Monday, January 26, 2009

Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth

Or, How James Wood Can Get His Mojo Back
I think we can now call it: 2008 was the year the James Wood Bubble burst. How Fiction Works has largely been considered a massive overreach, and its claims have been roundly pilloried. His move to The New Yorker in late 2007 generated ill will among other critics and a lot of bloggers throughout 2008, and now everyone besides Mark Sarvas (who will likely follow Wood until Doomsday) seems to want to take at least a token whack at Wood even if, like me, they ultimately defend him as being (still) in some ways valuable.

I am perhaps over-apt to use the Obama ascension as a filter to view other cultural events, but I think there may be something in saying that Wood was a critic very well-suited to the Bush years. His emphases—the beauty of words well placed, keen attention to detail, a resistance to discontinuity, and an eagerness to unload the baggage of the 60s/70s/80s (in his case, that meant metafiction and hysterical realism)—these were powerful countering ideals to the deficiencies of the Bush administration and the Bush years. I am not sure we will be as receptive to Wood's ideals now that those deficiencies have been removed.

This is not to say, of course, that Wood's preëminence has evaporated, or that he will likely be usurped any time soon. He still has enormous power in determining the topics and basic positions of many literary discussions. The difference is, perhaps, that he no longer has much power in determining how people discuss him.

Edmond Caldwell's Contra James Wood blog has been prominent in essaying to uproot Wood root and branch; others simply want to demote him to a "book reviewer," stripping him of his title as a "literary critic." I don't know what the latter course of action would solve, and I'm not sure how a deforestation of Wood might really alter the critical landscape for the better. It seems at this point that Adam Kirsch is the designated crown prince, and I, for one, think that Wood is a much better option. Caldwell seems to believe that Wood's a neoconservative (correct me if I'm wrong, Edmond), but I don't think that's quite accurate. Kirsch, on the other hand...

The occasion for this post is supposed to be Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth. It's in the public domain, and is quite short and very fun, so reading it on the interwebs is quite easy and I suggest you do it.

Published in 1800, Castle Rackrent is an enormously crucial book in the history of the novel. If it didn't outright introduce the unreliable narrator to British/Irish fiction (as some claim), it certainly made that narrative technique sharper and more obviously a viable option for storytelling. It is also credited with being the first "regional" novel in English, as well as the first family chronicle. It also deals explicitly with a critical point in British-Irish relations: the Act of Union, which "united" Great Britain and Ireland, was passed the year Rackrent was published, and the book positioned itself (comically) as "tales of other times," now told "to those totally unacquainted with Ireland," being "for the information of the ignorant English reader." This is a set-up ripe for an ambitious post-colonial reading, but I'd like to focus on the narratological issues for now.

I'm going to look really stupid if I'm wrong, but I don't believe this novel has ever appeared in any of Wood's accounts of the development of narration, accounts which are often crucial to his reviews and certainly which are integral to his larger critical systemology, not to mention his taste. I don't know why he has neglected this (awfully good) novel. I don't think it's because he hasn't been able to justify a reference to it—he throws in basically any references he wants, reaching past the first rank of familiar authors basically at will. I think its absence is notable, and would considerably alter the narrative he's built. The fact that Edgeworth's novel precedes both Austen's novels (which Wood uses as the anchor for his history of free indirect discourse) and Büchner's Lenz (which he has taken to using lately as the anchor of his history of unreliable narration) suggests that the way we think of these narrative styles developing needs to be rethought.

However, I'm under no illusions that James Wood's going to read this post and slap his forehead and start revising How Fiction Works, or even that he'll ever see it. Bear with me, though, in pretending that he—or his editors—might.

I've already made my attempt to justify Wood's continued presence in our literary lives: I think he provides an extremely valuable middle term between academic criticism and simple book-chat. I think this is only valuable to some people—not to everyone—but his ability to "short-circuit" literary history in compelling ways is very useful to anyone who's trying to assemble a general map of literature's thru-ways and landmarks. Wood's short-circuits give the novice littérateur a lot of bang for her buck.

