Further to my post earlier this week about James Wood, the ABC’s Book Show ran this interview with him this morning. In it Wood talks about How Fiction Works (often sticking pretty closely to the text of the book itself) but that’s not so much a problem as a reason for listening, since in so doing he offers a reminder of exactly the breadth and attentiveness that so distinguish his writing.
Anyone after more information about Wood could do worse than checking out the links on his Wikipedia page.
There’s no question that, for good or ill, James Wood has reigned supreme amongst literary critics for more than a decade. At least in part this state of affairs is a reflection of Wood’s missionary fervour, his sense that literature – and the novel in particular – must fill the gap left by the death of religion. But it is also testament to the thrilling force and acuity of his writing. Certainly I remember the excitement of encountering his first book, The Broken Estate, and the chastening realization that the person speaking with such eloquence and ferocity was only a year or so older than myself.
Yet for all his brilliance Wood is an oddly blinkered reader (and to some extent, writer). This is especially apparent in his recent How Fiction Works, a Ruskinesque disquisition on the rights and wrongs of fiction, which manages, by virtue of its narrowness of focus and its curious lack of interest in examining its own intellectual underpinnings, to lay bare something unsettlingly reactionary at the heart of Wood’s thinking.
It’s difficult not to contrast its fusty fury with the increasingly expansive and nuanced work of one of Wood’s first scalps, Zadie Smith, whose White Teeth Wood famously dismissed as “hysterical realism”. In a series of essays in The New York Review of Books (in particular, her review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, ‘Two paths for the novel?’) Smith has sought to tease out both the crisis afflicting the novel and – whether successfully or not – to make sense of what a new mode of fiction might look like.
I’m not the only one made increasingly uncomfortable by Wood’s certitudes. John Banville wrote a typically slippery but sceptical review of How Fiction Works in The New York Review of Books (sadly not online) and here in Australia both Delia Falconer and James Ley articulated similar reservations in a pair of stringently argued reviews (Delia’s is especially worth reading).
There’s also Edmond Caldwell’s Contra James Wood, a gloriously obsessive but brilliant blog devoted to picking Wood and his pronouncements apart (although like any such endeavour, Caldwell’s relentless shadowing of his quarry is itself a sort of tribute) and now Daniel Miller has published an excellent piece in Prospect attempting to draw together the various strands of the growing resistance to Wood’s reign.
Miller’s piece is well worth a read, as is Contra James Wood, but it’s difficult not to wonder whether the pre-eminence of Wood isn’t itself a symptom of precisely the exhaustion of the novel, and in particular the realist novel Zadie Smith explores in her piece for The New York Review of Books. I wouldn’t for a moment want to diminish Wood’s very real achievements as a critic, or the capacity of the force of his conviction about literature’s necessity to remind us why novels matter, but the ease with which it is possible to caricature him as a glittering ultra deploying his rhetoric to rally the forces of the past against the inexorable logic of the future should give us pause, if nothing else. And, as Miller points out, in many ways Wood’s thundering only underlines how isolated he has become, and how much more attuned to our cultural moment critics (and indeed novelists) such as Smith, Benjamin Kunkel and others like them are.
For anyone who’s interested, William Gibson has started posting excerpts from his new novel on his blog at www.williamgibsonbooks.com. The first was posted on New Year’s Day, and there have been several more substantial pieces over the past couple of weeks.
Gibson experimented with the same practice during the writing of Spook Country, and though a lot of his fans were excited by it, I felt it was better to stay away and wait for the real thing. Perhaps I’m just too busy, perhaps it’s a more deepseated, novelist’s prejudice against the idea of wiki-ing a book (though I’d be interested to know how many of the responses the excerpts receive Gibson will take on board).
For those wanting more Gibson paraphernalia, here is the very stylish video Gibson’s publishers released to coincide with the publication of Spook Country in 2007.
And here is a short review of Pattern Recognition I wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald in 2003. It’s still available online, but for some reason the quotes in the version on the SMH website have dropped out, rather changing the sense of the piece. That being the case I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing my original review below with the missing quotes reinstated (I hope the SMH won’t mind).
Somewhere in the middle of Pattern Recognition, William Gibson’s seventh novel, the central character, Cayce Pollard, describes her memories of that day in New York, of the impact of the second plane. The experience, related in a fragmented, dream-like language, seems to collapse time, collapse meaning. It is “like watching one of her own dreams on television. Some vast and deeply personal insult to any ordinary notion of interiority. An experience outside of culture.”
What Gibson’s language strains to reveal in that event, or more properly, in our experience of it, is the sense of vertigo it induced, of the collapsing of boundaries: political, geographical, personal, ethical, its singularity lying not in its death toll, or in its nature but in our experience of it, the way it unmade the certainties that not just our present but our future were grounded in.
Whether it was begun before or after September 11, this sense of our experience of reality exceeding itself is wound deeply into Pattern Recognition. Not only is it the first of Gibson’s novels to take place in the immediate present, it also seems to represent the closure of some kind of circle in his writing, not least in the allusive play between the names of its protagonist, Cayce and the anti-hero of his groundbreaking first novel, Neuromancer, Case.
Of course to call Gibson a writer of science fiction has always been to misunderstand him. Gibson’s antecedents lie more in Burroughs and Pynchon than Arthur C. Clarke, their strange, essentially poetic assemblages of image and echo designed to explore the inner textures of a culture which exists increasingly outside of time and space. The effect is probably nearest to that of an intellectually rigorous brand of video-art: suggestive, unsettling, and unresolved, its meanings arising out of the interplay between the elements rather than residing within them.
