Wooden Disposition

jameswood2It is difficult to respond to James Wood’s remarkable misreading of Richard Powers’s Generosity without giving away the ending. As someone who respects a reader’s sense of discovery and who therefore stays mum on “spoilers” — a term that I suspect Wood is unfamiliar with — I would not dare give up the ghost. Needless to say, as I anticipated, Wood has again demonstrated his predictably vanilla failings with idea-driven novels. He is once again hysterical, starving and naked in a sad but interesting way, about a novel that is not always intended to be explicitly realist. Wood is certainly a fine literary critic and a giddy finger drummer. He’s been leveled with many needless generalizations about his aesthetic tastes and sensibilities, including Colson Whitehead’s puerile parody. But this latest New Yorker essay simply does not reflect his apparent good faith efforts to adjust his own opinions and prejudices.

To wit: Surely the many fades closing Generosity should have offered Wood a clue as to what was going on. Here is a novel that not only depicts why we are drawn to fiction, but why we are seduced by information. If Wood hasn’t been trawling along the edges of social networks in the past few years, then he’s missed out on some of the more pointed potshots on online authority. If only Wood had familiarized himself with Technorati’s definition, he might have understood some of the metrics at work here. (And indeed, Generosity‘s greatest flaw is that it may not date very well.) Surely the clear pisstake of Oprah Winfrey, with the novel’s stand-in given “the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language” should have registered in Wood’s brain as goofy, but nevertheless true hyperbole. Surely the extended sequence when the power shuts off in Chicago, written in a sincere and melodramatic tone, should have clued Wood in that here was a novel in which narrative dichotomies were intended to fuse. Wood has read this book so without care that he makes no reference to the “author” who frequently jumps into this book to announce his presence. “Forgive one more massive jump cut,” this mysterious narrator says early on, revealing what happens to Tonia Schiff. “I have her flip up her window slide and look out the plastic portal,” concludes the passage. And we wonder whether the creative nonfiction here is written by Thassa or by the “author” of the book. If this is all about boxes within boxes, has Powers authored another author? Or is this him? Who’s being generous here? Certainly not Wood.

richardpowersThis life of the mind is fun stuff, as Powers has suggested to us throughout his work. But Wood is simply too married to the idea of characters as distinct individuals to smile. From How Fiction Works: “Even the characters we think of as ‘solidly realized’ in the conventional realist sense are less solid the longer we look at them.” The problem here is that Wood has failed to look long enough to see what Powers is up to. As Edmond Caldwell suggested some months back, Wood’s narrow definition of “negative capability” means that we are never permitted to forget that the terms themselves are limited.

While Wood is certainly qualified to write about realist and modernist books, he cannot have the orderlies loosen the straps long enough to understand that Generosity is, like all novels, a fictive construct. In his review, he shows his contempt for books outside his natural affinity by misconstruing “enhancement” for “entertainment.” And Wood’s failure to comprehend that Generosity is a postmodernist con about our present information age’s indignities and expectations — a con that is somehow fair and respectful to the reader, but a con nonetheless — says much about his critical and perceptive limitations in this piece.

Among Wood’s complaints: In one passage, “Thomas Kurton is sketched journalistically, as David Brooks might glance at him in an Op-Ed column.” But how we know Kurton through the written word — in this case, through a laundry list of biographical details — isn’t necessarily how we’d know him in person. And since Generosity constantly reminds us of the novel’s form, the journalistic sketch is part of the point. How can the written word convey all the complexities of life? And why are we constantly demanding more of it? After all, one can say something sincerely, but it may read as hokey when written down.

Wood falls into the trap of generalizing about Powers’s work. All of Powers novels, Wood writes, are double plotted, with the secondary plot “almost always boy-meets-girl, in which protagonists connected to the first plot meet and fall in love or lust.” Would that include Gain‘s secondary plot of a woman suffering from ovarian cancer? As Tom Bissell has noted, Plowing the Dark is more concerned with the inverse relationship between shifting ambition and young love. That hardly fulfills the “boy-meets-girl” proviso. Wood makes no mention of The Time of Our Singing in his essay, and the love contained within is hardly generic. Has Wood even read it?

