LectureHop: Literary Critic James Wood

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Bwog contributor Anna Kellner sends this dispatch from Thursday night’s Creative Writing Lecture Series talk, delivered by James Wood. (No, not that one, this one.

Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Harold Bloom.

A Creative Writing MFA student opened the talk, titled “Creating Fictional Character: Presences and Absences,” by rightfully exulting James Wood’s place in this pantheon of literary critics. 

“Although Wood doesn’t believe in a traditional God,” he earnestly stated, “he turns authors into gods, and books their worlds.”

Although hyperbole often plagues introductions to lectures (particularly those delivered by eager MFA students), James Wood has earned such praise.  The professor of the “practice of literary criticism” at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the author of three books of criticism and one work of fiction — including the celebrated How Fiction Works — Wood is a literary God whose words inspire writers the world over.  As he spoke on the fine craft of creating character, Wood took a moderate position that celebrated the approaches of writers as diverse as Henry James and Virginia Woolf.

In the battle over character formation, Wood introduced two camps: the superrealists, led by critics like Harold Bloom and authors like Leo Tolstoy who aim to form fully “round,” realistic characters, and the antirealists, inspired by critics like William Gass and authors like Thomas Pynchon who self-reflexively acknowledge the “flatness” underlying the very characters they parade across the page.  Wood revealed both group’s limits, arguing that both strategies have a place in crafting a literary reality as diverse as our actual one.  “There is no such thing as an anti novelistic character, just different types of people,” he said.

Despite his scholarly pedigree, Wood took a remarkably simple approach to the craft of conceivable characters.  Rather than aligning himself with polarized camps, Wood believes that literature reveals what is ultimately “indescribable” in life. “It’s not roundness or flatness that matters, but subtlety,” Wood explained.  Such subtlety thrives in both the detailed descriptions of Charles Dickens that “vibrate” on the page and the lengthy, idiomatic narratives of James Joyce.

Even as he spoke to a group of MFA students writing down his every word, Wood ended his lecture on a similarly universal note.  He expanded his discussion of character to that of all individuals; “Is there a way in which we’re all fictional characters, parented by life and authored by ourselves?” he asked. 

Both flat and round, archetypal and self-reflexive, all listeners could appreciate such a reasonable conclusion.

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  1. fan  

    lovely article, Anna.

  2. 2 fans  

    Agreed - I wish I'd gone
    This was a really well handled article

  3. so stupid  

    you make big posts like this about events after they've happened. there is no reason for you not to make an entire post for the event before.

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