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Archive for June 2nd, 2009

June 2nd, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Read this Superb Review of How Fiction Works

In case you haven’t already done so, head over to Urban Tree and read Stephen Crowe’s superbly weighted review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Here’s an excerpt:

"Wood is an analytical thinker at heart, and therefore a theorist by inclination. As the title indicates, he intends his book not merely to be a compilation of observations about fiction, but as an enquiry into fiction’s fundamental nature. ‘If the book has a larger argument,’ he writes in the introduction, ‘it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.’ To say that fiction is artifice will cause no controversy, and at its best Wood’s book serves as an ingenious examination of some of the methods by which such artifice is created; but Wood’s latter claim, that fiction is rooted in verisimilitude, is considerably more divisive, and it is an argument to which Wood returns again and again throughout the book, to worry at its edges.

The place of realism in fiction has always been an important part of Wood’s criticism. In a review of Toni Morrison’s Paradise, published in 1997, Wood claimed that, ‘since fiction is itself a kind of magic, the novel should not be magical.’ In other words, because to read a novel is an act of belief, a novel must not include anything which is unbelievable. The assurance of this remarkable assertion masks its incoherence: how could anyone today enjoy Homer or Shakespeare in any but the most abstract of terms? How could Wood himself explain the aesthetic pleasure he evidently derives from the Bible? Certainly there is no space in an aesthetic like this for Kafka or Beckett, both of whose work Wood endorses in How Fiction Works.

In the intervening decade, Wood’s defense of realism has grown considerable nuance, and Wood slowly develops it as he works his way through each chapter. He takes on a number of ‘anti-realists’ in the course of the book, culminating in the final chapter, entitled ‘Truth, Convention, Realism’, in which he mounts a direct assault on the theory of Roland Barthes. The crux of the debate lies in the ability of literary realism to achieve its purpose. For Barthes and his followers, fiction can never succeed in representing reality, and a realist who makes the attempt will merely produce a subjective illusion that naively reinforces bourgeois values. Rather than signifying reality, realism, for Barthes, signifies the intention to resemble reality, and results in nothing but a naïve illusion.

Wood’s response to this argument is subtle. While it is clear from Wood’s earlier essays that he had a fairly orthodox understanding of the word ‘realism’, in recent years he has developed a decidedly idiosyncratic definition, one which permits him to assimilate a greater variety of fiction into the category of ‘realism’ than seems intuitively plausible. Even the most unrealistic works of fiction, Wood claims, owe a debt to realism, because the emotional ‘truth’ of any story—what Wood refers to as ‘lifeness’—results from its likeness, literal or metaphorical, to real life."

June 2nd, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Pulp Fiction: I’d Forgotten what a fine…

fine, motherfucker of a movie this is. Starting with the sterling soundtrack, moving on to the close-ups, the garish colours, John Travolta stoned…dancing (on his tip toes)…with Uma


and jawin’ with Samuel L…and the breakfast scene:


one fine, comedic film experience. Try it again. You’ll like it.

June 2nd, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Ackroyd on Eliot

Am reading and enjoying Peter Ackroyd’s Frank Kermode-praised biography of T.S. Eliot. Intimate biography: he attributes the ‘physical failure’ of Eliot’s marriage to his new bride Vivian’s heavy, frequent menstrual cycle, and surmises that Bertrand Russell had an affair with her. And another thing: the cover of the paperback I own (Cardinal, Sphere Books, Penguin 1988) is decidedly sinister looking with Eliot resembling Boris Karloff…the background has a cracked earth look to it, topped, not to put too fine a point on it: with a swirling pile of what looks like dog diarrhea. (Searched all over for an image with alas, no success). Most strange. The hand from whence this came? Salt Spring Island resident Nick Bantock.

Moving right along, to higher ground: here’s an excerpt from what Ackroyd has to say about the poetry:

" The reviews [of Prufrock and other Observations] in the English press were characteristically short and dismissive, the major complaint being that this was verse rather than poetry because it had no conception of ‘the beautiful’.It was amusing but no more.

the little volume provoked such response in part because of its unappealing or at least ‘unpoetic’ subject matter, but also because the poetry had no identifiable single voice behind it. Even the dramatic or ‘prosy’ monologues of Meredith and Browning seemed to bear the weight of a powerful poetic personality; and in late nineteen-and early-twentieth-century English poetry the idea of a sustained ‘tone’ was still central. That is precisely the reason why the poetry of the years before Eliot seems so insubstantial or simply decorative: the steady attenuation of the romantic ‘personality had caused in turn an attenuation of the outward realityo which it clings.

The poems of Prufrock are examples of dramatic virtuosity, conceived in terms of monologue and dialogue, ‘scene’ and character…In this volume even when the poetry seems to be most personal, as in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ and ‘Preludes’, it is curiously objective and ‘pointed’ – manifesting a highly sensitive but also highly conscious deployment of cadence and image to produce the required effect…When the poet seems most himself, he is an actor watching his own performance. Because of this dramatic virtuosity, it would be unhelpful and indeed impossible to locate the true voice of Thomas Sterns Eliot except as a principle of literary organization. the longer poems are a number of heterogeneious fragments held together under enormous pressure, to which the insistent cadences and the consistent rhymes contribute – pressure like a headache, like a tight suit, bearing down upon a number of displays, retreats and evasions."