Friday, 28 December 2007

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 1

If one takes a broad perspective, the idea that a critic of James Wood’s stature would require defending by a nobody like me is rather absurd. He has been described as ‘the best literary critic of his generation,’ ‘our best living reviewer,’ and ‘a treasure.’ He has received he highest praise from the likes of Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag. He has recently taken a new post at The New Yorker, and has for some years worked as a professor of ‘the practice of literary criticism’ at Harvard, this despite not having a doctorate. Yes, in the world of print journalism, James Wood has a phenomenal reputation. This makes it all the more baffling that here in the alternate universe of the internet, he is subject to such frequent and venomous attack.

Anyone who read only what the ‘litblogs’ have to say about Wood would have to conclude that he is the most puritanical and reprehensible dullard in the history of criticism. eNotes Bookblog remarks: ‘Another talented soul is James Wood, but his gift is more in hating books than writing them.’ Eric Rosenfeld in Wet Asphalt: ‘Critics like the reactionary James Wood think what we need to do is go back to modernism and start writing like Chekov [sic] and Flaubert again. (“Novelists should thank Flaubert like poets thank spring,” wrote Wood in an article in the New York Times Book Review.)’ Black Garterbelt: ‘His continued struggle against the hysterical seems like the despairing stage whispers of a quaking moralist.’ Ed Champion on Return of the Reluctant: ‘James Wood is the most feared man in American letters? Get real. He’s a mere nitpicking titmouse. To be afraid of Wood is like having minor chest pains while passing the Grey Poupon from one Rolls Royce to another.’

Are we talking about the same man? I haven’t even included the congratulatory comments that hang off these posts like dribble, accusing Wood of everything from idiocy to misogyny. Wood is of course not without his detractors in print (Reese Kwon detailed some of these in her essay on Wood for Small Spiral Notebook); nor is he without his followers online, including Kwon as well as Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation. But the condemnation of Wood’s work to be found online is not merely negative, but derisive, veering towards libellous.

Evidently, the fundamental cause of the vitriol against Wood is that he holds strong opinions that are decidedly at odds with those of his detractors. But other critics have given unfavourable reviews to ‘postmodern’ authors like Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith. One thinks automatically of Wood’s former colleague at The New Republic, Dale Peck, whose collection of essays was entitled Hatchet Jobs. Peck made a sport of attacking writers that he considered too pretentious, too idolised and too postmodern. Wood has never done this. He has never dedicated a review of any book to a continuous harangue against the author, never neglected his responsibility to apply himself to the text. Quite the contrary, he is rightly lauded (even, grudgingly, by his detractors) for the superhuman depth of his attention to detail. He coaxes nuance from the slightest stylistic choices with such sensitivity that one imagines that, given enough time, he could decipher a page of Japanese or Urdu simply by staring at it. Even when in a broadly negative review, Wood demonstrates a profound sensitivity to a writer’s talents: for example, he has called DeLillo’s prose ‘frequently distinguished’ and Smith’s ‘breathtaking;’ and Franzen’s The Corrections ‘succeeds marvellously.’ And yet, bizarrely, Peck’s name is almost absent from discussion, while Wood risks being burned in effigy at the next litbloggers’ convention. At the very least, it seems a little unfair.

A particularly illuminating example of the kind of attention Wood receives can be found on Conversational Reading, whose author, Scott Esposito, returns again and again to jab at Wood’s articles, with the relentless commitment of a full-blown obsessive. It is clear from this passage that Esposito feels a pressure to debate with Wood:
Wood is a great critic. He's very insightful when he's praising authors. But for the life of me I can't figure out why he’s so anti non-realist authors. I know it has something to do with being “cold” but I still don't get why good literature can only produce warm fuzzy feelings. Why can't it be cold, mathematical? What if that's how the author sees the world? What if the author wants to depict feelings in a different way from warm and vibrant? Can't we paint with different palates [sic]?
But Esposito is either unable or stubbornly unwilling to engage with Wood’s arguments, and so his comments degenerate into spiteful and often inarticulate sniping:
To read Wood's most recent collection of criticism, The Irresponsible Self, is to wonder if all this talk about Wood's greatness hasn’t gotten a bit overheated. Granted, Wood's writing is a cut above what you're likely to encounter in popular book reviews today, but one begins to wonder whether it's Wood's greatness or the majority's mediocrity. Certainly Wood is an erudite and well-read literary critic, but, well, why shouldn't all respected critics be erudite and well read? Is this really such rarefied territory?
Is it necessary to explain why these remarks are both mean-spirited and incoherent?

