Books about how to read fiction are a thriving business. This summer also brings us Thomas C. Foster on How to Read Novels Like a Professor (Harper; 304 pages) and John Mullan on How Novels Work (Oxford; 346 pages), though Wood, as a book critic for the New Yorker, is the heavyweight of the field. These books fall into the curious netherworld of extra-academic literary theory. They are the last, depleted descendants of what used to be called aesthetics, the branch of philosophy that theorized the human response to works of art. For most intents and purposes, aesthetics collapsed in 1970 under the weight of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. What’s left is books like How Fiction Works–which is, oddly, a delight, but not for the reason it’s supposed to be.
The pleasure of the book lies in watching Wood read. For Wood, the history of the novel is itself like a novel, in which genius-heroes perform astounding feats of literary innovation. Proust finds a new way to render character in Swann’s Way (“Progress!” Wood shouts); Flaubert (“the bearish Norman, wrapped in his dressing gown”) writes prose with a precision that until then had been reserved for poetry, and in the process inadvertently invents realism as we know it; Tolstoy narrates the fading consciousness inside a freshly severed head. Wood’s enthusiasm is glorious. Reading alongside him is like going birding with somebody who has better binoculars than yours and is willing to share.
He then argues that theory, as it pertains to the novel, is a hopeless cause:
The point of How Fiction Works is supposed to be Wood’s theory of the novel. And yes, we dutifully make the rounds of narration, dialogue and so on, topics that inspire in even the most passionate reader a special, pure kind of boredom. But as Wood himself observes, “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.” The novel is corrosive to systematic thought–whatever is good about it is precisely that increment that resists theorization. The great pleasure of Wood’s book lies in the examples, not the points they prove, and the lessons lie in watching him read, not think. The novel exists only in practice, not in theory, in the moment when the brain hits the page–the moment when a dying servant’s bare heels meet beneath the sheets on his deathbed.
Read the whole, rather short, review and tell me what you think. Do we need to know how fiction works? Is theory ultimately of no use because fiction/novel “is corrosive to systematic thought”? Or is Grossman missing something?