Thursday, December 4, 2008

On James Wood

It often seems absurd that a literary critic, even one who writes for The New Yorker, can engender fierce partisanship. There are now at least two major efforts to mount sustained and comprehensive critiques of James Wood (a blog, Contra James Wood, and a 57-page manifesto-of-sorts which can be downloaded as a pdf here). But he also has resolute defenders, although most of them don't so much defend him (and certainly not in detail) as assert his greatness. A typical example of Wood's fans might be Mark Sarvas, who's more of a booster than a debater.

I'd like to address two very simple questions about Wood: why is he liked? (which I'll save for a separate post) and why is he more or less despised? I don't pretend to objectivity—I like him, I find his criticism valuable, I admire his writing. But first let's consider some of the reasons to dislike him.

The question of age circles around James Wood like a shark: nearly every critic tries to use some temporal box to engulf Wood and sink him. The n+1 piece from their first issue famously remarked that Wood wanted "to be his own grandfather," a charge that has been repeated multiple times elsewhere, often coupled with a guess as to which literary age he really belongs in (sometimes the Victorian era, sometimes the Edwardian, others would put him as a sort of dour Samuel Johnson). Other critics read him as supremely symptomatic of our age, a distillation of the faults and failures of our fallen literary culture.

William Deresiewicz's review of How Fiction Works takes this latter line. It's a brilliant review; its keen attention to detail and rigorous argumentation make his broad critiques quite cogent as you're reading them. But it also rests too lazily on the question of age, inflating Wood into a symbol of today which can be simplistically opposed to Deresiewicz's preferred yesterday. Deresiewicz opens by wearily bemoaning, "An iron law of American life decrees that the provinces of thought be limited in the collective consciousness to a single representative... We are great anointers in this country, a habit that obviates the need for scrutiny. We don't want to have to go into the ins and outs of a thing--weigh merits, examine histories, enter debates. We just want to put a face on it--the logic of celebrity culture--and move on."

I'm not entirely sure how this process works in practice. It seems to me, reading down the page, that what anoints this "single representative" is acclaim from representatives of an aging and fading dernier-garde—in Wood's case, Bloom, Sontag, Bellow, Ozick have called him something like "Best. Literary. Critic. Of his generation." Deresiewicz properly notes the emphasis of "of his generation" in these "consecrations," and goes on to describe the fatalism these anointings have generated: "these consecrations have bespoken a kind of Oedipal conflict, betraying the double urge first to possess one's offspring by defining them, then to destroy them altogether. For Wood has come to be seen as something more than the best of his generation: not just the best, full stop, regardless of generation, but the one, the only, even the last. Beside him, none; after him, none other. The line ends here." Indeed, when you have Harold Bloom saying, "James Wood is an authentic literary critic, very rare in this bad time," fatalism is easy enough (if you care what Bloom likes).

But what are the actual effects of this anointing? Certainly, there are career incentives to being the anointed one—you get to write for The New Yorker and teach at Harvard without a doctorate and you probably get more latitude in choosing the books you review. But then there's the question of visibility, which is what Deresiewicz's complaint is really about. James Wood is undeniably the most visible literary critic in America, and supposedly he is so much more visible than any other critic that for most intents and purposes, he looks like the only visible literary critic.

But visibility demands some specification of audience, and here's what I don't get: among people who read book review sections, is James Wood really the only name they'd recognize, and even if he is, does that mean that they wouldn't read a review by anyone else but Wood? In other words, how much is James Wood's celebrity really choking off the voices of other critics from reaching the (small) subset of Americans who not only read novels but also read criticism? I think the answer is "not much," though I'd be glad to be proven wrong.

Yet I get the feeling, particularly when reading a reviewer like Deresiewicz or Sam Anderson or even (with some notable differences in emphasis and reasoning) Dan Green or Edmond Caldwell or Tony Christini, that the feeling is that Wood's visibility is a threat to a vigorous, many-sided, highly dialogic conversation about literature and incompatible with a community that will foster and produce the same. Or, if he is not a threat, then we're back to proclaiming him a perfect symptom of the decline of our intellectual culture: in Deresiewicz's words, "Wood may be the best we have, but to set him next to Wilson, Trilling, Kazin and Howe is to see exactly how far we have fallen."

As either symptom or threat, Wood is taken to be representative of our age, and is therefore often, as we see with Deresiewicz, contrasted with the New York Intellectuals, the last (and according to Deresiewicz, only) time America hosted an environment of broad intellectual ferment. What is obviously attractive to these critics is the dispersion of critical authority among a surprisingly large number of intellectuals—rather than one preëminently visible critic, many had a significant amount of visibility.

