A Conversation with James Wood: Part One

One of the finest living literary critics talks about the challenges of fiction.

Tomorrow, Jonathan Cape bring out How Fiction Works, the first full-length book of criticism by James Wood, one of our finest living literary critics. Wood was born in Durham, started at the Guardian, then moved to the New Republic, and is now at the New Yorker. He has already published two collections of essays and one novel, The Book Against God. He spoke to me by telephone from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he teaches at Harvard University.

DD: In the new book you refer to "the essential juvenility of plot". Is this a deliberate bit of flippancy?
[Laughs] Well, yes, it's a deliberate extravagance. As you know, I'm no particular lover of the rollicking picaresque form, whether you find it in Henry Fielding or Thomas Pynchon. And I'm not particularly fond either of the conventional nineteenth-century plotty novel with its serialised cliff-hangers and lost inheritances and dead relatives turning up – it always seems a little bit fake to me.

I like destroying the tyranny of plot. I always ask people who are recommending me a novel to tell me the entire story right out, and I make a point in my reviews of describing the entire book. I don't think I need a plot to sustain my enjoyment. Formally speaking, if you really did believe in plot you'd say, "I can't re-read Anna Karenina because I know what happens." But it's obvious that there are deeper, more sustaining beauties underneath. Or if you go to Lear, you know what's going to happen, but the joy is in seeing new facets. Lear keeps you going throughout a lifetime: when you're a kid it's about your father and when you're a father it's about you.

DD: Surely sometimes you enjoy a good plot twist?
Yes - a genuine surprise that feels unmanipulated in some way and that seems organically to come out of the action of the book is still an extraordinary thing. But my preference is still for fiction in which not a lot happens in an obvious way. Chekhov does tell stories, for instance, but they're in some ways almost deconstructions.

DD: You write often about how American fiction struggles so hard to imitate the empty cacophony of the modern world that it becomes itself a sort of empty cacophony. Is it possible to avoid this trap?
I think it's only avoidable with the containing pressure of language and form and all the other things that I talk about in the book: selection and detail and so on. An interesting thing is that if you look at British fiction, it's been quite a lot about the contemporary world, but it doesn't seem to run into these same difficulties as American fiction. I think it is a peculiarity of the American inheritance that you have to take on the whole of America, you have to become America, and that means the book becomes gargantuan. And I think one explanation for that may be a question of American inheritance, whether it's Whitman going around saying the United States is the greatest poem, or the question of gender, the masculinist side to American fiction that is this Mailer-esque pugilistic structure with American reality. I think British writers don't have any of that – instead there's a great commitment to the syntactical sentence, the closure of form, whether it's Evelyn Waugh or Alan Hollinghurst.

DD: Has writing a novel changed the way you write criticism?
I wouldn't say that the act itself of writing a novel has changed my criticism, but the years spent wanting to write fiction, trying to write it, thinking about it, and reading other writers to see what I could get from them certainly have. There were many years in which I was only writing reviews, but throughout all that time I was a writer in thte shadows. My criticism, in a sense, is nothing more than the notes of someone who has always been trying to look at fiction for practical help. It was useful actually to do the thing and discover that I was good at some things and bad at other things, and I hope to write another novel in which I can do some of those inept things better.

DD: Did you find that the things you were good at were the same things that you tend to praise in other writers?
I'm not sure they were. Having written so much about the importance of implication rather than essayism in fiction, the importance of absorbing and mobilising ideas rather than just giving expression to them, the importance of vivid characterisation… In some ways I was having, as one might expect, the most difficulty with that kind of thing, and I ended up producing quite an essayistic, intellectually top-heavy novel – Chekhov it certainly wasn't. It was a humbling reminder that however much you praise things in books, however much you think you've cracked the shell of them and understood how they're ticking, it's extremely difficult to do it yourself.

For the second part of this interview, click here.