I don’t have a lot to say in response to Matt Zeitlin’s post on fiction and James Woods’ disdain for the “hysterical realism” of Rushdie, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, et al. I read more poetry than I do fiction, so I’d gladly defer to the opinions of people who have read many of these authors and more fiction criticism.
It seems that Woods (at least from his White Teeth review) is making two interrconnected arguments: 1) an argument about the formal comparative advantage of literature and 2) a larger moral argument about what these formal choices say about the world.
The first argument is concerned, put crudely, with the idea of the novel as a formal machine, and that literature does the best job of investigating (and representing, and interrogating, etc.) the interiors of human experinece. In poetry, we often talk about poetry as if we were creating little verse machines (though they need not be in verse or follow “traditional form”) and how those formal choices support or detract from what the poem is trying to do or what we’d like it to do. This is analogous to Woods’ discussion of the “architecture” of Zadie Smith’s novel; for Woods, the novel’s architecture doesn’t hold up:
The passage might stand, microcosmically, for the novel’s larger dilemma of storytelling: on its own, almost any of these details (except perhaps the detail about passing the shit and piss through the cat-flap) might be persuasive. Together, they vandalize each other: the Presbyterian dypsomaniacs and the Mormon aunt make impossible the reality of the fanatical Muslim. As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.
But we might ask ourselves why the formal elements should support the sort of novel Woods finds sucessful? First we have to ask ourselves what we consider sucesses to be. Let’s assume that we take Smith’s novel on its own terms and that we hold nothing against “hysterical realism”; what does a sucessful novel in this style look like? An unsucessful one?
It quickly becomes clear that we have to resort to some kind of standard or categories outside the novel, even if that it standard is simply the reader. What would an ideal reader of “hysterical realism” be interested in and why would a work like White Teeth or Gravity’s Rainbow resonate with them? I agree with Zeitlin here and think the answer doesn’t really have a foundational element; there is no core artistic concept or Platonic ideal that we have recourse to (as Ned notes). But that doesn’t mean Woods thinks there is only one formal structure that leads to sucessful novels, or to making the sort of statements he’d like fiction to make:
The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness.
And now we come to the core question of values and Woods’ second argument. Whether Smith (and by implication, Wolfe, Pynchon, DFW, and others) lacks moral seriousness is a question that can be answered. Just not by me (I haven’t read their work nor do I want to wade any further into this lit crit morass I’ve dreged up for myself).
If we, like Zeitlin and Woods, see certain techniques as larger statements about a work or the world around us, then we can take these statements and evaluate them against some exisiting conception of the world and the sort of moral commitments you think are important. Woods wants a literture that connects with the sublime and what is most deeply human about us. That’s something I want too, though I’m not sure I can tell you why you should be prefer this (even assuming that literature does this better than any other medium, why should you want this in the first place). In the end, I think you have to make reference to a lot of held assumptions and values that lie outside of fiction qua fiction.