James Wood Gets Personal
Is the best literary critic of our time moving away from criticism, and does his new collection The Fun Stuff hint at a different direction? Jimmy So on James Wood.
What does a literary critic’s apotheosis look like? One path of ascension begins with a piece of cultural critique so ruddy it gets mistaken for a slab of steak in the pages of The New Republic. He also writes fiction, but he is never one of them, and novelists loathe him. He publishes collections of meaty essays that other critics chew on. His clarity of conviction prompts him to praise Flaubert, Henry James, and Joyce, though the praise is qualified. He must indubitably ascend to The New Yorker and begin teaching at an Ivy League school. At which point he settles into his late memoir years, graying like King Lear.
The critic I’m talking about, of course, is Edmund Wilson. His noggin was as brazen as Proust’s and Joyce’s, and he praised them even as he head-butted them in The New Republic, where he was an editor in the 1920s and ‘30s, and such pieces were collected in Axel’s Castle. Then came the aggressive studies on Pushkin, Flaubert, Henry James, Dickens, Hemingway, and Marxism in The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow and To the Finland Station. Alfred Kazin and Cyril Connolly gave his book of short stories, Memoirs of Hecate County, mixed reviews, and Vladimir Nabokov told his then-friend and soon-to-be enemy that “there are lots of wonderful things in it,” without specifying whether the many wonderful things were the page numbers. He became the chief book critic for The New Yorker in the ‘40s, and taught occasionally at Chicago and Princeton and sometimes lectured at Harvard. In the ‘60s, and during his 60s, he turned to journals about life in the upstate New York town of Talcottville: “Birds flit back and forth between the rapids. The cliffs where they overhang are dripping with springs.”
The critic you thought I was talking about is James Wood. Their resumes are nearly identical. Like Wilson, who has been called the final great American all-around man of letters and the last of the public intellectuals, Wood has been consecrated the best and most important critic of his time, as every story about him must invariably mention. In the squally pit of criticism, Wood is the brightest beacon and the biggest target. But if Wilson’s trajectory can be looked on as an example, there are signs that Wood might be taking his light elsewhere.
I recently spent two days with Wood, sitting in on his literature seminars. We read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle and The Bishop at Harvard, and Bellow’s Seize the Day at Columbia. Visiting with him before and after classes, we got around to talking about Wilson, who is the subject of a long essay at the heart of Wood’s new collection, The Fun Stuff. “Wilson preferred to be called a journalist rather than a critic,” Wood writes. “And there is an attractive wholesomeness to this preference … [But] Wilson’s literary criticism, with its introductory relish, its recourse to biographical speculation, and its swerve away from aesthetic questions, now looks more journalistic than it once did,” which really means that he wasn’t very good at it—he imposed judgments without justification, and had a will to power, reading the author’s entire output and forcing connections to the person’s life. Wilson is journalistic only in his hunger for stories and in his embrace of clock-punching work, the kind that won’t stop until a bookshelf is rampaged through.
But Wood also considers himself a journalist—rather, it is a matter of fact that he has always worked in journalism. Reading is not something just for fun—it is labor. Wood was born in northern England in 1965 the son of a professor of zoology at Durham University who is also a priest. “There was, while I was growing up, a rather Victorian feel to the household, where my father had fallen into that 19th-century mode of a clergyman naturalist," Wood told me. "Preaches on Sundays, and on Saturdays, goes out and collects algae.”
Wood wasn’t a particularly devoted reader until 11 or 12, whereas his 11-year-old daughter, Livia, was already devouring books at 6. “Reading makes me a bit restless,” he said, which comes as a bit of a shock. “There’s a certain childish side of me that asserts itself and wants to sort of go outside and climb an apple tree or something.”
His procrastination, however, didn’t stop him from graduating top of the class at Cambridge in 1988, whereupon he got himself a job at The Guardian. “My decision not to do a graduate degree but to get to London and earn a living by the pen was hugely influenced by my sense that this was still a living tradition. And in the mid- to late-1980s in London, it still was—Anthony Burgess and Lorna Sage and Clive James and Martin Amis and V.S. Pritchett were at work in the newspapers you might pick up on any day.”
