Saturday, December 6, 2008

On James Wood, Part II

In a previous post, I attempted to create an account of the reasons some critics take strong positions against James Wood, and of the path many take to come to these positions. In this post, I'd like to think through some of the reasons why people like James Wood, why they find his criticism valuable and even exciting, and what I think they take away from it.

I will speak sometimes from personal experience (and generalize some from personal experience), and so my ideas are likely to be most relevant to why a young person (an undergraduate or a recent college graduate) might find James Wood appealing. I will extrapolate some from this experience (the only one I know) to the experience of older folks, and their reasons for liking/enjoying James Wood.

The first set of reasons is concerned with formal properties of Wood's work, and on this question, to refer back to The Nation review I cited in the last post, Deresiewicz provides a wonderful analysis. Wood's writing is challenging on a variety of levels—in terms of syntax, figurative language and even diction, Wood is gifted in ways that are immediately apparent, even if many are likely to question the prodigality with which Wood pours his gifts into his prose. But I want to focus particularly on metaphor and what Deresiewicz acutely calls the "angled modifier":
"royal fatalism," "fat charity," "white comment," "trapped loyalties." A book is described as "curlingly set in the present." Again, these sound good--they are essentially a kind of compressed metaphor--but what do they mean? Sometimes Wood unpacks them; sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes I can guess; sometimes I can't. At times it seems like he just throws an adjective at a noun and hopes it will stick. At others, the technique involves the displacement of a modifier from its expected syntactic position, a trick he probably picked up from Shakespeare.
It is here that I think Wood really connects with a certain type of reader. Wood's metaphors are competitive creatures—they challenge each other for control of the essay, jostling with each other under the reader's eye for attention and memorability. They also troop together and attack the writer under review, vying for supremacy with that writer's own powers of imagery and imagination. Wood's essay on Woolf from The Broken Estate describes this process, but his review of Melville in the same volume puts it into overdrive. Everything comes out metaphored.

Why is this attractive? Or rather, to whom is this attractive? I think it is principally attractive to those who wish to write—critically or imaginatively, and particularly to those who have not written a lot, because the other side of these metaphors' competitiveness is their experimental quality—they are, as Deresiewicz notes, thrown together with a brash alchemical flourish. The hoping-it-will-work gusto of these concoctions almost insists that we try some out ourselves, and who's most likely to take up that offer? Why, people like me, I guess.

Wood has a similar effect (on me, and I think for others) as Flaubert had on many budding novelists—where Flaubert initiated a scavenger hunt for le mot juste to describe every single thing, Wood's essays challenge the reader to a sort of permanent one-upmanship when it comes to crafting daringly metaphysical comparisons. (On a separate but related note, one quantum of evidence I have that this sort of thing is attractive to someone, at least, is the Meta-Free-Phor-All Stephen Colbert did with Sean Penn—video 1, video 2.) Wood provides writers with a sort of game which has no end, as the world never runs out of things which can be smashed into a metaphor, and even if it did, we could always try to improve on old metaphors.

But metaphor has another charm which catches the eye of an aspiring writer. The Woodian (I'm not going to say Wooden) metaphor acts as a short-circuit, generating excessive current by moving along a counter-path, jumping quickly over the distance the normal path would take. There is an undergraduate fondness for short circuits, generated partly (I think) by the unnatural demands of rapid-fire intellectual contraction and dilation which learning a subject well enough to write or speak convincingly on it in the same term or semester naturally entails. You bulk up enough on the terminology, the dynamics, the cadences of a subject—Foucault, say, or Habermas—basically you learn how to mimic the syntax (if you're smart) of the discourse around this subject, and then (if you're smarter, or more bored) you play with it by introducing some short-circuits—some bold intrusions of other subjects, or a pun on an important concept or facet of the subject—to demonstrate mastery. James Wood's metaphors and angled modifiers operate in the same way in his essays—his phrasal alloys, leaning on the subject of his essays like smart-ass sophomores over their blue-books, are a way of introducing short circuits that demonstrate mastery of his subject and of language in general. It's nerdily badass.

Wood's short-circuits, however, are not just about slanted diction; they're not even ways of jolting the syntax of a discourse. They're also conceptual, or rather, they work conceptually as well and link up to further conceptual short-circuits. These can be as simple as Wood's adeptness with making names into leitmotivs (Lionel Trilling is another paragon of this practice); Wood's allusions are connotationally consistent: Flaubert means the same thing whenever he is mentioned, Chekhov means the same thing whenever he is invoked, etc. (Deresiewicz is right in asserting some "wobbling" on Wood's part when it comes to concepts—particularly the central ones—"fiction," "true" and "truth," "real" and "reality," "life"—but when it comes to named persons, Wood is nearly undeviating.)