What is most incomprehensible is that Esposito should plead that he ‘can’t figure out’ Wood’s argument, when he has made it so frequently and with such clarity. As an example, let us examine the way Wood condemns the use of character in ‘hysterical realist’ novels, taken from his review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (emphases added):
By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller is often something that could never happen); rather, they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (obviously, one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion. This is what Aristotle means when he says that in storytelling “a convincing impossibility” (say, a man levitating) is always preferable to “an unconvincing possibility” (say, the possibility that a fundamentalist group in London would continue to call itself KEVIN).
Near the end of White Teeth, one of the characters, Irie Jones, has sex with one of the twins, called Millat; but then rushes round to see the other twin, called Magid, to have sex with him only moments after. She becomes pregnant; and she will never know which twin impregnated her. But it is really Smith's hot plot which has had its way with her.
These novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected—by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.
It is Smith who made Irie, most improbably, have sex with both brothers, and it is Smith who decided that Irie, most improbably, has stopped caring who is the father. It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie's reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness.
As we can see here, Wood’s concern is that author’s premise talks over her characters: they become mere abstract representations or mouthpieces for certain ideas. Thus, he is not arguing against novels whose aim is to depict ‘cold’ emotions, but against novels whose purpose is not to depict emotions at all, but to depict arguments. This seems to be a distinction to which bloggers like Esposito are utterly blind.

Why are Esposito and his colleagues so tormented by Wood’s readings that they must resort to such petty tactics? Wood’s criticisms seem to possess a viral tenacity that, I believe, is rooted in the clarity and depth of his argumentation. Reese Kwon’s essay on Wood includes a quote from Adam Kirsch of the New York Sun that phrases the matter perfectly: ‘Most reviews simply present an opinion, and it's easy to dismiss contrary opinions—everyone has the right to an opinion, after all. But Wood raises the discussion to a higher level, which forces people to question and rethink their own understanding of literature.’

It makes sense, therefore, that so many lovers of ‘postmodern’ novels would seem to be haunted by Wood’s words. Dale Peck’s tirades can be swatted like flies, because rather than trying to prove his argument, he restates it with rising emphasis. But the cogency of Wood’s arguments, together with the depth of his reading and the poetry of his phrasing, give his reviews the appearance of some indomitable truth. As a result, Wood’s words lodge in the minds of these poor postmodernists, demanding a response they have not the vocabulary to give. These cheap jibes—‘idiot,’ ‘nitpicking titmouse’ (a curious image), and so on—are directed not at the real James Wood, but at the ghoulish manifestation that has taken up residence in their own minds, demanding that they justify their tastes.

[Part Two]


Notabene said...

Well said Stephen. Worthy of Wood. Hope it silences future talk of titmice and encourages higher-minded engagement.

edward champion said...

If I were still blogging, I would probably respond to this interesting post at length. But I've retired from blogging. And while I appreciate the healthy contrarian spirit expressed here, I should point out that Mr. Crowe has conveniently selected one of my roundup posts while ignoring more detailed explanations on why Wood and other critics of his ilk represent a problem for contemporary literature. You can find one of them here:

If litbloggers are selectively quoting Wood, then Mr. Crowe is just as guilty of selectively quoting me.

As for curious imagery, if I have to give up tits to be considered high-minded, well, I'll be a lowbrow brute any day of the week. Nevertheless, in remembering the late Reluctant, I must thank Mr. Crowe for the mammaries.

edward champion said...

I also think it's worthwhile to point out that Scott Esposito did offer, via Garth Risk Hallberg at the Quaterly Conversation, a very thorough examination of James Wood's hostility towards UNDERWORLD.

Stephen Crowe said...

Mr. Champion, I don't think I even accused anyone of selectively quoting Wood. Is this your unconscious guilt emerging?

I welcome your comment, and the link, but I don't think I can be accused of 'selectively quoting' you. I quoted almost your entire comment about Wood (which did not include a link to any of your 'more detailed explanations'). 'Roundup post' or not, you must still take responsibility for it.

