Sunday, March 16, 2008

Festival questions

Whose judgements are more trustworthy when it comes to books? Do amateur bloggers online do a better job than established literary critics in the press?
These are two questions to be addressed at the Oxford Literary Festival on 31st March by a panel of two book bloggers and two academics. Questions worthy of discussion of course, if only to define some of those terms. However, it looks to me criticism itself, rather its location, is the concealed issue. In responding to James Wood's new book How Fiction Works, one panellist has already expressed discontent with the established approach:
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.
It's a question unlikely to trouble many "book lovers" but, if there are critics willing to address it, right now there's only one medium offering space to do so.


  1. I'm actually more interested in how fiction works than in why it's written. We write because of an innate need to create, to externalize share valuable experiences with communicate, understood by others...Orwell answered the question in an essay with four points 1) Sheer ego, 2) Aesthetic enthusiasm 3) Historical record truth. 4) Political purpose.

    Question answered.

    What intrigues about how fiction works is that so long as methods and forms of writing evolve new answers will have to be formulated.

  2. Anonymous9:35 am

    Nigel, the question that I posed (with reference to Wood's "How Fiction Works") -- why fiction is -- which Steve picked up on here (thanks for the link Steve) is not some dull question about why it is written. Clearly, that question would have been posed as "why fiction is written"!? My question was simpler, but more profound.

    I was pondering a deeper existential question. That is why I went out of my way to say that what Wood does he does well enough. But what he does seems to me philosophically to be entirely uninteresting.

  3. Not having read Wood's book, but it seems a little like art in the form of materialism: "A machine works by doing this, this, this and this. And you end up with This."
    "You can do a good painting by accurately drawing that which you wish to draw, and then colouring it in with skill." Wonderful.
    "You can create realistic characters, have things happen, and people saying things."

    The Orwellian response seems a a rather life by numbers sense of things. The question is indeed answered, but the mere existence of an answer doesn't mean it satisfies the question. We create because we need to create, and we form aesthetic creations because of aesthetic enthusiasm? Both little more than tautological nonsense, surely.
    Sheer ego is even more useless and nebulous as a satisfactory intellectual answer for artistic form. And historic and political impulse little more than an explanation for news reporting.

    Perhaps a truer response as to why we create art is the urge towards unity, where the elements of existence find some cohesive form via the crucible of the artist. Chaos is abhorrent to the self, life seeks form, and the like. The greatest art does greatest justice to life, though one quickly becomes banal...
    Other related philosophical questions to which maybe Mark is alluding like: Why do we get artistic forms of pure Euclidean clarity in classicism, eg Ingres, and then an almost utterly antithetical sense of desired form such as in Ingres' contemporary Turner's greatest works? Why does one form satisfy a certain personality type, or cultural type, etc...

  4. Mark,

    My apologies. I noticed after writing this that your question was of a more philosophical bent.

    Still, a bit cryptic if you fail to elucidate. Why Fiction Is? It 'is' because it has been written. 2) Or perhaps the answer lies in that which differentiates the real from the imagined. How our mind perceives the two. How memory works. All guess work at this point Mark.

  5. Anonymous9:26 am

    I'd be interested to read Mark or anyone else explain the difference between the questions "Why is fiction written?" and "Why does fiction exist?". Blanchot-style poetry is sometimes useful when talking about literature, but I can't help thinking that the object of Mark's interest ('why fiction is') is just a play on word order that doesn't point at anything higher.

  6. Perhaps less cryptic if one follows the general drift of blog posts here and at Mark's... the question of "why" with respect to fiction, for me anyway, is in some respects wrapped up in the how, that is in the how one writes (not "how it works", which is a different thing altogether, it seems to me). Let's say I want to write. Why fiction? I have a story to tell? Why? What is my justification? Is there any? Some, possibly most, would aver that no justification is needed. We have the right to do what we want. Which is technically, legally true, sure. But if the question bugs me, and yet I've decided to do so anyway, what then? How do I proceed? How do I justify that?

  7. Anonymous4:09 pm

    I do intend to elucidate my question (why fiction is) in further posts over on ReadySteadyBook, but as Richard says it is, in its way, simply the guiding question behind much of what is adumbrated on the RSB blog (and, more admirably, discussed here at This Space).

    I let the question hang at the end of my original blog post because I think the question resounds and a one word answer isn't what is due here. And I asked the question because the question is fascinating to me -- and I don't have (nor do I believe there is) a neat answer to it. (Oliver P is right, of course, that "why fiction is" plays with Wood's title: the starker "why fiction" wouldn't have been quite as felicitous, but that is what I'm asking.)

    The "ontological status", then, of fiction is what I'm thinking about here. Blanchot and Heidegger guide the thinking. For sure, my question touches on the personal reasons as to why a writer might choose fiction to express themselves, but I wanted to draw attention to fiction's own being, to its own ground, to our assumptions about it before we approach or write or read it. These assumptions are rarely aired, but a strain of writing from Sterne through to Robbe-Grillet has attempted to grapple with them in their own fiction. Why these writers seem to be saying I am writing this writing? How does this writing write me? Why is writing, and writing this way, the way I write? These questions needs attending to.

    To recast Richard, we tell ourselves lies to find certain truths. Why? What is the justification for that? Is there any? How do I proceed? How do I proceed knowing this? How do I articulate my knowledge of this as I write? How does the fact of fiction affect fiction? How do I justify fiction? What is its self-justification?

  8. Though, Richard, I don't think the natural artist is too concerned with having to justify the urge to create to himself. The why he creates can of course be fruitful ground for analysis, but such self-laceration would, I imagine, end with nothing but creative paralysis.