One look at Wood and you might suspect that he takes “work” to its logical, physical conclusion. Lean and fit, Wood has the body of a European football coach. He doesn’t wear a tracksuit, but his clothes are functional: the casual dress shoes of a consummate walker, a simple fall jacket over a nondescript collared shirt characteristic of no one in particular at all, a worn satchel that snugly carries all his books. On top of his frame rests a balding head, sprouting mowed blades of thin hair and so round and dense that it shares a functional convenience with that of Wilson’s—both are ready to mete out and accept impact at all angles. It is what a critic needs. Some readers and many novelists mark him as a stubborn pontiff whose only affections are for the realists—Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bellow, Norman Rush—although even at this reductive characterization the “realists” are more different than similar to one another.
This suspicion of Wood began in 2000 with The New Republic’s “Human, All Too Inhuman,” in which Wood hogtied not one, not two, but half a dozen postmodern novelists like Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. It established Wood’s reputation as a man who dismissed experimentation and preferred tradition. Not only that, but people saw in Wood a critic who did not want to deal with the political and social uncertainty of the times—he seemed to only handle the writing. (How shocking! A critic who examines sentences!) For this crime he’s branded the worse kind of cattle: an aesthete.
Since then, Wood has written a novel, The Book Against God, and landed the jobs of chief book critic for The New Yorker and professor of literary criticism at Harvard. From those twin thrones he makes his rulings, an impression he made worse by calling his 2008 book How Fiction Works. The supposed arrogance irked those who only read the title, as if adults shouldn’t need to be told how fiction works. In The Nation, William Deresiewicz took to critiquing what he saw as Wood’s balancing act on his narrow strip of realism. “Too much is sacrificed on the altar of this aesthetic theology—too much in fiction that is fine; too much, finally, that is true,” Deresiewicz mourns.
“It’s funny to me that I’m often written up as a great proponent of realism,” Wood told me. “It’s true that there are elements of realism that I like and explore. But as often as not, I also attack a certain kind of realism that I’m not interested in, and have done ever since I wrote about Tom Wolfe, or indeed when I wrote about Franzen.”
Wood represents an approach that maintains a confident front even in the face of doubt, precisely because he’s dealing with such a shapeless thing as fiction. To consider fiction in a similar cloud of dust would be rather pointless, like wrapping fire with a veil. Instead, Wood uses the devices of fiction in his own nonfiction, and his sharpest weapons are his moments of perfect characterizations. In his first collection, The Broken Estate: “metaphor,” for Virginia Woolf, “is the way to explode sequence”; “when it comes to language, all writers want to be billionaires,” like Melville; Hemingway, Pavese and Beckett are “the deliberate paupers of style,” choosing “bankruptcy after wealth”; on Hemingway again: “an icicle formed from the drip of style”; on D.H. Lawrence: “language at its densest becomes its own medium, like night.” In The Irresponsible Self, he writes that Saul Bellow’s prose makes even Melville’s sound Bellovian, that it is “germinal”; Tom Wolfe’s novels are “placards of simplicity”; “a genre is hardening,” he wrote of hysterical realism, “a perpetual-motion machine” that’s “embarrassed into velocity” and wishes to “harass realism into a state of self-examination”— you can picture it blushing as Wood is possessed to catch up with that clump of overworked realism and urge it to slow down. From How Fiction Works: “novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him”; Graham Greene and John le Carré can be called “commercial realism.” And his new volume has perhaps the highest density of memorable lines: he calls V.S. Naipaul “an empire of one”; Tolstoy’s characters in War and Peace are brought to life by “the high temperature of their existences”; a parody of Paul Auster “is unfair, but diligently so”; Norman Rush is “the only considerable American novelist who has never yet written about America”; Geoff Dyer’s books are “as unique as door keys.” (Aesthete! so the charge reads.)
Wood is not afraid of bearing his guts. “When man thinks, God laughs,” so goes a proverb. But Wood’s criticism precisely allows you to see him thinking. If he is a card-carrying member of the Free Indirect Speech Party, you know it because he says as much in How Fiction Works:
Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” In my example, the word “stupid” marks the sentence as written in free indirect style. Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: “Ted watched the orchestra through tears.”
