and other readers. It’s a stumble-prone style, for obvious reasons.
Misrepresentation 24 – the petty terrorist: It’s bad enough in How Fiction Works that Wood misrepresents fiction. He also misrepresents people and the world beyond fiction, and thus distorts how reality corresponds to story and its subsequent effect in the world. For example, Wood thinks that “Terrorism, clearly enough, is the triumph of resentment (sometimes justified)” – that terrorists “dream of hard revenge on a society that seems too soft to deserve sparing,” and that “perhaps a certain kind of Islamic fundamentalist … hates [“Western secularism”] because he admires it…because it once did him a good turn – gave him medicine….” In fact, reality is essentially the opposite of Wood’s description. While some psychopaths may think as Wood states, this Dostoevskyan “analysis” has no “great prophetic relevance for the troubles” the West is in, because the basic grievances and motivations behind the terror are the Western support and active participation in tyrannies, invasions, occupations, sanctions, outlaw threats, and economic oppression, which are rationally known by the terrorists and by the affected populations – as reported (if scantily) by even the Wall Street Journal and other establishment media. The terror – which is horrific and vicious – is intended to deter US aggressions and oppressions or at least to build strength, recruit, create revolution. There terrorists are rooted in far more rational realism than Wood comes close to conveying.
Whether or not the terror often works well, or leads to more eventual gains than losses is another question. While the 9-11 terror did cause the US to quietly withdraw its military forces from Saudi Arabia, it also brought on the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet the terrorism is wounding the US, in blood, economics and politics, and may hasten its decline, the easier to weaken or repel its control over the oil-rich Middle East and beyond. Directly related US meddling and bombing in nearby Pakistan has led to the ouster of its preferred ruler there, Musharraf, and may also likely lead to the ouster of a couple other US “puppet” rulers in the region. Is the US “too soft”? Excellent! may likely think the terrorists and insurgents. Does the US make medicines that might be used by them? Super! Why would they not be more than happy to use the West’s strengths and weaknesses against it, to get the West to remove its talons from their lands? But regardless, the fact remains – given the fundamental reality – the plot – the basic causes of these current and longstanding “troubles” of the West are internal to the West, not external, which is the opposite of what Wood conveys. Moreover, misrepresenting the basic focus, grounds, and motivations for explosive anger and violence against the West makes a mockery of using “modernist” explorations of psychology to know let alone help resolve the current longstanding conflicts.
George Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn:
Even among the inner clique of politicians who brought us to our present pass [World War II] it is doubtful whether there were any conscious traitors. The corruption is more in the nature of self-deception…. And being unconscious, it is limited. One sees this at its most obvious in the English press. Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest. All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news. Yet I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be straight-forwardly bribed with hard cash. England is not the jeweled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted passage, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr. Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kowtowed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase…. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.
One wonders how much of Orwell, his partly establishmentarian, though sometimes dissenting, countryman Wood has read. The Lion and the Unicorn is subtitled “Socialism and the English Genius” and opens per below. If corrected for the mistakes (and the particular situations) which are also found in some of the rest of the book, this brief scene of WWII vividly foreruns 9-11 and everyday life under the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and beyond, and indicates something more of the bombers’ key motives than Wood appreciates:
As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.
One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist…
The bombers feel they are looking out for their own people and consequently “doing their duty” whether by God or country, or both. And yet both the US bombings and the “terrorist” bombings are criminal (try getting that much past the NYT filters). Too bad modernist type fictions fixated with childish games of purview do not trouble themselves overly much to vivify such reality at great forensic length and power. And why not? It’s no question of capacity of fiction, or even necessarily of unstable mix and meld narrative, for even great clearly and extensively depicted crimes may ride and wash on surrounding mystery, though not of the points of the crime that are well established, but of the related infinite even intimate esoterics of the human condition (and universe beyond) that are virtually inescapable, from any such events, and are appropriately compelling if handled well.
One may also think at many points throughout HFW of these additional quick cutting comments of Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn about the phenomena of idiocy, and banditry, among the privileged prior to World War II: “The underlying fact was that the whole position of the monied class had long ceased to be justifiable… The British ruling class obviously could not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate…. Clearly there was only one escape for them – into stupidity.” [The ruling types could] “keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible. Difficult though this was, they achieved it, largely by fixing their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going on round them.” And as a matter of course suppressing liberatory, progressive, let alone revolutionary, change in literature and life.
Too often in his criticism Wood is a “larcenous banker” (to repeat that considerable tautology) making bad loans under fraudulent terms, denying reasonable lines of credit, bailed out by cultured readers and critics. Wood is deft enough that we may admire what he does (trope along) while we deplore what his criticism too often is (retrograde, misprised): Flaubert as spring come again is too much a cadaverous notion, however deftly glossed.