James Woods’ review of Thomas Wolfe’s latest novel Back to Blood is a fairly comprehensive dismantling, taking on everything from the way Wolfe overcooks every sentiment until they blend together in a grey mush to some of the creepy racial attitudes in Wolfe’s depictions of the overmuscled physiques of his characters of color. But beyond the novel itself, Woods makes an argument about how research can serve fiction, or undermine it:
Over the years, Tom Wolfe has campaigned strenuously on behalf of the journalistic role in fiction. In “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” and elsewhere, he has argued that American fiction since the nineteen-sixties has fallen into sterility and irrelevance, because American novelists aren’t looking at the world. According to him, they’ve retreated from the traditional calling of writers like Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis, because they’ve exchanged the labor of reporting for easy fictional games (postmodern self-referentiality) or for a few dull inches of ivory (minimalism, dirty realism). The American novel will be reborn, Wolfe claims, when the novelist gets out onto the street and starts copying. Not only will such reporting produce the little details, “the petits faits vrais that create verisimilitude”; it is essential for literature’s greatest effects. American fiction, grounded in “a highly detailed realism,” will properly emulate the Zola who went down into the mines in Anzin, in 1884, to do research. While underground, Wolfe says, Zola discovered that the pit horses lived and died in situ; when he transfers this found detail to the pages of his novel “Germinal,” the reader is moved and aghast….
Very occasionally in this novel, Wolfe gives evidence that he knows the difference between those French prunes and “Hotchkiss, Yale . . . six-three.” At one point, Nestor, fleeing the opprobrium of his community, ends up at a favorite Cuban bakery, where he enjoys “a whiff of Ricky’s pastelitos, ‘little pies’ of filo dough wrapped around ground beef, spiced ham, guava, or you name it. . . . He had loved pastelitos since he was a little boy.” It’s a rare passage without exclamation marks, and superficially it resembles Ivan and the prunes. But the detail about the pastelitos has the whiff not of pastry but of research. Like everything else in this book, it is imparted information, and is thus the expected detail, the properly stamped sociological receipt. Ivan’s French prunes come out of nowhere, and surprise us with their singular surplus: Why prunes? Why French prunes?
This is something I consider a great deal, and I tend to think that research should serve three main purposes in fiction, whether it’s fiction that means to comment on the real world, or to dream beyond it, both equally valid aims:
1. It should identify conditions and conflicts that provide rich drama: So much of what’s important about research, whether it comes through formal reporting or new life experiences, is identifying new stories and conflicts in the first place. David Simon’s reporting is the reason he could identify bureaucratic tensions and criminal rivalries that would be the basis for The Wire. Thomas Mann might not have seized on sanatoriums as a subject, one of the examples Woods offers up, had his wife not ended up in one. Whether you think they should have happened at all, t’ll be interesting to see how Kathryn Bigelow’s conversations with the Obama administration end up affecting Zero Dark Thirty.
2. It can be a source of unexpected details that make characters more fully-rounded people: Woods’ complaint about Wolfe’s use of pastelitos is not that the description of them isn’t accurate, but that it’s unsurprising. Knowing that a Cuban character enjoys traditional Cuban food doesn’t necessarily add much to our sense of that character as a distinct person. But learning, as was the case with the opening of this season of Mad Men, that Madison Avenue advertising executives were stupid enough to throw water balloons at Civil Rights protestors, both creates a powerful little anecdote and exposes the gap between the sophisticated facade of self-appointed masters of the universe and the reality of their behavior.
3. It should avoid errors that take knowledgable viewers out of the story: It may be a little thing to complain about, but one of the most irritating things that television, in particular, does, is name a location where something is happening in the name of credibility, and then show a place that is patently not that location. Homeland committed a particularly egregious violation of this sort last season when it said an attack was going to take place in Farragut Square in Washington, DC, and then used a location that had precisely nothing in common with the block-sized park. Slips like that may not matter for the majority of viewers of any given cultural artifact. But it’s silly to gesture at realistic detail and immediately undermine the attempt. I’m not saying that everything in fiction has to function exactly the way it does in the real world—fact-checking is an awfully boring way to watch television. But if you’re commenting on the world as it is, or putting characters in a familiar world, considering whether the choices you’re making and the details you’re including pull consumers out of the universe you’ve created or create internal contradictions will serve you as well as them.