This is a classic Woodian step-by-step inductive survey, one that would make proud the theorist Northrop Frye, who was certain that the anatomy of criticism consists of equal parts art and science, that “the writing of history is an art, but no one doubts that scientific principles are involved in the historian’s treatment of evidence, and that the presence of this scientific element is what distinguishes history from legend.” Good journalism draws its power from evidence. Claims should be falsifiable. Arguments ought to be supported by observations. Wood always makes an argument, and always backs it up. He tries to be consistent, but his detractors see it as inflexibility. “Unforgiving” is the critic Daniel Mendelsohn’s word for it. He quotes Wood—“fiction demands belief from us, and that is demanding partly because we can choose not to believe”—then observes what happens when you substitute the word “God” for “fiction.” “Much of his criticism makes you wonder whether he hasn’t exchanged one set of absolutes for another.” Mendelsohn’s is a big blow, but it’s hard to see an alternative if you want to maintain consistency and rigor. The other choice is the fecklessness of unpredictable judgment, to read to experience the flourish only.
Wood’s critical apotheosis has come with a good-size portion of literary estrangement. Heidi Julavits said that Wood’s “curmudgeonliness is a crime of idealism.” The editors of n+1 mocked him thus: “Poor James Wood! Now here was a talent—but an odd one, with a narrow, aesthetician’s interests and idiosyncratic tastes.” Jonathan Lethem went through the trouble of avenging an 8-year-old mixed review by attacking Wood as “a unpersuasive critic whose air of erudite amplitude veiled—barely—a punitive parochialism.” Colson Whitehead, in a satire called “Wow, Fiction Works!” called him “an overeducated British jerk and a lamewad.” Wood, the notorious critic, has succeeded in notoriety too well.
And the apotheosis is complete, an ascension into an empty cloud. Trusted by some and disdained by others, Wood is the lonely grouch at the top of his game, enjoying his view from The New Yorker and Harvard, out to kill fun.
The only problem is that this doesn’t square with the real Wood. For every novelist in the enemy camp he has one among his friends: Rush, Dyer, Amit Chaudhuri, Martin Amis, Amy Hempel, Peter Carey, Jonathan Coe, Jane Mendelsohn, David Bezmozgis, Susanna Kaysen, Michael Ondaatje … and of course, one among his family members: his wife Claire Messud. As to the charge that he is too much of an aesthete who’s afraid of the sun, here is a critic whose most striking feature is his demand that writers, when in their basement rooms or in the space in their heads, open out to the vast geography of life, and enter it rather than retreat into art.
The image definitely does not square with the new Wood, who makes it a point to not only analyze books but to enjoy life—“alive, and very much so,” as he quoted Tolstoy’s diary. During Wood’s bouncy teenage years of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s London, the god of living could best be spotted in the airwaves, where rock and roll was spreading like a pandemic. In those days, Wood’s hero was Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer. In an uncharacteristically personal turn, he confesses his fandom in the opening and titular essay of The Fun Stuff. Up until now Wood has been making his living by extracting meaning from ostensibly meaningless sentences in novels. How does this jibe with Moon’s drumming, which is obviously a loud, exuberantly physical and auditory show? How much of Moon needs to be “read”? Turns out, a lot, as few have taken the trouble to do it. There is a lot to say:
Sitting behind the drums was also like a fantasy of driving (the other great prepubescent ambition), with my feet established on two pedals, bass drum and hi-hat, and the willing dials staring back at me like a blank dashboard … Everyone secretly wants to play the drums, because hitting things, like yelling, returns us to the innocent violence of childhood.
Behind the fantasy dashboard sat Wood, conducting a violent campaign on snares and cymbals, and admiring the ultimate truant. “Keith Moon’s drumming, in its inspired vandalism, was the crime itself,” he writes, taking his beloved associative leap:
Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues with his rolling break, over the line and into the start of the next phrase. In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, this challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in, is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment. For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.
What Wood wants to enjamb is not poetry or drumming, but his own childhood, and to reconcile a nostalgia for a messy, disheveled, lawless Jimmy with the formally controlled, attired and careful James of today. “When I listen to the second, how I want to be the first!”