The conceptual consistency of these names-as-leitmotivs allows Wood to construct broad narratives of lineage or development quickly, narratives which appear to have both depth and strength. And because these narratives are often chronologically ordered, they take on the form of mini-histories of the developments of fictional elements through time—the unreliable narrator, the process of selecting meaningful details, free indirect discourse. But though they are, I think, meant to be condensed histories of these techniques, they do not trace lines of descent so much as they cross the wires of literary history—all you see are the sparks. Free indirect discourse, then, becomes this extraordinary encounter of the Shakespearean soliloquy with the Austen heroine, an encounter powerful enough to obviate a full account of the development of methods of conveying an interior consciousness between 1600 and 1800.

Now, the above may sound like a critique, but I want to stress how exciting this short-circuiting business is to someone who is trying to glue disparate and frequently unclear references together, and how valuable. Particularly in an academic culture which (rightly) no longer explicitly chooses authors because of canonicity or Leavisian Great Tradition-like evaluations, Wood is able to make readers feel like there is something vital connecting two authors as great as Shakespeare and Austen, and that they needn't really bother (yet) with how that connection is intermediated, or what other influences might have led to the development of free indirect discourse. (Additionally, Wood himself neither introduces nor justifies his subjects on the basis of canonicity or traditionalism—something which is also very appealing, for the concept of the Canon has almost entirely lost its panache and interest for everyone who is not affiliated with The New Criterion or has a commercial interest in the idea of canonicity.)

A canon is never really about connections, but they used to speak to the idea of a connected body of literature. Many—especially students—still crave the idea of connection between and among books and writers, though they reject the idea that these connections are bounded in a tight and definable group. For them, connectivity implies a) that further connections can be made (i.e. that literature is not dead, and that they can either contribute to its further flourishing or at least observe that flourishing for the rest of their lives) and b) that one can learn about literature more efficiently by learning the connections (learn about the "history" of unreliable narration and you can bag all sorts of fun authors at once!).

A side-note: Wood's assurance of the connectivity of books and authors partly accounts for why he dislikes postmodern and antirealist fiction, and why some who read him for this assurance, like him emphatically for his bashings of "hysterical realism," magical realism and the like. Postmodern fiction itself played a game of brinksmanship—a constant consciousness of the edge of fiction and its related ideas—the author, the reader, the text. It confessed itself as being, in John Barth's words, a literature of exhaustion. Two narratives, therefore, develop. One is Wood's, which rejects postmodern and antirealist fiction because they don't fit in with the program of assuring readers that books link up to other books and authors to authors and it's all an ongoing process. The other is a triumphalist narrative, which stresses the nodal nature of postmodernism and believes that the node can be pushed further out perhaps, but it's still a node. But because both narratives develop from the same idea—that postmodern fiction wishes for a certain terminality or idealizes a certain nodal quality—a reader can reject the premise, look for the ways that postmodern fiction is quite ongoing as a project and not as severed from other forms of fiction as its hierophants claim, and sort of ignore the whole thing entirely, while maintaining a respect for Wood's project and an appreciation of DeLillo, Pynchon, Gaddis, et al.

Wood is particularly interesting when he is threading a "minor" book or author into these connections. Doing so also keeps the attention of readers who have already read enough essays about the major authors, but the effect, I think, is the same. It at once reassures that there are vital, vigorous connections between and among authors and books (while avoiding canonizing them) and also re-teaches the history of those connections. Wood's review of Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, for example, places that novel deftly in the narrative of unreliable narration he's established through other reviews/essays.