The contrast with the New York Intellectuals is common and was probably inevitable. It's the time during which most people now writing wish they had been writing. In his review, though, Deresiewicz adds to this contrast a significant, though not entirely new, critique of Wood.
Here we begin to glimpse the enormous gulf that lies between James Wood, the best we have to offer, and the New York critics, Wilson, Trilling, Kazin and Howe--and, let us add... Elizabeth Hardwick. What made these thinkers so distinguished, what made their criticism so significant not only for American literature but also for this country's intellectual culture as a whole, was not great learning, or great thinking, or great expressive ability, or great sensitivity to literary feeling and literary form, though they exhibited all of these, but a passionate involvement with what lies beyond the literary and creates its context... The New York critics were interested in literature because they were interested in politics, culture, the moral life and the life of society, and all as they bore on one another. They placed literature at the center of their inquiry because they recognized its ability not only to represent life but, as Matthew Arnold said, to criticize it--to ask questions about where we are and how where we are stands in relation to where we should be. They were not aesthetes; they were, in the broadest sense, intellectuals.
That last line jars a bit, as it sounds a great deal like the NYT Walter Kirn review and the Paper Cuts post it inspired, which tried to revive the paleface vs. redskin distinction from Philip Rahv. There is often, in critiques of Wood, a muted defense of American virility and a little more open denigration of effete British bloodlessness (or bookishness). The question of what role nationality plays in Wood's criticism is obviously a fascinating one, as many critics allege that Wood's Britishness holds him back from "getting" American literature (e.g.).

The combination of these two claims—that Wood's preëminence constricts vigorous and multilateral dialogue and that Wood somehow is disconnected from the active American spirit—is powerful, especially as it is deployed when arguing that there are whole kinds of literature which he is unable to appreciate, whole genres or orientations which miss him entirely ("experimentalists, postmodernists, magical realists... anti-realism"). From Deresiewicz: "Wood knows, of course, that realism is a set of conventions, but like a liberal Catholic who understands that Jesus wasn't really divine, he would prefer to forget it. Hence his discomfort with the artful distortion, the allegorical dislocation--the bank shot, the knight's move, the indirect approach. Too much is sacrificed on the altar of this aesthetic theology--too much in fiction that is fine; too much, finally, that is true..."

The assumption seems to be that Wood's strangle-hold on critical visibility and his dogmatic faith in realism (and consequent excommunications of anti-realists from the Garden of Literature) are constitutively linked. Wood has attained his position because of his limited ability to comprehend or appreciate literature in its multiform expressions. Edmond Caldwell takes this argument further: Wood has succeeded because the limitations—ideological and imaginative—which the ruling classes wish to impose on the public are identical to Wood's: "James Wood’s inchworm humanism is intended to give the culture of imperialism a human face." Deresiewicz's condemnation of Wood as a critic terminally separated from the life from which fiction flows implicitly follows a similar logic: the book-bound Wood has succeeded because his public can no longer hold art and justice in a single thought, let alone reality and justice.

This is a crushing argument because most of its audience believes without question that American intellectual culture is crushingly limited. (Only when a Swedish blowhard points out our limitations do we protest and show off our meager number of cosmopolitan writers.) But then the argument reverses direction: if James Wood's limitations are our limitations, then liberating our culture of James Wood would be (a step to) liberating ourselves.
"Stop reading James Wood!" becomes another way of saying, "Turn off the TV!" "No more internet!" "The Culture Industry is rotting your brain!!" This reversal is a short-cut for a broader, more ambitious project: rather than rejecting "the establishment," supplement its lacks.

James Wood draws anger and resentment for many reasons; some just truly don't like his tastes and wish he'd not be rewarded for expressing them, eloquently or not. But many of his critics, I think, dislike or distrust Wood because knocking him from his pedestal seems like a simple, easy and effective way of challenging and overcoming some of the limitations of our current literary culture, an overcoming which would have the added benefit of distributing visibility and its benefits more broadly to more literary critics than James Wood.

I have tried to sketch out the path necessary to come to this conclusion, and I've tried to show how it relies on some questionable jumps and assumptions. I plan to address how someone who likes Wood comes to that position in a second post, and if I have time, I'll add some thoughts about what I think Wood should do to address both his defenders and detractors and their respective blindnesses.


LML said...

