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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book review: How Fiction Works by James Wood

How Fiction Works How Fiction Works by James Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
View all my reviews

A well written book about writing (and reading), Wood offers a thoughtful discussion of not only at how fiction works, but why.

Most interestingly for my purposes, Wood has much to say about what I'll call the truthfulness of fiction, seen not in terms of "realism," (or at least not solely), but in terms of what he calls "lifeness." I'm annoyed by the word, but I like where he goes with it. I'll probably use this in my writing, as well as in the class I'm preparing. Lots of really interesting stuff - I'd recommend to any of you who write, and to any of you who like to think about writing and reading and why one might do either.

WARNING: This next section is a full-on tangent about stuff that relates to my dissertation.

I was excited to see that Woods had a little section about Bernard Williams, in which he discusses "the novel's possible contribution to Bernard Williams's desire for complexity in moral philosophy." (Wood 129)

For Williams, moral philosophy needed to attend to the actual fabric of emotional life....Williams often returned to Greek tragedy and epic for examples of great stories in which we see the self struggling with what he called "one-person conflicts." Curiously, he rarely if ever talked about the novel, perhaps because the novel tends to present such tragic conflicts less starkly, less tragically, in softened forms. Yet these softer conflicts are not less interesting or profound for being softer... (Wood 177)
Interestingly, Wood is both right and wrong here.

Williams looks to Greek tragedy to help clarify our conceptions of the self, how we think about our actions and experiences, matters of responsibility and justice, and our visions of what is admirable. (West 18)
Much of this my opinion, can be done well in novels. (As well as in short stories, or so I claimed in my dissertation by looking at Dinesen through a Williams-tinted lens. Wood gives voice to some good reasons for this, having to do with character.) The type of self-conflict Williams calls attention to can certainly be found in novels, . But, in the places where Williams most relies on Greek tragedy, he is not interested simply (or even primarily) in complexity and internal conflict, and he is certainly not interested in "soft" tragedies like "marriage and all its conflicts," to use Wood's example. In focusing on Greek tragedy, Williams is after a particular type of complexity, namely what happens to agency and responsibility when they meet regret and, most importantly, necessity. His use of Greek tragedy, with its particular type of tragic conflict, to elucidate these ideas is not simply an arbitrary choice: he is making a claim that certain types of literature will be better equipped to do these ideas justice, and specifically by not softening them. He is also exploring the place of traditional concepts like tragedy, heroism, and fate, and is intentionally turning to sources in which these questions are heightened by the very lack of softness in the tragedies in question.

In almost all its modern forms moral philosophy…tries to withdraw our ethical interest from both chance and necessity…[despite] the very plain fact that everything an agent most cares about typically comes from, and can be ruined by, uncontrollable necessity and chance.”
Bernard Williams, "The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, and Ethics," in The Greeks and Us: Essays in Honor of Arthur W.H. Adkins, p48.
Williams wants to translate the Greek's tragic consciousness of necessity into something recognizable for us. He wants to remind us that the "possibility of flourishing exists only alongside the reality of tragedy and the risk of failure." (West 131) Real failure, unsoftened. According to Williams, what he calls “stark fiction” is better suited to highlighting this because “its style and structure…are typically directed in a concentrated way to displaying the operations of chance and necessity.” ("The Women of Trachis" 50)

All of which is to say that while Wood's claim about the novel and its ability to provide "empirical insight" into softened forms of tragedy is not wrong, it misses some important pieces of why Williams was focusing on Greek tragedy.

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