Now, what Wood does is actually an inversion of the "short-circuiting" someone like Zizek employs:
A short circuit occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network—faulty, of course, from the standpoint of the network's smooth functioning. Is not the shock of short-circuiting, therefore, one of the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most effective critical procedures to cross wires that do not usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion), and read it in a short-circuiting way, through the lens of a "minor" author, text, or conceptual apparatus ("minor" should be understood in Deleuze's sense: not "of lesser quality," but marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, or dealing with a "lower," less dignified topic)? If the minor reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions. This is what Marx, among others, did with philosophy and religion (short-circuiting philosophical speculations through the lens of political economy, that is to say, economic speculations; this is what Freud and Nietzsche did with morality (short-circuiting the highest ethical notions through the lens of the unconscious libidinal economy). What such a reading achieves is not a simple "desublimation," a reduction of the higher intellectual content to its lower economic or libidinal cause; the aim of such an approach is, rather, the inherent decentering of the interpreted text, which brings to light its "unthought," its disavowed presuppositions and consequences.
- from the Series Foreword in The Parallax View, introducing the Short Circuits series.
Wood reads minor authors through the lens of major authors (or authors he has established as major, like Svevo) in order to apply our "common perceptions" about that major author to the minor, in effect "sublimating" them. Even if the current is reversed, though, the liberatory effects of "short-circuiting" are the same—Zizek and Wood rely on the same kind of thrill of crossed wires—revelatory sparks, not tedious circulation.

A great deal can be said for and against the viability and validity of short-circuiting as a method of intellectual inquiry, but one thing must be made clear. In either direction, it is not really about making texts more accessible or simpler. Zizek is opaque enough (at least in works like Parallax View) that simplifying philosophy is not the main charge leveled against him, and Wood is intellectually challenging enough that few accuse him of debasing literature by dumbing it down. Zizek may have Hegel wrong on some things and Wood may not understand what DeLillo's doing all the time, but their responses are complex in each case. Short-circuiting is about—and it is successful in—rapidly reducing the time needed to feel like you've gotten an insight out of a work. That's why it sometimes even relies on complexity—a condensation of possible meanings so tight you're sure to read something profound out of it on short order.

I think this process is the main origin of Wood's popularity, and why he can appeal particularly to students or young people who simply haven't had the time to read everything (or older people who don't have the lifestyle to continue reading deeply back into the history of the novel).

I also think there is a great deal to the sort of argument that Edmond Caldwell makes—that there is an ideological consonance between Wood's valuations of character and interiority and the general humanistic consensus of the readers of outlets like The New Yorker and The New Republic, though that is a separate discussion, I think. And there are a few miscellaneous things that make Wood popular: for one thing, he recommends some really fantastic books—I mean, unless the only books you like are by Barth, Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis and Powers (and there are some very smart people like that), you're probably going to like a lot of what he recommends. Even if you hate lyrical realism, you're still going to like Hemon or Hamsun or Rush probably or Bolaño or Gogol or Babel or Sebald and maybe Joseph Roth or Bellow or Svevo or Henry Green. Now, it's absolutely true that he praises each in mostly the same way as he praises lyrical realists, but that doesn't mean everyone he praises is a lyrical realist, and I think his readers understand that. People don't read him because they think they're going to read about the same kind of book every time—I can't see how that, if it were true, would make him popular.

Similarly, I don't think negative reviews—or his doctrines on "how fiction works"—are any large part of his popularity. His pans are rarely truly amusing in the gladiatorial take-down sort of way, and I've never met or read anyone who thinks about the connection of fiction and "life" in the same way Wood does.

But back for a second to the whole short-circuiting business: is this what we want out of our "preëminent literary critic?" Is it detrimental to literary culture? Well, now I'll speak just for myself. I have found Wood very useful in shortening certain distances which I plan on re-extending by reading more deeply and more critically into, but which right now I feel content with letting them be a little shorter than they really are. The history of narrative interiority, for instance, is something I'd like to read more deeply into (with, say, Nancy Armstrong's How Novels Think), but at this moment, I'm okay with Wood's narrative more or less grounding my working concept. Wood is more helpful than any other contemporary critic at getting me started to think through many authors and many possible connections among authors, and he's been invaluable at helping me discover some books that have been complete revelations to me. I don't really think of anything he's written as being the "last word" on the subject, but his essays—both in praise and in censure—have been extremely useful "first words." I think it's dangerous to want more out of a literary critic—I want no more out of Edmund Wilson, for example, or Samuel Johnson even.

The question is, does James Wood's criticism—does his mode of criticism, do his judgments—cap our development as readers? In a manner of speaking, American literary culture is always very young, and someone like Wood with his short-circuitry is useful and helpful, shortening some distances for his readers to enable us to catch up some to better-read cultures or our better-read elders. We certainly need other critics to enlarge our scope and deepen our understanding (and challenge our first views on a subject), but having our most visible and perhaps most widely read literary critic be an exceedingly good practitioner of the type of short-circuiting I have described—I think that's an asset.


