James Wood on character in fiction and Iris Murdoch

From the rather misnamed How Fiction Works by James Wood (in my opinion, “How Style Works” or “How Literary Prose Works” would have been more accurate titles), an extract about character.

I think there is a basic distinction to be made between novelists like Tolstoy or Trollope or Balzac or Dickens, or dramatists like Shakespeare, who are rich in ‘negative capability’, who seem to unselfconsciously create galleries of various people who are nothing like them, and those writers either less interested in, or perhaps less naturally gifted at, this faculty, but who nevertheless have a great interest in the self — James, Flaubert, Lawrence, Woolf perhaps, Musil, Bellow, Michel Houellebecq, Philip Roth. […] Iris Murdoch is the most poignant member of this second category, precisely because she spent her life trying to get into the first. […] She knew, it, too: ‘How soon one discovers that, however much one is in the ordinary sense “interested in other people”, this interest has left one far short of possessing the knowledge required to create a character who is not oneself. It is impossible, it seems to me, not to see one’s failure here as a sort of spiritual failure.’

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