    From the view of the artist, and this might be where Nigel is coming from, such questioning is as useful as justifying to oneself the need to take a walk. That very spirit is inimical to the desired action. This doesn't mean the artist finds what he considers to be the form true to himself by a simple process of creating- & voila, there it is. But if he does have to labour towards his true form, it is achieved through the artistic work, not through a kind of prior reasoning. You proceed by writing, and if you are to find the desired form, it is through writing that one will find it.

    Not being flippant, but some physical exercise is a lot more condusive to the creation of art than an internal monologue attempting to decide whether one can justify such a desire.

  9. Though as to why particularly fiction, I think it should be self-evident to the creator that there is much more truth or potential resonance within the artistic form than through simply ordinary prose.

    From a Paris Review interview with Aldous Huxley he says:
    "It's awfully easy to write abstractly, without atqching much meaning to the big words. But he moment you have to express ideas in the light of a particular context, in a particualr set of circumstances, although it's a limitation in some ways, it's also an invitation to go much further and deeper...Dostoevsky is six times as profound as Kierkegaard, because he's writing 'fiction'. In Kierkegaard, you have this abstract man going on and on- it's nothing compared to the really profound fictional Man, who has always to keep these tremendous ideas 'alive' in a concrete form. In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, the expression of the general in the particular. And this it seems to me is the exciting thing in life and art."

  10. Anonymous7:23 pm

    The indomitable Andrew K. seems correct in this discussion, which I would amplify by saying that the category "fiction" is usually made after the fact, retroactive. One does not set out to do it, or indeed one is paralyzed. But fiction is mostly the result, when language is the medium.

    Mark's original distinction was made in the context of contrasting types of literary criticism, I thought. And it was an excellent distinction, pointing to the prevalence in some critics of trying to understand why and how writers operate--which he brands as less interesting tnan the more radical philosophical inquiry, of "why fiction is". But again, it seems to me Andrew K. prevails with the truth that "fiction" is, in every instance, a qualifier. A negative and a sign of mystery. As in Writing Degree Zero.

  11. I like what the new blog "No Answers" says in response to this thread. The post ends:

    "Note that I don't mean by this that fiction is somehow inherently ambiguous, or contradictory, or disingenuous: fiction is simply this -- that which continues to escape."

    Why write?

  12. Which brings us back to Wood who concludes How Fiction Works with this:

    " The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional."

    Mark's question has brought up thoughts of Northrop Frye and myth, and man's innate tendency toward storytelling as a method of determining meaning.

  13. Anonymous8:43 pm

    Sorry to be late to the party, but allow me to throw my twopence into this worthy discussion.

    First, I would say that two of my previous posts took shots at this issue, quoting Stevens and Williams (Poetry Break: Ding-an-Sich) on the one hand and Wm. Gass (Credo) on the other. Pay especial attention to the latter.

    The answer to the 'why' of fiction must be multiform. Stories about exploits in hunting, adventuring, exploring, and war grew up with the language. Tales were told. Lessons were learned. They not only informed, but entertained. These traditions are as alive today as ever—and we're still fighting about how much truth counts in non-fiction and fiction. But this merely speaks to the demand-side of the equation (something I've blogged about with respect to the current spat over memoir—see my posts "Cheap Thrills" and "Confess!" at (Autobiography).

    Yes, there is a market—a demand—for stories. But there is also a supply-side argument. Persons with the gifts of imagination and gab seek to use those tools to "grasp the world". And, through fictional forms, to perfect that vision.

    Fiction lets us stray from the pedestrian and the mundane. It allows us to create and potentially resolve problems and conflicts that we believe "might" arise: pose hypotheticals, if you will. Sure, it's an institutionalized form of lying and its purposes and aims can be small and mean or grand, but fiction is an art form and, as such, its "why" is the same as any other art form's—merely its means are different and, some would argue, more exact and exacting.

    Why is there art, you ask. You might as well ask why we lie, why we dream, why we aspire, why we connive, why we cheat, why we plan. The answers may be as many as there are writers—or even more (since there are more stories than writers). Or the answer could be as simple as it's simply what we, as languaged beings, do with our minds.

    Best all,
    Jim H.

    Wisdom of the West

  14. It's my precognitive sense (larf) that Wood, in years to come, will cringe about this youthfully asseverative title he cooked up... *How Fiction Works* ... during this era so absolutely rotten with sham certainties. Which will, in fact, be his only saving grace: that *everybody* was doing it.

    Otherwise: please. How patently absurd. How *whose* fiction works, for whom, *when*?

    "Harry slid backwards down the splintery bannister in his flimsy shortpants, despite mother's warning, screaming by the time he reached bottom."

    How does that sentence work? Depends on whether you've ever had a wooden splinter pierce a testicle (sensual empathy), or if you've never heard of "splinters" (and don't get it) or if you're slightly cruel by nature (rendering it funny) or are kind (in which case it's sad) or have a hyperactive toddler at home (you see the scene quite vividly and sympathize and enter the scene imaginatively, thinking of tweezers) or are a rather judgmental sort with no children, an immaculate house and a splinter-free bannister (in which case the boy was asking for it and the narrative has a satisfyingly moral outcome, though it doesn't particularly move you).

    A work of fiction (as product) doesn't even *exist* until it enters a mind beyond that of the author's: unless every human mind is stocked with identical experiences, and wired for identical reactions, and every word and sentence is magically weighted to be equally evocative to every sensibility, Wood's book is stylish nonsense.

    Which, I fully admit, is better than *un-stylish* nonsense, any old day. But only slightly.

    The mere fact that James Wood is *the* critic who comes up, again and again, in these discussions, indicates the faddishness of the phenomenon; we're not arguing literature, we're arguing The Beatles and The Stones. Without any Stones.

    So Wood is a rock star. Cool. But I'm too confident in my own ability to *read* to be unduly impressed.



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