Friday, January 15, 2010

James Wood, John Gardner and the Moral Center of Fiction

The 1970’s debate between John Gardner and William Gass over the creative process and the nature of character in fiction is the same one that rages today between critic James Wood and writers like Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, the late David Foster Wallace and even Gass himself. Until the ascendancy of Wood in the past decade there was no voice with Gardner’s authority seemingly capable of championing fiction as an authentic extension of human experience, what Wood calls ‘lifeness’ and of recognizing an intense and free creative process as the source of fictions moral center—its ability to honestly probe human nature and emotion through imagined, fully realized fictional scenes. That Gardner is seldom mentioned in the current fray is particularly surprising given the striking parallels in Wood and Gardner’s views on fiction.

A recent exception to this is Nick Ripatrazone’s 2008 essay in The Quarterly Conversation, “Let Me Make a Snowman: John Gardner, William Gass, and The Pedersen Kid”, in which Ripatrazone discusses, among other things, the differences between Gardner and Gass. It’s useful in stating Gass’s case that you could easily interchange both Wood and Gardner’s views on fiction as a direct refutation of it:

"In the…essay, 'Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,' Gass posits that 'creative thought and creative imagination are not so much stirred on by truth in any synthetic sense as by sublimity—a vision of absolute organization.' Rather than insisting on moral affirmations, writers should embrace the ability of language to create signs and images. For Gass, 'fiction held no moral lessons, no relevancy outside itself.'

Gass also revises the traditional view of character:

Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. . . . the language of the novel will eddy about a certain incident or name. . . . In a perfectly organized novel, every word would ultimately qualify one thing, like the God of the metaphysician, at once the subject and the body of the whole.
Gass’s definition of character has two implications: it is not the primary function of a novelist to create dramatized, lifelike characters, and the perfect novel would contain one character engaging in a pure internal discourse. Characters, for Gass, are not mimetic, because the language of the novel stymies any pure communication between a novelist’s conception of a character and the reader’s perception of that character. Character is still important to Gass because 'anything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point . . . functions as a character.' Character must always exist, Gass would argue, because the absence of character is a character itself."

As Gardner did then, so Wood does now take issue with this trend in fiction to diminish the importance of character, or, in Gass’s extreme view and post-modern practice, to see character as no more than a verbal construct or a vessel for thematic leitmotifs in an absolutely organized whole.

Here is Ripatrazone on Gardner’s view:

"Gardner criticizes the fiction of Jerzy Kosinski, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, and Joyce Carol Oates, along with Gass, claiming that his contemporaries value style and 'dazzling technical performances' over character development and the 'novelistic form.'"


"He attacks Gass’s theories of the conceptual nature of words, and claims that despite Gass’s consideration of characters as 'verbal structures,' Gass’s own early fiction contains 'magnificently vivid characters and scenes.'"

Compare this from Nigel Beale’s review of Wood’s How Fiction Works:

"For example, Wood rejects critic William Gass’s contention that character is just an assemblage of words, the novel a mere ‘codex of bound pages.’ Gass’s words, he says, pose as skepticism but in fact simply represent a 'dandyish flippancy', a refusal to be taught by literature about other people. To my mind, to deny character with such extremity is essentially to deny the novel.”

Here is Gardner warning young novelists of the pitfalls of the age in On Becoming a Novelist:

"…other schools maintaining, with much talk of Heidegger, that nothing a writer writes means anything, the very existence of his page is an amusing accident, all the words are a lunatic blithering (for all the writer’s care), since language is by nature false and misleading, best read from the bottom of the page to the top."

One of Gardner’s chief complaints, echoed above in Wood’s rejection of Gass’s idea of fiction, is that this skepticism about lifelike character’s and fiction as a representation of life is one they don’t actually believe in. It is no more than a ‘pose’ that masks a disdain for literature as something that teaches us about human nature.

Though Wood and Gardner may use different words, or frame their ideas in different ways, there are several major common threads in their critiques that place them together in direct opposition with the overwhelming trends in serious fiction.

First is the primacy of lifelike characters in fiction arrived at through a free creative process. Through the act of imagining fictional scenes, the writer achieves a broad sympathy by which the people in his novel’s are granted a kind of independence. She listens for their distinct voices, thinks what words they would actually speak and how they would act, instead of speaking over her characters in the author’s own idiosyncratic, stylized voice. This has a moral dimension because it is a sign of the novel's concern for real human beings and emotions, and the surrendering of control to fictional characters in the creative process is an affirmation of human autonomy and openness. To treat characters as mere pawns, mouthpieces for the author's pet theories, or cartoon figures to be yanked about in a convoluted carnival of plot, shows a lack of concern.

Second, this imagining involves dramatization, through a highly developed craft, a way of seeing that achieves some form of verisimilitude, which connects the reader directly into the world of the characters, what Gardner calls “the continuous dream of fiction”. The writer avoids anything that disrupts this dream, especially that which draws specific attention to the writer and away from the drama of the characters.

Both Gardner and Wood are sharply critical of theoretical fiction that circles around and around itself in self-consciousness with its ironic distance and “smart-mouth satire” (Gardner’s words). It is either completely preoccupied with language itself (Gass)—which is only a kind of game, and can’t be trusted to communicate any values or ideas—-or the conventions of narrative, which involves a deep mistrust of storytelling itself, and, especially, of the idea that we can and should feel anxiety and emotion for, let alone believe in, fictional ‘characters’.