Edmond Caldwell said...

Your eloquence and ebullience almost manage to persuade me that those stylistic flourishes in Wood aren’t kitsch. Almost.

And the connecting of Wood and Zizek is brilliantly counter-intuitive, a rhetorical move worthy of at least one of them and a bravura short-circuit of your own. Once again, I was almost persuaded. Almost.

But ultimately Wood’s metaphors never really link up to critical narratives of “depth and strength.” On the contrary, the narratives are almost always conventional wisdom. When he’s talking about canonical writers – you mention Austen and Shakespeare – he remarks nothing that hasn’t been remarked before. Read his essay on Thomas Mann: through the fustian emerges the insight that Magic Mountain has a circular structure that reflects Mann’s notions of time. C’mon Andrew, that’s Twayne’s Authors Series or SparkNotes stuff, you know that. And when he reads the minor or non-canonical writers, it’s to assimilate them to the conventional wisdom. The rest is heavy breathing.

Maybe that’s fine for a lot of the readers of the magazines he writes for; they’re learning something, and if they mistake what they’re learning for Wood’s own wisdom, so much the better – for him. Obviously, I think there’s a lot of the work of ideology going on in his journalism as well, and I don’t think that it’s a side issue, as you treat it here. But I’ll play along for once, and leave it one side. But then all I’m left with is conventional wisdom in kitsch-pretty bows.

M. said...

Thank you, I've been reading your essays via RSS feed for a couple months now, and even when I don't agree I find your work quite intellectually invigorating. In particular, I was looking forward to reading part two of "On James Wood" to read what you had to say in praise of Wood.

You've certainly pointed out a few things about the man's work that made me appreciate him a little more. Even so, I've always had a strong negative reaction to his criticism, but that reaction is not really because of anything that is unique to Wood's writing. Rather I find that, although essays like his are useful and interesting to a well-educated group of readers, Wood and other prominent critics seem to prefer to write in a way that excludes most (if not all) non-academics from the conversation. There absolutely is--and must--be a place for erudite academic discourse, but there is a dearth of literary criticism out there that is both high quality and accessible to an audience composed of more than just PhDs (who covers the expansive intellectual terrain between James Wood and Oprah's book club?).

Please note that I'm not advocating for a dumbing down or lowering of the bar in our intellectual discourse, which seems to me to be a compromise that would fail to meet anyone's needs adequately, but a conscious focus on increasing the readability of one's critical work. As you pointed out, Wood has a remarkable gift for language, but it concerns me that he and so many others use their writing prowess to overly complicate the delivery of their messages instead of enhancing the accessibility of their thoughts.

On another note, if you wouldn't mind I would like to hear you expand on this idea of postmodern fiction lacking interconnectivity, intertextual or otherwise, with other works and authors. Why do you (or just Wood, if you don't share his opinion on the matter) feel that postmodern works are isolated from the rest of literature?

Andrew Seal said...


Thank you very much for your comment--I don't think I've ever been called ebullient!

I did say that Wood's critical narratives "appear to have both depth and strength." I agree with you in some cases--he is perhaps better at re-telling some fairly shopworn narrative and making it sound really vital than he is at developing new narratives from whole cloth. But I'm not sure I look to magazine critics to break new ground with every sentence.

But what I mean to say is that even in the midst of a fairly conventional narrative, he renews the connections that have already been made by giving them a different shape and endowing them with more energy than before.

For instance, in his narrative about unreliable narration, he more or less uses the conventional cast of characters (though the importance of Svevo to him is, I think, fairly idiosyncratic). Yet his intervention in making the distinction between reliably unreliable narrators and unreliably unreliable narrators is an extremely clever, useful and exciting concept. Now, perhaps this distinction has been a favorite chestnut of narratologists for 15 or 20 years (I certainly haven't run into it if it has), but putting the distinction in these terms freshens up the connections between, say, Dostoevsky's Underground Man and Nabokov's menagerie of unreliable narrators by introducing this short-circuit--this distinction. But even if this has been a common distinction, and even in these terms, I don't think it's a distinction made by SparkNotes-quality stuff. Additionally, if I remember correctly, he contrasts the circularity of the structure of MM with the repetition of a 'horizontal' motif--I wouldn't say this is astoundingly insightful or original, but it's much better than I would have done on my own, and it's much better than Twayne's Authors.

