Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Books at Hand": James Wood, The "True Scholastic Stink," and the Common Reader

In my post on Zadie Smith's essay on essays and the novel, I complained that Smith confines her analysis of the history and current state of fiction to the titles and authors that come "off the top of her head," even to the extent that this breezy shallowness causes her to ignore the highly relevant arguments from a much more deeply considered essay that she herself had written only one year earlier (one which received a great deal of notice). I speculated that Smith might have been influenced or inspired by James Wood's "A Note on Footnotes and Dates" which prefaces his How Fiction Works, where he says,
As a teenager I was very taken by the rather fancy note to Ford Madox Ford's The English Novel: "This book was written in New York, aboard the S.S. Patria, and in the port and neighbourhood of Marseilles during July and August 1927." I cannot claim any proximate glamour, nor a similar feat of library-less memory, but in the spirit of Ford, I can say that I have used only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study—to produce this little volume.
I read this as a rather absurd brag, a chest-thumping assertion of authority and erudition. Daniel Pritchard pointed out in a comment that another (quite reasonable) way of reading it is to focus not on the author but on the audience—Wood may be not so much making a claim about what he can do as what his intended audience would like, or what they're willing to tolerate. Or, as he says, "Mindful of the common reader, I have tried to reduce what Joyce called the 'true scholastic stink' to bearable levels." (The link is to the page in Portrait where the phrase is used. Stephen and his friends are in fact referring to a more specific form of Aristotelian/Thomistic scholasticism and not to scholarly activity in general, but nevermind.)

So evidently, Wood's disciplined confinement of his texts to those "at hand in my study" is a sort of favor to the common reader, but what kind of favor is it? If this is an attempt to address a preference on the part of the common reader, what preference is being assumed?

One way to read this is  as simply a bit of populist posturing: "I, James Wood, may be pedantic, but I'm not an egghead." Yet tucking footnotes and other more formal scholarly apparatuses away when producing a work aimed at a general audience is a fairly common practice even among eggheads, even to the extent that some (e.g., John Boswell, the Time on the Cross folks) have been sorely taken to task for doing so, as their popularizing comes more to look like trying to bury shoddy scholarship. At any rate, I'm not sure that we can completely chalk up Wood's fear that footnotes and other things might scare the common reader away to an anti-academic populism; the idea that footnotes might derail the common reader is itself too common to be sufficient evidence against Wood.

More particularly, then: perhaps what is being dispensed with in his self-confinement to his "books at hand" is not so much footnotes as it is archival research, stuff that obligates you to walk out of your personal library and to somebody else's (his employer Harvard's, maybe) much bigger library. Now, the attitude that extensive, fastidious, and highly inefficient archival research might annoy or overwhelm the common reader might seem to be a natural extension or corollary of the Fear of Footnotes principle, but I am skeptical. For one thing, two genres which seem to be very popular among common readers—the biography and the historical novel—are not only praised for their depth of research, but an attitude of indifference or aversion to archival work seems almost alien to these genres—one expects that if a writer takes up one of these projects, they are also taking up (gladly, one hopes) the obligation of extensive, fastidious, and highly inefficient research.

Perhaps it is not research itself that Wood is saving the common reader from, but the natural consequence of a lot of boring research: a boring style. He could be saying something like, "I didn't spend all my time in a dusty library, so I can actually talk to you in language you'll understand and enjoy." However, for reasons similar to those I gave to undermine the supposition of some natural antipathy to the inclusion of research, I'm not sure that this connection between dusty libraries and graceless styles is quite so immediately made, as there are ample and popular cases of erudition worn lightly—again, biographies and historical novels, but also technothrillers and hard sci-fi and even, to some lesser extent, spy thrillers are highly visible examples of research being embedded in highly captivating narratives and a variety of styles.

If not scholarly apparatuses or research or dull style that Wood is saving us from, maybe it's simply the books that he has saved himself from: the books he has kept out of his personal library are the books he assumes the common reader also wishes to avoid. But then what books are these? Defined negatively, it is not just (as one might initially assume) aridly theoretical monographs and journals that Wood eschews, but also the vast majority of actual literature: not only does his book leave untouched many major authors, but also most of the secondary (and even some primary) works of the authors he does cover: one might quite reasonably question why As I Lay Dying is the only Faulkner novel he finds useful to his project, or why Mrs. Dalloway is not part of his consideration of Virginia Woolf (or of fiction in general).

I do not mean to imply that Wood's personal library likely does not contain Dalloway or Sound and the Fury; all I mean to imply is what was probably obvious at the outset, that Wood's self-restriction to the "books at hand" is a sort of material synechdoche for "books I think about," which is itself a way of saying "books I think are worth thinking about." In other words, rather than being a proper treatise on the mechanics of fiction, How Fiction Works is written largely for the same reasons an 800-word review is: to share, exercise, develop, and test taste and literary judgment publicly. The book's utility is not so much predicated on what it says about the work of fiction as it is on which fictional works it says anything about at all. The "favor" Wood is doing the common reader is, as we may have suspected, necessarily not a function of research but of taste—informed taste, but not over-informed.

But why is taste so important here? It is important because it sets what look like natural boundaries around what needs to be learned, what needs to be read, what needs to be known. The blather about "true scholastic stink" is, I think, a screen for this fairly utilitarian purpose—it's a backwards way of asserting that there is some finite set of "books at hand" which will make you a sufficiently educated or erudite person, that education is a process with a terminus, and that you can reach it. (Previous versions of this include the Adlerian Great Books program, the St. Johns College curriculum, and the Harvard Classics.) The "common reader" is, for some (though certainly not for all—other people, like Woolf obviously, have other definitions), basically a person who wants to believe that they can reach a point of either completion or satisfaction in their learning about literature. As such, I don't have much use for the concept, but clearly a lot of other people, including James Wood, do.


Jim H. said...

More particularly, Wood's self-limiting claim merely tells us that he's confined himself only to those books he found worthy of acquiring (for future re-reading or reference) or, more importantly, of purchasing (assuming he doesn't retain reader's copies that belonged to his employers).

That, it seems to me, is the only truly rational reading of his claim—one that likewise intrigued me when I first read it. Not that yours or Daniel Pritchard's speculations aren't interesting interpretations.

Jim H.

blog nerd said...

It's funny--I did not take this to be bragging at all. Quite the opposite--I thought it rather humble of him. To confess of writing about his pleasure in fiction by limiting his writing to what he finds pleasurable.

I also don't think the Common Reader--is so typically middlebrow as you would think, nor do I think Wood thinks so. The very format of his book seems to implicate the cognitive pleasure of fiction and reading, and he seeks to augment and abridge that pleasure in sharing it.

The Common Reader doesn't generally meet fiction for any other reason than that they enjoy it. They don't imagine that they are changing the world or dominating the field of all knowledge.

oh, I imagine there are a few stuffed shirts that have a literary bingo card that they rattle through in order to tick off boxes. But that would be a rather dry and pleasure-less experience. And I don't imagine they'd enjoy Wood much either.

The Common Reader--that is to say, the prehaps somewhat scholarly but not academic reader--read about, say, that fate of Anna Karenina and something very simple happens. They are moved by her.

And they'd like to be similarly moved again.

Khademul said...

This piece on Wood seemed to me to be a lot of bark-clawing to get at a little branch. There's no fucking end to cribbing, is there? Wood's book is lit by an unusual intelligence.