In reading both Wood and Gardner it is fascinating to see the facets that each reveals in turning over the same problem. In this rather lengthy quote from a discussion between Wood and Richard Lamb on Nabokov in Slate Magazine, we see Wood speak about the difference between the creative process in Nabokov as compared with Chekhov:

"...consequently, the Nabokovian idea of cherished detail and stuffed perfection is too artistic an idea for a form that must surrender itself to the freedom of its characters. For characters are generally not artistic at all, are they? In this respect, novels are not like poems, and it is wrongheaded to try to turn them into poems. We do not read novels to feel the constant artistic control of the author, but to share in the wayward, inartistic freedom of created human beings. (That such humans are set free by that same artistic control is, of course, merely a trivial paradox, and not a hindering one.) Thus, the problem with Nabokov's beautiful details, his 'making strange,' is that they are the kind of details that only Nabokov could notice and write up so perfectly. Very few of us will come to see an oil slick as 'asphalt's parakeet.' As a result, Nabokov is forced either to speak over his characters, or to make them into artists of one kind or another.

Nabokov was dismissive of Chekhov's 'prosaicisms,' but the wonder of Chekhov's similes and metaphors is that they are not, in this sense, 'artistic' at all, but are the kinds of connections that ordinary people--i.e. Chekhov's characters--might make. For instance, when one man in Chekhov hears the lonely cry of a bittern, 'which sounded exactly as if a cow had been locked up and left in a shed all night.' Or when a peasant hears 'an expensive-sounding' accordion. This seems to me a much purer idea of 'making strange' than Nabokov's more obvious, 'artistic' one. And Nabokov's version is easier too, in the end, than Chekhov's. Chekhov's involves the surrendering of the 'artistic' while, of course, retaining final artistic control; Nabokov's involves the mere assertion of artistic control. After several hours of effort we might well come up with, in our study, 'asphalt's parakeet.' But you have to know a community to let a character hear 'an expensive-sounding accordion.' That takes a lifetime."

Notice this passage of Gardner’s from On Becoming a Novelist:

"For some novelists…the main accuracy required by their art has to do with self-understanding. Novelists of this kind—Beckett, Proust, many writers who favor first-person narration—specialize in private vision. What they need to see clearly and document well is their own feelings, experience, prejudice. Such a novelist may hate nearly all of humanity, as Celine does, or large groups of people, as does Nabokov. What counts in this case is not that we believe the private vision to be right but that we are so convinced by and interested in the person who does the seeing that we are willing to follow him around…For another kind of novelist the accuracy required is, I think, of a higher order, infinitely more difficult to achieve. This is the novelist who moves like a daemon from one body—one character—to another. Rather than master the tics and oddities of his own being and learn how to present them in an appealing way—and rather than capture other people in the manner of a cunning epigrammist or malicious gossip—he must learn to step outside himself, see and feel things from every human—and inhuman—point of view…He must learn, by staring intently into the dream he dreams over his typewriter, to distinguish the subtlest differences between the speech and feeling of his various characters, himself as impartial and detached as God, giving all human beings their due and acknowledging their frailties."

On the endings of novels and what makes for good ones these couple of snippets are food for thought. This again from Ripatrazone’s piece:

"Gardner’s aesthetic hinges on several salient points, less critical than craft-oriented. Profluence, or forward progression of plot, is connected to causality, the expectation that succeeding events are born from narrative precedents…This 'built-in need to return and repeat' is as endemic to fiction as the vivid and continuous dream. Gardner is concerned with the emotion and symbolism of a plot accumulating toward a resonant conclusion. As we near the 'inevitable and surprising' resolution of a successful work, 'unexpected connections [will] begin to surface; hidden causes become plain; life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized.'”

And from Wood’s 2005 essay “The Last Word”:

"Of course, the basic conundrum that attends any organic process is that in one's beginning is one's ending: the entire length of a novel or symphony can be said to be a kind of drawn-out ending...

It is one of those endings that reformulates everything that has gone before, giving it a final power it had not possessed before its ending.

One of the most beautiful last lines must occur in To the Lighthouse: 'Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.' For that is what we want to be able to say at the close of every novel. Lily has finished her painting; and Woolf has now finished her open and fluid novel, which we, as readers, have helped to 'paint'. In this case, we have all indeed had our vision."

The striking ideas shared by Wood and Gardner in these quotes are that of profluence—a causal relationship between what has come before and the ending—and the related idea of reformulation (Gardner calls it the ‘need to return and repeat’) which then leads to “unexpected connections” surfacing, and a “final power it had not possessed before its ending”. The effect is that “life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized." Is this not the same sense of having had our vision that Wood is talking about? Surely, it is.


  1. Thank you very much for reading and commenting. I hope you drop in again and read some of the other pieces here when you have time.

  2. Thank you for bringing all of these sources together! I've been a fan of Gardner and Woolf for some time, but I'd never heard of James Wood before. It's so encouraging to hear about a modern critic fighting the good fight. Keep it up!