As for the ideology question, I think it belongs to a separate discussion because I wished to focus on what a reader who likes Wood perceives as pleasurable or satisfying about his work. I feel that, except for either extremely self-aware or highly critical readers of Wood, those who read him don't perceive him as a source of validation for the consensus humanism of intellectual Anglophone culture. Or at any rate, they don't consciously read him for that validation. I think they do more or less consciously read him for an assurance that literature remains a vigorous ongoing project and that there are exciting narratives within it that don't rely on some Leavisite Great Tradition or Adlerian/Bloomian Canon to supply those connections. This is, I acknowledge, a distinction very much open to objection, but I felt more comfortable making it because I feel that others (especially you) have addressed it well elsewhere, whereas I feel there has been less work done in the way of accounting for what people actively and consciously perceive as enjoyable and valuable about Wood's writings.

Andrew Seal said...


Thank you for your comment as well. I guess by lacking connectivity, I mean that if postmodernist fiction takes seriously the idea that it's a 'literature of exhaustion' or a sort of terminal point for some of the basic 'myths' or artifices of fiction--the author, the self-cohesive narrative, etc.--then it defies the idea of literature as an ongoing and self-renewing project, a position which is anathema to Wood. This rhetoric (which Wood often seems to take at face value) presumes that new fiction either presents variations of the undermining of these 'myths' or artifices or it buries its head in the sand of realism and its attendant artifices.

Now, I think Wood believes that new fiction illuminates or creates new paths between and among authors and books--or at the very least refreshes old paths and endues them with new energy, new charge. This is not really a new idea—Elizabeth Bishop's essay on T.S. Eliot's 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' is the best articulation of the idea, I think. At any rate, if Wood takes postmodernist rhetoric at face value, then he will read it as saying that new fiction—even if it deploys intertextuality—is incapable of refreshing old paths, much less illuminating or creating new ones. He has to be opposed to this; his whole method—the short-circuitry I described—relies on the idea that he can limn the new or refreshed connections which a new work of fiction creates or illuminates.

Now, I think postmodernist rhetoric--the triumphalist version at least--should not be taken at face value, and one can read DeLillo or Pynchon or Barthelme or even Barth or Coover or Gass not as literary terminators but as regular old innovators. I think there's room for them in Wood's critical project, even; he just has to stop listening to their bolder pronouncements.

Sometimes he even does do this--I think he's referred a few times to Dickens's role as a progenitor of the hysterical realist novel and especially to Underworld as a sort of late 20th century Bleak House. This is a lot more than intertextuality, and there could be a very interesting short circuit there, but he drops it after not very much consideration because I think he believes it's a(n intentionally) sterile strain of fiction. It's something I'd like to see him overcome, or someone follow up on.

M. said...

Thank you for the clarification. I had assumed that was roughly what was being referenced, but I wanted to be sure.

I think Wood is confusing postmodern theory/criticism with postmodern fiction. In my experience, postmodern theory and postmodern fiction are best approached as parallel lines that are occasionally confronted with faintly penciled-in perpendicular strokes--postmodern theorists seem more interested in being half-assed social critics than in commenting on anything having to do with postmodern fiction. I mean, there's an argument to be made for the rhetoric of exhaustion when you're dealing with, say, Gravity's Rainbow, but I fail to see much in the way of exhaustion in postmodern works by Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Jeff Noon, Percival Everett, etc. I think that for all the draining Kafkaesque paranoia and nadir-of-literature, there's-nothing-more-to-be-said-after-us posturing, there's too much of Cervantes' and Sterne's playful, fiendish inventiveness to be found in postmodernism to take any claims of exhaustion seriously.

Stephen Dierks said...

great job, andrew. i think this is the most thoughtful post i've yet seen on james wood, and it encapsulates my positive feelings about him while pointing toward my reservations/disagreements with him. also, you really have a fantastic blog in general. you are definitely among the very best writers in the distinguished pool i've found via readysteadyblog and its ilk.

Andrew Seal said...

Thanks, Stephen! I'm really glad to see you found this post back in the archives, and that it appealed to you.

ayumi said...

wonderful work! the way you discuss the subject i'm very impressed. i'll bookmark this webpage and be back more often to see more updates from you.


Lee Shin said...

spot on with this write-up, i like the way you discuss the things. i'm impressed, i must say. i'll probably be back again to read more. thanks for sharing this with us.

Lee Shin