This is an excellent overview. You've articulated my own voyeuristic bafflement about the Wood debate more clearly than I have articulated it to myself. I see all of these passionate skewerings of Wood, find them immensely engaging as literary spectacle, and always end up asking the same question: why must I care so much about him? He's a critic who happens to write with more verve than most, and that has won him an audience larger than most, but he's still just a critic. He's never claimed to be Barthes or Adorno or whoever. It's hard to imagine a novelist exciting such enduring passion among smart people on the internet. Why is that, I wonder, since the Wood debate is supposedly animated by concern for the fate of the novel?

Edmond Caldwell said...

An interesting post, Andrew, and I look forward to reading the sequel on why you think highly of Wood’s journalism, although it’s not beyond me to see why intelligent readers might get pleasure out of it, at least if it is taken in properly periodical (pun intended) doses, as he holds up far less well to sustained attention. Since you were kind enough to mention my blog in your post, I thought I would take the liberty of offering a few thoughts of my own.

Proust wrote his Contre Sainte-Beuve in 1908-09, forty years after Sainte-Beuve had written his last piece of literary journalism. Proust never bothered to finish the MS let alone try to have it published, maybe because he soon discovered he had something more important to write. In other words, literature got along just fine in spite of the lingering influence and reputation of a limited literary critic, but perhaps the effort Proust expended in his critique helped him to clarify his own aesthetics to himself and thus was one of the constituents that gave us his great novel. I think that literature will continue to get along just fine in spite of the existence of a contemporary critic whose limits make Sainte-Beuve look like Aristotle, but I also think that the effort expended in a critique might help, at a more modest level, to clarify some aesthetic issues today, and thus perhaps also to contribute, again modestly, to the ongoing production of interesting writing (and, secondarily, to better criticism). That’s one reason I started Contra James Wood (in tandem with my other blog, The Chagall Position), but it still misses an essential ingredient.

You note how Wood inspires anger and resentment, but you don’t mention how he inspires laughter and mockery. I write my blog to amuse myself, and perhaps a few readers, by making fun of Wood through lampoon, hyperbole, invective, innuendo, flyting, provocation, and detournement, because I think his stuff is pretty silly in a lot of ways – cotton-candy for the sweet-tooth of the consumers of literature-as-commodity. Of course I’m trying to make my points at the same time, and I do indeed think of him as a “symptom,” but it’s not because I see him as some kind of harbinger of cultural apocalypse or decline from a mythical golden age of letters. (Deresiewicz is looking in the wrong place: the New York critics are gone and the pages of the New Republic and the New Yorker are filled with banalities, but the vital cultural spark is going strong – it’s online.) Wood, for me at least, is merely a convenient example, a revealing instance, and if he ultimately tells us little of importance about literature, he can still tell us much – and so amusingly – about the way the culture industry (and literature as “distinction” as opposed to art) functions.

The mockery of power usually has to settle for being its own reward – and sometimes also its own punishment. Some readers seem to miss the parodic aspect of my blog and take it a little too seriously themselves, which is possibly a side-effect of their taking Wood too seriously to begin with, unless of course it’s due to the perversity of my idea of fun. But does that mean I think people should “stop reading Wood”? Not at all. I think people should enjoy their symptom. And I heartily endorse your call for efforts to produce “what the establishment lacks,” although the idea of “supplementing” the establishment is a little quietistic for my tastes, unless of course you mean *supplementing in the meantime*, while we’re organizing for the establishment’s utter, bloody, flaming ruin, which I don’t have any illusions will be accomplished by blogs about ultimately minor critics. For that we’ll need automatic weapons.

Andrew Seal said...


I certainly haven't missed the humor on your blog, but I did fail to consider it in my account. The anger and resentment I sense is better exemplified by writers like Deresiewicz and Sam Andersen, who seem completely frustrated by Wood's success.

I greatly respect the process of using criticism to clarify contemporary aesthetic issues in order to inspire better writing, including better criticism--in a very modest way, that's what I'm blogging for. I suppose what I fail to see is how James Wood can maintain such unparalleled significance for such an endeavor--surely there are more manifestations of the very real things you critique than in his writing? Or surely, if he is so influential, there must be critics and writers who have taken his version of humanism to heart and enshrined it in their characters, in their modes of narrating. Or other critics who have adopted his foci and standards when analyzing books. I suppose I want to hear about them too!

I really enjoy reading your blog, and I consistently find myself convinced by much of what you have to say. "In one way or another he reduces almost every novel that he approves of to this boilerplate."--How many times have I thought that myself! I still like him after that and a few other things, but I completely agree. I just feel that the critique you've started asks to be extended to others.