And so, despite its contemporary setting Pattern Recognition is classic Gibson. Moving between London, Tokyo and Moscow, it turns upon a series of film fragments which have been appearing anonymously upon the internet. These fragments, in an echo of the Joseph Cornell-like assemblages of Count Zero’s artificial intelligence, are possessed of a mute, almost inexplicable power, a power attested to by the global underground following they have attracted. Carefully denuded of any identifiable signs of context or origin, the fragments may or may not be part of some larger work, yet regardless their power stems from their sense of compression, the way they seem to signify the possibility of a meaning which they simultaneously deny.
Cayce, a follower of the footage herself, is commissioned by her sometime boss, the wonderfully-named Belgian market-guru, Hubertus Bigend (who “seems to have no sense at all that his name might be ridiculous to anyone, ever”) to establish the identity of the footage’s creator. Bigend’s motives for doing so are ambiguous to say the least, but Cayce accepts nonetheless, a decision which drops her deep into a world of obsessed footage-heads, industrial espionage, Russian mafia and cryptography, only to fetch up, finally, in the painful truth of the footage’s origins.
Woven through this are a collection of images which play off each other with ever-increasing subtlety and power. The pictures of the missing pinned to windows and walls and doors in New York. An amateur archaeological dig near Stalingrad, where guns and badges, uniforms and eventually an entire Stuka, its pilot still in its cockpit are being drawn from the suffocating, erasing mud by Russian skinheads. Diagrams of the arming mechanism of antiquated American explosives are uncovered coded deep inside the footage. Mechanical calculators designed in Buchenwald are traded to collectors from car boots, resembling nothing so much as grenades. And everywhere, out of the fragments of the past, the present and the future, meaning suggests itself, elusive, partial yet possessed of a strange and ultimately deeply moving poetry.
Like Gibson’s futuristic novels, which refract the present hauntingly through the lens of their possible futures, there is something at once utterly immediate and strangely timeless about Pattern Recognition. It captures the fluidity of meaning and the sense of shifting certainties which infect our historical moment, strung between the unrecoverable past and the nascent future. ‘“The future is there . . . looking back at us,” as Cayce herself says. “Trying to make sense of the fiction we have become. And from where they are, the past behind us will look nothing at all like the past we imagine behind us now.”
There’s a fascinating conversation going on over at Matilda about the ethics of reviewing, and in particular the question of whether accepting free books from publishers compromises bloggers. My feeling is that the latter question is a bit of a furphy, since reviewers for the mainstream press accept free books all the time, and it doesn’t compromise our integrity (or what we laughingly call our integrity). But I also think the discussion at Matilda is circling around another larger and more interesting question about the future of the book review itself.
The book review, in its current incarnation, is largely a creature of the print media, and in particular the newspaper. But over recent years the commitment of newspapers to their book review sections has been wavering. In his excellent Overlandlecture Malcolm Knox disputes the economics of this failing commitment, but whether it’s sound business thinking or not, the review sections of newspapers are in trouble. In recent weeks The Washington Post has folded its august Book World section back into the main paper (although it will continue to live on, ghost-like, online) and it seems likely other papers around the world will follow suit in the next few years. Given the convulsions (death throes?) afflicting the print media more generally as the GFC collides with their already shaky business models it might be interesting to see whether newspapers themselves outlive their book review sections, but whatever happens it looks less and less likely the traditional mainstream media print review will be around in anything other than a niche capacity ten years from now.
That of course raises the question of what happens then. Assuming there will continue to be interest in books (and while I think interest in books will continue to contract I’m confident both that there will continue to be a community of readers eager to discuss and debate books, and that the net will drive deeper and broader collaborations between such individuals) there will continue to be a demand for reviews of new publications, and I think we can safely assume the publishing business (whatever it looks like in a decade’s time) will continue to seek out forums prepared to give space to its product.
But what will those forums, and those reviews look like? The book review as it is traditionally understood is an awkward beast in cyberspace. The very qualities that give it shape in the print media – its authoritative air, the craft involved in shaping a piece to fit the space allotted, its ongoing process of attempting to balance the subjective response of the reviewer with a more objective view make it seem overly formal and hopelessly enclosed in the more collaborative environment of the blogosphere. Blogposts, and blogging, as they have evolved to date, are a much more personal, subjective form of writing, and offer quite different pleasures to the traditional review.
Yet the traditional review looks the way it does for a reason. Unlike bloggers, reviewers operate within a complex web of competing responsibilities to author, reader, book and editor (Kerryn Goldsworthy has written about this elsewhere but I can’t find the link, dammit) as well as restrictions relating to length and similar questions.
So will the end of the print media’s commitment to book reviewing mean the end of book reviewing, or at least of book reviews as we know them? Or will the ways bloggers write about books begin to become more formalized and codified as they become more enmeshed in the cycle of book promotion and discussion? Something of this sort is already happening with Amazon’s system of ranking for its reviewers, which despite being driven from the bottom-up, still push the reader reviews towards the more formal and balanced mode expected in the print media. Will new forums spring up to replace the broadsheet review sections, either aggregating reviews on blogs or actually commissioning them? And if it’s the latter how will it work economically? And perhaps most importantly, how will the blogging community, which has traditionally been opposed to absorption into the corporate machine, handle the process of being professionalized by inevitably closer relations with publishers and publicists? What will it mean for their independence and freedom of expression?
I don’t pretend I know the answers to these questions, but they’re real, and I suspect they’re dilemmas the blogging community is going to have to face up to, possibly sooner rather than later.
I’m working my way through the immense, amazing and completely exhilarating 2666 (more on that later) at the moment, but it seems Bolano might have been doing a little self-mythologizing of his own . . .