Musings on Place, Travel, Books, Literature, Poetry, Literary Criticism, Collecting, Media, Life and the Arts

Archive for March 26th, 2010

March 26th, 2010 • Posted in On Book Collecting

Collecting the Keynote Series

I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Samuels Lasner when I was down in Florida recently. Among other things we talked about beautiful books, and what to collect (stay tuned for the audio). He suggested John Lane’s Keynote Series published in the 1890s, many of which contain Aubrey Beardsley designs. Here’s the list:

Vol 1 Keynotes by George Egerton
Vol 2 The Dancing Faun by Florence Farr
Vol 3 Poor Folk. Translated from the Russian of F. Dostoievsky by Lena Milman. With a preface by George Moore.
Vol 4 A Child of the Age by Francis Adams
Vol 5 The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light by Arthur Machen
Vol 6 Discords by George Egerton
Vol 7 Prince Zaleski by M.P. Shiel
Vol 8 The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
Vol 9 Women’s Tragedies by H.D. Lowry
Vol 10 Grey Roses/The Bohemian Girl and Other Stories by Henry Harland
Vol 11 At the First Corner and Other Stories by H.B. Marriott Watson
Vol 12 Monochromes by Ella D’Arcy
Vol 13 At the Relton Arms by Evelyn Sharp
Vol 14 The Girl from the Farm by Gertrude Dix
Vol 15 The Mirror of Music by Stanley V. Makower
Vol 16 Yellow and White by W. Carlton Dawe
Vol 17 The Mountain Lovers by Fiona Macleod
Vol 18 The Woman Who Didn’t by Victoria Crosse
Vol 19 The Three Imposters by Arthur Machen
Vol 20 Nobody’s Fault by Netta Syrett
Vol 21 The British Barbarians by Grant Allen
Vol 22 In Homespun by E. Nesbit
Vol 23 Platonic Affections by John Smith
Vol 24 Nets for the Wind by Una Taylor
Vol 25 Where the Atlantic Meets the Land by Caldwell Lipsett
Vol 26 In Scarlet and Grey by Florence Henniker. (With The Spectre of the Real by Florence Henniker and Thomas Hardy)
Vol 27 Maris Stella by Marie Clothilde Balfour
Vol 28 Day Books by Mabel E. Wotton
Vol 29 Shapes in the Fire by M.P. Shiel
Vol 30 Ugly Idol by Claud Nicholson
Vol 31 Kakemonos by W. Carlton Dawe
Vol 32 God’s Failures by J.S. Fletcher
Vol 33 A Deliverance by Allan Monkhouse
Vol 34 Mere Sentiment by A. J. Dawson

March 26th, 2010 • Posted in Authors and Books

James Wood criticized for doing what Literary Critics are supposed to do

James Wood’s How Fiction Works has attracted a lot of attention, much of it positive.

Of course, when you write a book with such an authoritative sounding title, and state in its introduction that you plan to answer ‘some of the essential questions about the art of fiction,’  I suppose, if you choose not to examine plot and a number of other workshop 101 staples,  it shouldn’t be surprising that the odd pedagogist’s knicker gets knotted. 


This, plus condemnation for its not asking the right questions (as Mark Thwaite  put it early on: “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.”) -  is in fact what characterized much of the negative criticism that greeted the book in the birth room.

More recent response waters with the same hose, insisting – often indignantly – that the book, because it fails to examine all forms of fiction with the same level of attention,  is a failure. Wood, from this quarter, seems not to be allowed an opinion. He is chastened for writing polemically, for having a bias, for defending and arguing the merits of a personal ideal. He is, in short, criticized, for doing exactly what literary critics are supposed to do.

Criticism for not writing what others want or expect you to write is no fault of the author, but rather, I’d suggest, one of positioning. This is why  - while the book itself needs no defending,  I here offer up two  suggested tweaks , minor amendments which, if they’d been incorporated at the start, could well have saved the world from a whole pile of miserable critiquing.

The first a is title change, to:  How the Best Fiction Works.

Evidently, for some, the fact that James Wood’s name appears on the cover is not enough to indicate that what’s written inside constitutes his opinion;  by emphasizing ‘free indirect style’, point of view, detail and character, Wood isn’t conducting a freshman class in composition, he’s telling us what he thinks is required to produced the ‘best,’ most ‘successful ‘ fiction.

Second, in response to Mark,  a clarifying introductory note on the what and why of fiction, in order to contextualize post modernist complaints. A note that, if I’d written it, would have read something like this:

Why fiction is?

Some have argued that it – storytelling – is a biologically programmed survival mechanism. Preparatory work: a method of dealing with the future; for circumventing danger – creating solutions to real and imagined problems; of overcoming challenges, managing the unforeseen; where  imaginative powers  serve as tools for creating scenarios which encourage and enable the species to adapt, predict and accommodate itself to what’s ahead.

Why fiction? Because we want and need to escape from dull, quotidian existence. We want to change the world, challenge our minds, seek patterns, play games. Learn. Find ‘truths.’ Do a better job of living. Know ourselves, others, the planet…the universe.

Because we have an innate curiosity perhaps, that moves us – or at least those of us who want more – to invent new, alternate worlds, make-believe characters, friends, places, creatures…and to share them with others. To delight, please, instruct, entertain.

Because imagining is what our brains are wired to do. Because some possess a deep desire to experience new things. To change the environment. To persuade, coerce, dominate.  To manipulate reality.  To maintain the status-quo. To incite revolution.

What fiction is?

Well it is, for readers and writers: a way to live another life; to assume a different perspective; to feel; to experience sympathy;  to create; to express and communicate; to connect.   To learn about living; to learn about life and oneself; to think serious thoughts; to get advice. To revel in aesthetic accomplishment; to appreciate the way words are put together – their  beauty, cadence, rhythm and rhyme; the images they conjure, the meanings they convey. The movies you make with them in your mind.

A way for writers to entertain. To give pleasure. Excite. To make others laugh. To share pain, suffering, deep thoughts. To present arguments. Visions for new societies,  improved methods of government, of living together. A way for readers to cultivate their minds.

For some, fiction is a way to fart around with perception and perspective. To experiment. To incorporate and reflect the boredom or frustrations of real life, for example. Or the experience of a drug trip. Or living as a slug, or in a galaxy far, far away.

All this with a set of silly little black marks on the page.

Fiction then is a whole bunch of different things to different people.

But the best fiction is not. It’s one thing, and in the best tradition of literary criticism, it’s up to the critic to present his opinions – on what is good, and what is bad – using the most persuasive means he can muster. 

This is what Wood does in How Fiction Works.

This is what A.D. Jameson over at the Big Idea attacks him for, in what I considered at the time to be "a lengthy eructation of ill conceived, frequently picayune argument, unworthy of response.

Subsequent congenial exchanges with Jameson have convinced me, not that his post isn’t insulting or poorly reasoned, but that it does warrant a response. So, in the coming days I will – with this present post as a touchstone – proceed to articulate my objections.