Saturday, March 15, 2008

More Interesting Questions

The other day at Ready Steady Book, Mark Thwaite posted about James Wood's new book of criticism, How Fiction Works. Admitting that his problem with the book is arguably beside the point, since Wood does fairly well what he sets out to do, Mark concludes thus:
My problem with How Fiction Works is that how fiction works is not a very interesting question (hence Wood's perfectly adequate answer becomes a not particularly interesting book).

When faced with a novel, I'm not reading as a practitioner or would-be practitioner. Close reading, for me, isn't an attempt to unlock a code, it isn't about seeing how it has all been done, so I can then go away, tooled-up, and create a version of it myself.

I'm not interested in such unpicking, but not because I don't want to "ruin the magic" or some such: I'm not interested because I think far more interesting questions about the novel need to be asked. It seems to me that asking how fiction works is a very dull question indeed next to the existential one that really matters: why fiction is.
I've become increasingly interested in Mark's question, or questions surrounding his question, as regular readers of this blog will have noticed. Both from a specific sense of the question--why is this particular book here?--and the more general, existential sense--why write fiction at all?

Mark's admission that his problem with Wood's book may not be quite fair is part of an interesting, related issue for me. I wrote the following in a comment to Mark's post, which I include here as a reminder to myself that I want to explore this topic some more:
while it's certainly appropriate to say that a critic of a history of rugby shouldn't complain about its lack of coverage of football, in a broader sense, I nevertheless think that a critic ought to be wondering why a certain book exists. Ironically, I think this was Wood's tack in his negative review of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Why is McCarthy doing this genre exercize, he seemed to be asking, and got roundly attacked in many quarters for not properly attending to or evaluating how well he does what he does in that book (which I have not read). At the time, I agreed with those attacking Wood, but lately, having read Josipovici and others, I'm inclined to ask your question, and other related questions. It seems like a limited role for critics to confine them to merely evaluating how well something is done. (It seems to me that lots of things are done "well", but don't do much to justify their existence.) Granted, it might help if a critic were first able to recognize what is attempted before criticizing the attempt (and I think Wood does this well enough at times, though seems to miss the point at other times).
(Incidentally, here is Wood's review of No Country For Old Men, which I've re-read. I found it a lot more interesting than I remembered, so I may have more to say about it in particular in connection with the question of the critic's responsibility and larger role.)

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