I have read Wood denounced for providing too prescriptive a lesson in fiction in How Fiction Works. I’ve read on blogs and in reviews that what he says about the elements of fiction will too narrowly confine the novel — that his aim for well-crafted metaphor, deeply mined (resource-full) characters, and an appropriate point of view to highlight the high quality noticings of, for example, Saul Bellow’s “first-class noticers” will limit the vitality of a novel. Or, maybe, the potential for it to make abstract sculptures out of things we know as life. I suppose some would argue that he is making an argument for realism, but I didn’t get that. I got that he would prefer that writing is carefully performed to suggest the real; not that life must be imitated absolutely but only with priority over objects that merely suggest it.
I love this bit from section 45:
Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which, in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.
Whether or not a critic would prefer that Wood acknowledge the greater expansiveness of fiction — new structures for story! disambiguated paragraphs! upside-down words! — it doesn’t seem like this grand observation can be (or should be) rejected.
Whether a novel overwrites its characters and their shenanigans in the hysterically real language of today’s media (er, very self-consciously, Super Sad True Love Story, maybe? Or, say it with me, Franzen), or spends page after page presenting and rejecting the establishment of personality traits (thinking, fondly, of Middlemarch), a reader who takes the time to parse through the details provided is going to be reminded of the world beyond her curtained window. Somehow. There will be something familiar. And this is fiction’s import, I think. Ideally, the reminder is subtle, maybe even touchless. The reader may not realise how deeply impacted she is until she sees the life of the novel in the life on her street. But often, the reminder may come about from the writer’s — not even the character’s — vulnerabilities. Oh yeah, a reader might think, I’ve described the same thing that way before. It’s cliché, but it’s recognizable. It’s universal. Didn’t Eco say something about hundreds of clichés moving us? I’m not sure it was him.
If the writer is skillful, then how much better the task of seeing life on the page and knowing it more intimately when it stumbles into the street. Wood says we navigate stories ‘via the stars of detail’. It’s no different as we wander the footpath. Our minds hold onto something that sets our course or teaches us to find another. How much the better when the stars of detail leave an imprint that makes us second-guess the perfection of the stars we see at night.
I suppose I fall into the camp that whether I write a single paragraph about a character’s downward spiral that endures over 170 pages or whether I write a plot-based love story in a clean 55,000 words — and the gun goes off at the right point in the arc and a little bit of sex gets readers twisting their fingers — I want my readers to become acquainted with my people, to see details that are familiar even if extraordinarily, read oddly, described. I want them to identify and inspect that bit of consciousness that drives the characters forward and makes them act. And then, here’s hoping, I’d like them to know the self a little better by comparison and escape the self a little more. Or, if it makes them feel better, they can just make a cup of tea and sit comfortably. Their choice, but I’m still gonna pretend like something else happened to them.
I think that literature is life, whether it pretends until it’s real or pretends to be real until it’s awkward. Life does that too. Like when I don’t know where to sit, or look or what to say. But still I pretend like I’m okay.
I don’t agree that literature can’t wrangle life from the view outside the window, that it can’t present all the subtle nuances — the many shades of ocean beneath white caps, or the whistling of wind through power lines — to a greater effect and recognition than a million eyes seeing the same thing daily. I also believe that these little intricacies can be harvested in containers that look a lot like plain old baskets or in vessels you aren’t even sure you should touch. Sure, there’s an immediate downside/risk to weird foreign objects, strange structures, slippery frames but hard-fought puzzles offer killer rewards. The view out the window never looked so… different. So I say yay, explore some of the deeper, (subconscious?), deconstructed forms that also gather up life’s littlest niceties even if they seem a little more removed from the inspiration. A little more dangerously woven. It might be the only way to get free of the recursive cycle of meme-talk. Just don’t be surprised, I guess, if people prefer to consume kittens, pap and easy erotica. (Ew, kitten.) (Ew, pap.)
In Mexico, I abseiled into an underground sinkhole and swam through the dark into an illuminated limestone nave. I wouldn’t have known that place could be real — and its lazy, echoing drip drops reforming the earth — if I’d stayed on the cliff. And this, I think, is what fiction should do. It works both when it responds to life as we know it and when it anticipates it.