Of course, as we see with Castle Rackrent, Wood's condensing form of erudition leaves out some important material, even some that's not excessively obscure. It's not that I'm shocked to find a chink in Wood's reading or his recall of the novels he's read. Being faced with one, however, led me to think more generally about his limitations. I want to stay away from his ideological limitations (because I doubt they're likely to change) and just consider a simpler frustration.

Repetition. We've heard enough about Austen, Bellow, Svevo, Chekhov, and Flaubert. We've gotten the idea of free indirect discourse and unreliably unreliable narrators. We've probably even had enough of the essay form. (How Fiction Works was really just a series of essays interrupting or overlapping one another.)

Here's a few ideas for corrective courses, occasioned more or less by Castle Rackrent:
  • Write short columns or even blog posts at regular intervals about short books. People can follow along, perhaps, with each new book under consideration and interact with Wood. Wood has commented on blogs before (like Dan Green's), so he's likely amenable to the format. And the break from the full essay form would likely enliven Wood's writing. The beauty of blogging is you don't have to have an essay-length idea to say something worthwhile.
  • Wood's note that begins How Fiction Works—"I have used only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study—to produce this little volume"—is its own recommendation. New books! Restock the shelves!
  • A new theme, but one that, like his "history" of narrative consciousness, uses some academic props. I have three suggestions, all based on what I find to be Wood's best work, especially of late.
  • My first suggested theme is a history of the family chronicle. Some of Wood's best essays concern this kind of book, and the issue of familial ties is clearly (as one can see in his novel, The Book Against God) an acute interest of his.
  • The second would be biographies. I think he reviews biographies more consistently than he reviews novels, and with less bluster about "lifeness." I think he's also clearer when reviewing biographies—as I said in that earlier post on him, he tends to use his metaphors competitively—setting them against one another but more often against the writer under review. Biographers tend to write flatter prose, and I think Wood indulges his competitive side less when examining them.
  • The third suggested theme is post-colonialism. I doubt my understanding of this phenomenon (or set of phenomena) lines up very extensively with Wood's, but I find his treatment of post-colonial novels (or novels to which he ascribes post-coloniality) to be more engaging and more thought-provoking than his reviews of American or British novelists. I also feel he could be quite useful in this vein—he could introduce a number of Commonwealth writers who haven't gotten as much attention in America. I would frankly be much more interested in hearing what he'd say about Aravind Adiga than I would be in hearing what he'd say about The Widows of Eastwick.
Whether he liked it or not, Wood made a name for himself taking on the literary lions. I think I remember reading when he moved to the New Yorker that he said he was glad to leave behind the New Republic's infamous controversy-factory, and that he was looking forward to being able to direct his talents toward promoting lesser-known authors. He's certainly done a good job making two new literary stars—Joseph O'Neill and Aleksandar Hemon—but I think he needs to do more than just look out for fresh talent. I'm not sure he will shake things up more than that this year, but I certainly hope he'll try.


Atticus said...

Great Blog. Very interesting

Greetings from Spain

Edmond Caldwell said...

Nope, I don't think James Wood is a neoconservative. As I wrote in an early Contra James Wood post, I think he's the ultimate Blairite critic, and I still think that's about right:

Anonymous said...

Franco Moretti talks about Castle Rackrent as a precursor to Scott and the modern historical novel. His essay, "Serious Century" (from the giant "Novel" anthology), concerns itself, coincidentally, with tracing the history of free-indirect discourse, which in his view pretends toward an objectivity that actually more skillfully manipulates readers than Rackrent-style subjectivity. So he argues implicitly that Rackrent got left behind by the novel's evolution. At any rate, since you've mentioned Moretti elsewhere, you might enjoy the essay.


Andrew Seal said...

Edmond, thank you for the correction. I should have checked your blog before I posted that.

LML, thank you very much for the tip. I have The Novel behemoth, so I'll get right to reading that!

Amateur Reader said...

Walter Scott talked about "Castle Rackrent" as a precursor to Scott! I assume that's what Moretti actually says, too.

Anonymous said...

Maria Edgeworth's father was considered a strong editor of Maria's work. While the family links back to educational masters, Maria developed her own style of portraying the times in her literary work.

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