Wood also points to Powers’s ambition for clarity, and he is right on this point. But he cannot seem to understand that those who inhabit the grand realm of ideas, whether Powers the author or his often brainy characters, are also contending with raw emotions. The day-to-day shit that is subconsciously tied to an active mind. Archimedes’s principle — or, rather, the principle behind the principle — means living a life to come up with an earth-shattering idea. In Archimedes’s case, it was discovering buoyancy while resting in the bathtub. And so it is with Powers’s fiction. This dichotomy is only difficult for the reader if he is morose enough to believe that the quotidian is low voltage. The scientists in Powers’s books talk like scientists because they are presented with the danger of a life with nothing but ideas and vocation. Thus, it is close third person description that reveals the sympathies behind Dr. Stuart Ressler’s nascent problems in finding that fused point, with Gerald Weber experiencing similar dissonance. He kisses his wife while studying the brain. Of course, he’s going to look for generic reference points. But will the reader find the unity before Weber does? The commonplace stuff of life also includes lines like “I’m not yelling” in Gain. Wood’s failure to understand these connective points suggest a critic who is afraid to be taken out of his comfort zone, a man who, despite his mostly dignified engagement, is too suffocated by the realist straps in his straitjacket.

UPDATE: James Wood responds:

Thank you for that sensible response to my review of Richard Powers’s new novel. It is absolutely not true that I am hostile to ideas in fiction — but if you think the “ideas” in his latest novel are worth much, then we do indeed have a real disagreement.

Of course I noticed all the metafictionality buzzing around the novel — Powers fairly hits us over the head with it. I’d have to be moronic to miss it. But it is very hard to read, let along forgive, a novel that has lines like: “Thassa is twenty-three years old, give or take an era,” or talks about the “travelogue aromas” of her Moroccan cooking. Every page has hideous sentences. Your position amounts to forgiving this kind of atrocious writing on the basis that Powers decided to write the entire novel self-consciously, as if with the pen of a very bad writer who is not himself. I guess it’s possible, and that thought did indeed cross my mind as I read the book. But it would be a pretty stupid thing to do, no? And then one goes back and looks at the much less metafictional earlier work, and finds equally atrocious writing (”mocha locks of hair,” and so on). Perhaps they are all written by alter egos of Richard Powers, programmed by him to write badly?

I think Powers is very brilliant, and very talented, in a way. It is hard not to admire the intellectual intensity of “The Gold Bug Variations.” But despite how daring he is with ideas, he is very conservative about the self, in fact (unlike Michel Houellebecq, say). And, technically speaking — I mean, as a writer of narrative — he is like Dreiser attached to the mind of Pynchon. It makes for curiously hobbled texts. And Dreiser, despite being a terrible prose stylist, has real power, which Powers has only intermittently.


  1. Ed,

    As a long time reader, I must say you are a, on the whole, perspicacious reader of most fiction. But, as a fiction writer, and having read multiple RP novels (Prisoner’s Dilemma, Plowing the Dark, The Echo Maker), I have to say that RP does have a tin ear for dialogue and a sort of unbelieveable tendency to create flat and uninteresting characters. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t imbue them with amazing facts or put them into tough, morally chewy situations. I feel the problem with RP is not that his novels are idea-based, but that the ideas are so far-reaching and more developed than the characters who are supposed to carry these ideas through the narrative. As a reconciliation, if one wanted to grant RP a compliment, I’d have to say that not many novelists are able to weave together such disparate plot strands like he does, to the point that they are absolutely unrelatable until the final page.

  2. Of course, it could be (and has been) argued that complaining of a “tin ear for dialogue” and of “flat” characters again asks Powers to play by rules he’s not terribly interested in. These complaints insist, as Wood does, that Character must be the prime mover for all fiction. The case is rarely made as to why this should be.
    (That said, I would counter-argue that Powers himself, at least in this most recent books before this one–which I haven’t read–does appear to want to have it both ways.)

  3. How does one write an entire critical essay on the works of Richard Powers and fail to use the word “imagination” even once?

  4. I couldn’t disagree more, Ed. I thought that Wood’s review was, if anything, looser and less “wooden” than his reputation typically allows. (He also happens to share my opinion of “Generosity,” though that’s neither here nor there.) In addition to his customary close-reading, I enjoyed his comparisons of Powers to both Musil and “101 Dalmations,” as well as the “bullshit detector” line. Not exactly gloves-off, but not at all prim and ivory-tower, either.

    But some of your attacks are unwarranted. You accuse Wood of expecting too much “traditional” character building of idea-obsessed Powers, but I think this is how Powers would prefer to be read. Under the science and essayistic portions of his novels, his characters and human plots are still drawn rather conservatively. I think Wood is correct when he accuses Powers of middlebrow-dom; the meta, authorial interjections throughout, which Wood indeed should have at least mentioned, are among the blandest use of that trope I’ve ever read. Why should he get a free pass just for his thematic reach when he so obviously wants to engage us emotionally in his character-based sections?

