August 4, 2008

Weekend Miscellany: Mr Whicher, James Wood, Reader Online Poll

It's 'Halifax Natal Day' here (also known as 'we want an extra day off in August too') and thus still in some sense the weekend, so here's my semi-regular round-up of interesting things:

At The Little Professor, there's a typically thoughtful review of Kate Summerscale's much-discussed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the story of the infamous Road Hill murder case and its lead investigator:
Summerscale's project wears a number of intellectual hats: it aspires to be, simultaneously, a popular microhistory of a scandalous murder case, a literary history of modern detective fiction, and a sort of detective "faction" in its own right. Summerscale's story doesn't just analyze the Road Hill case, but actually tries to be the kind of narrative the murder inspired; the reader is invited to watch as new forms of story-telling coalesce into recognizable genre conventions.
LP isn't entirely sold on the project: for her reasons, read the rest here.
Open Letters Monthly features Daniel Green's review of James Wood's How Fiction Works. Not surprisingly, given the differences between their critical agendas and the resulting history of contention between Green and Wood, the review is not particularly enthusiastic:
Wood is currently the most well-regarded generalist literary critic in the English-speaking literary world, and it is discouraging to say the least that such a figure uses his influence to conduct a rearguard action against the forces of change in literary practice, against those who, like William Gass (Wood’s bĂȘte noire in this book), want to transform our perception of fiction as the effort to depict “people” and “life” to one that can encompass that goal (with many provisos) but can also capture the reader’s attention in other ways, ways more responsive to the possibilities of fiction as imaginative manipulation of language and form. Wood makes his case for realism always within a context in which it is endangered by postmodernists and other stylistically immoderate writers who don’t appreciate its subtleties and are tearing fiction away from its proper relationship to “the world." . . . .

Ultimately the most disconcerting thing about How Fiction Works, and about James Wood’s criticism in general, is that while Wood on the one hand expresses near-reverence for the virtues of fiction, the terms in which he judges the value of fiction as a literary form implicitly disparages it. He doesn’t want to let fiction be fiction. Instead, he asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services. He abjures them to avoid “aestheticism” (too much art) and to instead be respectful of “life.” (read the whole review here)
I find it interesting that Green repeatedly faults Wood for an over-zealous commitment to realism while my own reading of How Fiction Works expressed frustration rather at his tendency to emphasize aesthetics and form over plot, character, and "moral instruction," and to universalize this priority and talk as if the novel really began with Flaubert.

At The Reader Online, they have a winner in their poll to select a classic novel to recommend for the Richard and Judy book club, which I gather has something of the force across the pond that Oprah's book club has here. Their favored selection is Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a recommendation I would certainly second. In retrospect, I actually wonder if it wouldn't have been a better choice for our summer reading project at The Valve: though I've certainly been pleased overall at the discussion we've had of Adam Bede, something a bit sexier might have kept more people engaged once summer really arrived.

3 comments:

Amateur Reader said...

Hey, I also want fiction to provide psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction. And I consider myself an aestheticist.

Why can't I want everything in fiction? The evidence is pretty strong that it's all out there somewhere.

A reader in England said...

'... he [Wood] asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services.'

Odd that one could substitute F.R. Leavis for james Wood and not disrupt the meaning.

How Novels Work by John Mullan seems the more useful book, although Mullan isn't half so trendy.

Rohan Maitzen said...

But I don't think Wood and Leavis are synchronized overall--Green's summary here makes them sound more congruent than I would take them to be. I haven't read Mullan's book yet, but I've been working my way through quite a few titles in this genre. I'll see if I can round it up!