How Fiction Works, by James Wood
From the beginning of my first year in college through about three or four years out of seminary, I didn’t read any novels. I went through a lot of other stuff—philosophy, history, and especially theology—but I considered my hours too precious to waste on fiction. After all, I reasoned, fiction is fake, but those other disciplines seek what is real. Shouldn’t Christians concern themselves with reality?
I don’t have many regrets about my life, but my years lost to enjoying fiction is one of the major ones. My soul was smaller then, and reading has grown it.
Like millions of others, I owe my transformation all to Oprah. When Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections appeared a while back, I was tickled that the author a) ridiculed the selection of his book as an Oprah book o’ the month (club motto: “I feel like she’s reading just to me”), and b) the press picked it up as a major news item. If Franzen was willing to question and even disparage the radiance of the “O” sticker on his new book, then that seemed like a book worth looking into.
So I read The Corrections, and the book was both real and recognizably human, which fairly shocked me.
This isn’t to say that The Corrections is entirely realistic. In one scene, early middle aged Chip, desperate to throw a good party but short on cash, pilfers a salmon steak from a grocery store, slips it into his pants, and tries to make his getaway. The only problem is that Chip, almost out of the market, is flagged down by an annoying acquaintance and is forced to have a conversation—as the fish slithers down his trunks and salmon juice trickles down the inside of his leg.
I’ve done a lot of things that make me blush in retrospect, but I can say with a clear conscience that my pants have always been, and will be, a seafood-free zone. Still, Chip’s gaucherie highlights something essential about the comedy and tragedy of life. Know thyself: I’d never (knock on wood) pull Chip’s stunt, but who doesn’t nurse his or her own inner Chip? It’s reality.
Literary critic James Wood’s How Fiction Works stakes a similar claim. This is an odd volume, an extended, nonfiction essay about fiction, but the book both confirmed to me my unexpressed convictions concerning the importance of literature and also gave me tools to better appreciate what I read. Wood argues that fiction chronicles what is true:
We are likely to think of the desire to be truthful about life—the desire to produce art that accurately sees ‘the way things are’—as a universal literary motive and project, the broad central language of the novel and drama: what James in What Maisie Knew calls “the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth”. . . And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations.
To have the foundations of my “habit’s house” shaken startles me, causes me better to perceive the strange mixture of the luminous and the turgid that surrounds me each day. Fiction frees me to appreciate life more fully and lament it more completely.
Novels are held in suspicion by many Christians, but I think that this impulse is fundamentally misguided and perhaps even ruinous. No good work of fiction, whether premodern, classic, or postmodern can truly be against life. (Yes, I do nevertheless recognize that there are many bad books.) The late David Foster Wallace, for example, was the poster child for postmodern fiction, and his works were (admittedly) pretty weird. Still, for all of his characters’ hip rants and wild digressions, Foster once said that he only ever wrote about what it is to be human. How Fiction Works affirms the irresistible impulse to life and to the real that draws me to good writing, including fiction that is “unrealistic”. Wood writes,
Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-sameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. . . For realism of this kind—lifeness—is the origin.
In the years I spent away from novels, I look back and sense that my life was lacking in lifeness.
Between all of the different counseling and pastoral situations I encounter, people’s problems tend to conform to certain tropes—marriage problems, depression, sickness, money, and so on. Sometimes I struggle to remain vulnerable and exposed to the particular textures of specific sufferings and as a result callous myself to the pathos. Reading novels reminds me of the particular wonder inherent in the universality and individuality of human experience. Every affliction is notable and noble, as long as we’re brave enough to consider it an affliction. I wouldn’t say that fiction helps me to provide “answers” to these problems—that’s what the gospel’s for, after all—but it aids me immeasurably in diagnosing and appreciating people that I’m called to love and serve. I think that Wood would agree: “Of course, the novel does not provide philosophical [or, I’d add, theological] answers. Instead, it does what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do—it gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric.” I believe that much good Christian advice can sound bad because it is delivered without an apprehension of “the complexity of our moral fabric.” This is why pastors must read fiction. Wood remarks in How Fiction Works, “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.” I want to be a reader of life.