  5. I agree with John. RP puts forth–or seems to put forth–a desire to connect the reader with the characters. If his true motive is to “not play by the rules” of realist fiction and instead play with intricate imaginative plots, then, in my eyes, he fails. If his work shows more endurance and spunk and creativity with the big picture, then why not simply write creative and experimental science articles? Why try to half-ass it with these duct-taped constructions? Wood’s examples of “Lifetime” writing was the exact sort of problem I have with RP. I sometimes wonder where the editor was in the midst of that first reading of the manuscript…Speaking of, does anyone happen to know who edits Powers?

  6. Although Powers has been published by FSG for over a decade (GALATEA 2.2 was the first book they brought out) he’s had several editors. John Glusman worked with him for a while; THE ECHO MAKER was edited by Eric Chinski. Curiously, GENEROSITY’s editor was Frances Coady, the publisher of the paperback imprint Picador who also edits a select number of authors (Paul Auster & Siri Hustvedt the most notable) for Henry Holt.

  7. As someone who has come back to Powers again and again for the promise of his ideas, but, with the exception of the wonderful Galatea 2.2, has always been a little disappointed, I found Wood’s piece smart and refreshing. I don’t think that Powers’s formal self-consciousness can excuse his tin ear, especially when it’s consistent outside of the frame of this one story. And he’s right to make much of the familiar math of Powers’s setups–one reason I put aside Generosity halfway through was that the premise felt so worn (although that means I didn’t make it to the Oprah section).

    Wood certainly has blind spots (I expect he’d not have much good to say about the new Lethem, which I liked a lot), but his “realist” ideal is a lot more flexible than he’s usually given credit for. The best parts of How Fiction Works, I thought, were when he was showing how the best “realist” fiction is intensely self-reflexive and self-aware.

  8. Nigel: I know you’re often a fan of hobgoblins and I’ve done my best to steer you clear, but Wood has a more capacious mind than is reflected in this piece. Hence, this response, reflecting disappointment after Wood’s pledge to conquer his own innate prejudices.

    John: Are you absolutely certain that’s the way Powers would wish his fiction to be read? (And does any author abdicate his rights when a book goes out? That’s one of the larger points of Generosity.) But it’s been there all along. From a 1988 Powers interview:

    My idea is that successful writing advances as its own, complex, living hierarchy, one that mirrors the kind of complex hierarchy that we living beings are. We exist at the cellular level or even the nucleic or chemical level, at the level of organs and systems, at the level of the complete organism, and at the social level. All of these different levels have their analogies in a good story, levels from diction on up to meaning, and in a good story, all these levels advance simultaneously, in concert. We may not even be aware of these phenomena as we read, but in great fiction, all the parts and subassemblies of creation are integral and mutually supporting.

    So reading Powers exclusively for character and story, as Wood has clearly done here, and not seeking out this “complex, living hierarchy” is more than just a misread. It reflects a decidedly limited definition of how fiction might work (assuming that you make the mistake of approaching it in a functionalist manner). If your scope of fiction is limited to character and realist/modernist fiction and you profess to fully understand a field outside the yoke, then I’d say the critiques against the reviewer are warranted.

  9. Ed–

    Of course I’m not absolutely certain of how Powers wishes to be read; I can’t read his mind, only his books. And from those books, of which I’ve read 4, I see a writer who very earnestly, often excitingly, attempts to express the relevance of complex scientific concepts to our everyday lives. He frequently does this, I think we can all agree, by concocting interpersonal plots that show “normal” people engaging with scientifically-minded types. And with all due respect to the very thoughtful graf you excerpt from the interview, I don’t always see evidence of his claims on the page. I don’t know what else to say other than his language occasionally bores me, his plot mechanics seem fairly rote, and his dialogue can feel terribly contrived. For all your belief that Powers is somehow doing something thematically or representationally subversive with his language, his books, particularly the new one, never give me that sense.

    I am surprised, however, to see how many people seem to agree with this. I thought Powers was more widely revered coming off “The Echo Maker.”

  10. […] a pretty glove-free and vicious razor-dashing from James Woods in the New Yorker, and, so far, the best refutation I’ve read is at the consistently phenomenal Edward Champion’s Reluctant Habits…which piece, by Champion himself, earns a response […]

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