Saturday, June 3, 2017

James Wood on Flaubert

Having been both impressed and disappointed by James Wood's How Fiction Works--impressed by his lucid exposition of some literary fundamentals, disappointed by his uncritical acceptance of them--it was a pleasant surprise to encounter his article in The New Republic, "How Flaubert Changed Literature Forever," from the opening line forward. In his 2008 book he begins his discussion of Flaubert's establishment of "modern realist narration" with the following sentence:
Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him.
In his more recent article, however, he begins thusly:
It is hard not to resent Flaubert for making fictional prose stylish--for making style a problem for the first time in fiction.
From there he goes on to a lengthy consideration of how much of a cage that style of narration is, with its stress on the concrete, visual detail, and how in the resultant "obsession with the way of seeing," the "flattering of the seen over the unseen, the external over the interior," all of "the important things disappear," and those who abided by the rule ran the risk of very elegantly telling a story about--nothing at all.

Of course, much of this has been observed before--some of it by Flaubert himself (who did, at times, step out of the cage Wood describes so well). Virtually all of it was said by H.G. Wells when he thought about the problems posed by the kind of style discussed here in his "Digression on Novels." It might be added, too, that Wood's conclusion is rather less radical than Wells'. Where Wells ultimately chose the important things over the obsession with the way of seeing, chose to try and convey what went on in people's heads over the flattering of exterior detail, Wood closes by reiterating his admiration of the "mysterious" way in which Flaubert ultimately managed to transcend the limits of his technique to tell Bovary's story. Still, Wood's discussion of the matter is a worthy consideration of a problem far too often slighted in our age of television shows about nothing, movies about nothing and, yes, books about nothing.

Tell, Don't Show--Again
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
Why We Describe Less
On the First Person Point of View
Review: How Fiction Works, by James Wood
H.G. Wells' "Digression on Novels"
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
Reading Literary Classics, Again
My Posts on Literature
Tell, Don't Show

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