For the past several years I’ve been browsing books about wolves because, well, I’m writing a book entitled A Conspiracy of Wolves. In my research one book kept rising to the top: White Fang by Jack London. For a while I ignored it, was even, I confess, annoyed that it kept showing up, an old book, surely something better had been written about wolves. But at last I decided to read it, see what all the fuss was about. [Yes, I know, most people read this as children, but somehow I missed it despite loving books about the wild.]
Wolf-wise (oh, how I love the implication of that pairing), it’s a delightful book in many ways, though not informative about wolf packs in the wild. His subject is the formative experience of the eponymous canine, a study of nature vs nurture, to an extent.
I began this post several days ago, saying “I don’t like to write about books I’m still reading, but the introduction of a new character, ‘Beauty Smith’, stopped me cold last night. I didn’t want to read further. Now that intrigues me.” I’ve since finished the book, and I can attest to the page-long description of the odious Beauty Smith being the point in the book at which my enthusiasm flagged; it never recovered. What happened? I thought I’d share with you my experience as a writer reading a book but also reading a writer.
Let me first explain London’s point of view in the book. We begin in the head of one of a pair of men being tracked and terrorized by a pack of starving wolves, led by the female wolf who will give birth to White Fang. A few chapters in, the point of view switches to the female, and then, fairly quickly, her pup White Fang, as he discovers the world of the cave in which he’s born, and then ventures forth into the Alaskan wilderness. But London does not limit himself to the close third person; in his own voice he provides background, details of the landscape, and, in a sense, translates for us White Fang’s perceptions. And, increasingly, London adds to this his very human commentary on White Fang’s limitations as a wolf.
In How Fiction Works (Picador 2008, pp. 6-7), James Wood discusses this authorial voice:
…omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems. To begin with, authorial style generally has a way of making third-person omniscience seem partial and inflected. Authorial style tends to draw our attention toward the writer, toward the artifice of the author’s construction, and so toward the writer’s own impress. …Tolstoy comes closest to a canonical idea of authorial omniscience, and he uses with great naturalness and authority a mode of writing that Roland Barthes called “the reference code” (or sometimes “the cultural code”), whereby a writer makes confident appeal to a universal or consensual truth, or a body of shared cultural or scientific knowledge. *
* He means the way that nineteenth-century writers refer to commonly accepted cultural or scientific knowledge, for instance shared ideological generalities about “women.” I extend the term to cover any kind of authorial generalization.
Having read a great deal of 19th century lit, I am familiar with this sort of authorial voice, and found London’s comfortable for more than half of the book. However, once I reached the introduction of the clearly bad character at the fort to which White Fang accompanies his native American owner, the authorial voice became far too noticeable. I felt London intruding to instruct me in the “cultural code”, and telegraphing so specifically what was coming that I began to speed read, which, for me, is a sign the author has lost me. As I posted on Goodreads, I give the novel a 5 star up to that point, and a 3 after that, which is actually quite generous. I stayed with the book only because I was curious how London would depict White Fang’s reaction to a city, and then the sophistication of his new owner’s estate (complete with chickens and other dogs). There were delightful moments, but they were drowned out by the “instructive” narration.
After pondering this for a few days and reading some critical material about London’s work I appreciate that the split is intentional: he believed man’s “civilization” was far less noble than the wild, and that man was ennobled by embracing the wild. White Fang’s final owner is clearly meant to seem a cut above those around him, appreciating White Fang for his wildness. He meant to leave him in the wild, but White Fang insisted on staying by his side. So be it. I understand, but it still doesn’t make it more palatable for me.
And yet… this intrusive narration might be completely acceptable if performed by a traditional storyteller—an oral performance, with dramatic pauses for effect, droll asides, expressive body language. In fact, as I write this I can easily imagine enjoying such a performance. I also suspect I would have been oblivious of this aspect of London’s style had I read the book as a child, when I simply devoured stories. (Critical reading is an occupational hazard for a writer.) And I’m quite certain I would have found the narration comfortable had I read it at the time it was published, 1906, when the intrusive narrator was more common in fiction than it is now.
All in all, I’m glad I read it, it’s provided much food for thought, and inspired a geeky blog post. (And I fell in love with White Fang.)
I’m now happily reading Chris Nickson’s new book, The Tin God. Has nothing to do with the Owen Archer mystery I’m writing, it’s just a treat at the end of my day.