Although he’s had personal elements in his reviews before, The Fun Stuff marks the first time Wood’s essays are not prefaced by an introduction, but are bookended by two personal essays—his Moon-love is his introduction. “I’ve been trying myself just to move away a little bit from just always reviewing,” he said. “It’s tiresome after a while just to hand down judgments all day, all night. You want to do something else with the language.”
He’s been at work on his second novel; since late summer he’s written about 35 pages. It’s about an English businessman in his 60s who has two daughters, one of whom lives in Britain and works in music industry. The other teaches in the U.S. at a small college, but suffers from depression and tries to commit suicide. This spurs the dad to visit his daughter, though he hasn’t been to the States for some time. “He finds it very hard to give his daughter a specific rationale for going on living,” Wood explained. “I want the dynamic very much to be her needing her father’s reassurance: tell me why I need to go on.”
Is he ready to go through this again? After all, his first novel was not that well received. It is a veiled autobiographical tale featuring Thomas Bunting, a 30-something from Durham who’s living in London trying, after seven years, to finish his philosophy dissertation—a huge atheist treatise called The Book Against God. His father is not only a priest but resembles something like a stand-in for the Heavenly Father Himself, while Bunting’s climatic reckoning happens at dad’s funeral. (Wood’s own father and mother are alive and well.) It’s packed with knowingness and wit, but perhaps too much so, so that the fiction acquires an allegorical stuffiness—there is no room to breathe. Mendelsohn called it “an able and occasionally excellent first novel, filled with pleasures for the reader, flawed by pretentiousness, top-heavy with ‘meaning,’ wobbly in tone, hobbled, ultimately, by a failure to bring off the grand message it seeks to deliver.”
“I didn’t feel I got the hang of it,” Wood confessed. “That’s what first novels are for—not getting the hang of it.” Both his first and his forthcoming second novel looks at death (“I denied my father three times, twice before he died, once afterwards,” is how The Book Against God begins) and searches for a reason to live (“Wasn’t it an orchard, my childhood? But why, then, the worm? Why the worm? Tell me,” is how it ends.) When do you chase after life? When death is chasing you. Wood is only 47, but death has lately loitered in the family circle. His mother-in-law passed away in October, and Messud’s been away in France, tending to her dying aunt, her father’s sister, who never married and has just two nieces to turn to. It doesn’t help that my psychobiography can be urged on by the fact that all four stories and novellas he assigned during my class visits all dealt explicitly with death—all of them begin or end with a funeral—though this was nothing more than a coincidence.
The death that weighs most heavily on Wood has been his father-in-law’s. “Packing My Father-In-Law’s Library” is the decidedly not-fun activity and somberly cautionary essay that closes The Fun Stuff. It is a corrective against Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” a realization that there’s nothing enjoyable about leaving behind “shelves of eloquent, mute books, sunk in themselves like a rotting paper harvest.”
The other model for “Packing My Father-In-Law’s Library” was Edmund Wilson’s late work; it is his library that is the “rotting paper harvest.” Wilson died in Talcottville in 1972, but not before chronicling life in that stranded countryside. It is there that he saw “birds flit back and forth between the rapids. The cliffs where they overhang are dripping with springs.” Wood loves late Wilson: “His reputation will persist because of many pieces of work that have not lasted.” Wilson’s earlier book reviews and political journalism did not age well in Wood’s eyes. In turn, Wood calls “The Author at Sixty,” Wilson’s portrait of his father, one of the critic’s finest, thanks to the “lovely stern objectivity” that he applies to Edmund Wilson Sr. “Packing My Father-In-Law’s Library” isn’t just about packing a library, but also about an unforgiving father-in-law who “floated on top of American life, privileged, wounded, unmoored,” whose books “incarnated the shape of this life, but not the angles of his facets,” and were simply results of greedy intellectual purchases.
No surprise, too, that Wood’s piece isn’t just about his father-in-law, but about himself, his own humility in his chosen occupation. “Our libraries perhaps say nothing very particular about us at all,” he writes. “We strangely persist in pretending that books are not ruins, not broken columns.” This tolling, soulful sentence reminds me of a pronouncement: “As he swerved away from journalism, from the weekly or monthly treadle of reviewing, and into memoir and the writing of his journals, so his prose took on a new lyricism.” That’s Wood writing about Wilson. But couldn’t it equally be Wood writing about Wood?