James Wood and the Realism of “Mind”


For the writer, the emphasis on the inner life of characters is itself an implicitly moral act, a least when the writer is able to fully and successfully exploit the inherent capacity of fiction to reveal the inner life. It is moral because, as Wood says of Jane Austen’s fiction, such an act allows characters and their behavior to be “gradually comprehended and finally forgiven” (“Comedy and the Irresponsible Self”). It is the writer’s success in exploiting this capacity that constitutes the “art” of the work, but the art is in the service of the moral goal. (Perhaps Wood might retort that the two cannot be so easily separated.) For the reader, the novelist’s skill in achieving this sort of compelling psychological realism allows us to inhabit a perspective other than our own, to become aware of “the thoughts of other people.” If Wood doesn’t exactly attribute a didactic moral purpose to fiction, he certainly does suggest throughout his reviews and critical essays, as well as in How Fiction Works, that the moral effects of our encounter with other “minds” are what make fiction valuable to us a form or genre of writing. And if Wood doesn’t much dwell on the “cultural” issues or implications of the fiction he considers, his selection of works or writers to assess and the consistent return to his core concerns related to narrative strategy and the portrayal of character signal a clear desire to “instruct” readers how to read fiction for what it most importantly has to offer.

more from Daniel Green at The Quarterly Conversation here.