Tag Archives: james wood

December linkdump

  • I finished White Teeth, and enjoyed it a lot, but didn’t think it had the finished snap of On Beauty. Here’s James Wood’s 2001 review of White Teeth, which I would describe as “impressed but not admiring.” This is the review where he coins the term “hysterical realism” — which is a good term, but not one I think is particuarly appropriate to Zadie Smith. He criticizes White Teeth, fairly, as the type of book in which the author’s hand (in the barely concealing glove of coincidence) gathers all the disparate characters together into a big, brassy finale, where the themes of the novel are reprised in grand chorus. But he should have mentioned John Irving, who I think of as the modern not-quite-literary progenitor of this move.
  • Submissions are now open for an academic volume on the Red Sox and Philosophy.
  • I wish Cosma Shalizi blogged more. I also wish he were at Wisconsin instead of Carnegie-Mellon so I could have sat in on his course on data mining; at least the notes are online.
  • This week, Nature runs an interesting commentary: “Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.” I think the questions it asks are hard, and I don’t know what I think the answers are. I do think the state of calm focus in which we do our best mathematics is a physical state; and a pill that could get you to and keep you in that state would be tempting to many of us. On the other hand, I used to find yoga a good way to get my mind in that state, and I don’t do yoga any more. So maybe enhancement isn’t as much of a draw as we think. Also: shouldn’t it be “cognition-enhancing,” not “cognitive-enhancing?” (via MetaFilter)
  • The cover story of the September 6, 1948 issue of Life was “The Good Life in Madison, Wisconsin.” Thanks to Google you can now see all of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photos from that story, as well as the ones that didn’t make the issue. (via Letters from Here.) Where was this photo shot? The shape of the lakeshore looks like the view from Union Terrace, but the Terrace was already covered in flagstone by the 1930s.
  • And finally: my favorite Superman panel ever, and the source of my favorite expression of dismay: whatthsuperman
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How fiction doesn’t work

I was working in Borders the other day and stopped for a minute (ok, twenty minutes) to flip through a copy of James Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works. The book seems friendly and wise, has good taste, and accomplishes the feat of saying things both correct and unfamiliar about novels, as here:

“…language is the ordinary medium of daily communication — unlike music or paint. Our ordinary possessions are being borrowed by even very difficult writers: the millionaires of style — difficult, lavish stylists like Sir Thomas Browne, Melville, Ruskin, Lawrence, James, Woolf — are very prosperous, but they use the same banknotes as everyone else.”

This, though, stopped me:

“We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.”

Followed shortly on by:

There is a way in which even complex prose is quite simple — because of that mathematical finality by which a perfect sentence cannot admit of an infinite number of variations, cannot be extended without aesthetic blight: its perfection is the solution to its own puzzle; it could not be done better.”

This could only have been written by someone who has never experienced mathematical finality! No word, no sentence is ever finished and correct the way a mathematical argument is, once all the gaps are filled and the joints sealed. You spend as long as you desire making the sentence as good as you can, and then you give up, and eventually you start to get used to the sentence in its most recent form, and after a while it seems to you that the sentence could not have been written any other way.

But an honest writer knows it’s not true.

This distinction is perhaps the most powerful reason that writing novels is a dispiriting business, and doing math a fun one.

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