As to your other post, it still demonstrates the kind of weak argument that I'm criticising:

'Indeed, in Wood’s case, he has failed to consider that there may actually be something to the Whitehead sentences which he declares atrocious. But instead of attempting to understand Whitehead’s patois or considering the possibility that a sniper, literal or metaphorical, may very well view his task to be “euthanasiac” in an effort to justify his continual murders, he nukes Whitehead from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.'

'There may actually be...', 'a sniper may very well view...' What are you claiming exactly? If there is something to Whitehead's sentences, then prove it. All you've done is contradicted Wood, and in place of an argument all you give us are evasive hypotheses.

Incidentally, my concern with the 'nitpicking titmouse' was not that it was dirty, but that it seemed like a mixed metaphor. I may be demonstrating my ignorance here, but it seems unlikely that titmice pick nits. (Oh dear, I suppose I'm nitpicking now, aren't I?)

Hallberg's DeLillo article is actually the main subject of this essay's more optimistic second half. Watch this space!

edward champion said...

Titmice do indeed pick nits in my universe. There are also a giddy accountant with a third nostril, giants who climb beanstalks, and insects that fellate midgets. Whitehead likewise has his own worldview. I am so sorry that you lack flexibility here, but you've demonstrated my point more adeptly than I could have ever stated it.

Stephen Crowe said...

Do you think you could state your point anyway, Ed? Because I don't think I quite followed it.

If I do understand you (no certainty), you seem to be saying that Whitehead and Wood exist in distinct conceptual universes, implying that there can be no dialogue between them. In other words: total relativism. Why discuss literature at all, if that's the case? Why discuss anything at all?

Steven Augustine said...

"This makes it all the more baffling that here in the alternate universe of the internet, he is subject to such frequent and venomous attack."

Please forgive this late response (I only happened upon your blog as of yesterday), Stephen, and no problem if it doesn't go up (as my desire is merely that you read this as an extension of our TEV conversation).

The universe of the Internet is "alternate" in good, as well as bad, ways; chief among the advantages of reading the better lit bloggers (vs reading equivalent fare in "print") is that the lit blogger, with much less (a job; an income) to lose, is less likely to be circumspect (to the point of disingenuousness) in her/his pronouncements. The best of the better lit bloggers transcend even the personal politics of local (b)logrolling.

I don't for a moment doubt that any number of the gifted stylists who've found themselves in Wood's stocks would have zinged the feller well (and not humbly, a la Z. Smith), if the sales/prestige/connections at stake for a literary brand name weren't at risk. Professionals learn, soon enough, that fighting back (in "print" editorials or in comment threads) is a lose-lose proposition.

Withering print-venue "attacks", for that reason, are rare amongst novelists in their prime, though requisite for the critic making a name; the zingers, basically, almost always flow upwards.

Because of this factor, we're getting a skewed picture of both lit bloggers (a category from which I absent myself, as my site is 99% fiction, with ZERO daily opinion content about "issues"; neither am I a literary critic, soi-disant or otherwise) and Mr. Wood's stature. Certainly, his default self-image as being in a position to explain Mr. DeLillo's job to him, for example, deserves a gently rational corrective, but the big guns are loath to fire.

I think Mr. Wood is very popular just now, as the novel-that-is-America still finds itself recovering from that harsh Middle Eastern critique of 2001; many misinterpret that event as a stern rebuke to frivolity, and Mr. Wood makes a convincing Moses (or Spartan chief), to lead them away from frivolity in all of its literary forms.

It's the very fact that Wood is almost archetypically pure in the narrowness of his proscriptions (in inverse proportion to the breadth of his learning) that makes him such a (for many) satisfying scold, and reassuring patriarch, but these are extra-literary talents, in the end, and they support his public agenda (overcoming the critic-vs-novelist stature deficit?) whilst undermining his purchase on the subject.

If Wood uses his extravagant powers of perception to support a misconception on his part (that "the novel" can be described *accurately* with a conceptual armature that's anything less than the totality of novel-writing, past and future), I'm afraid those powers of perception are going to waste. Though I'd mitigate that pronouncement with my more-genuine feeling that nothing as well-written as Mr. Wood's often wrong-headed screeds can be said to be a "waste".

I'm far from nuts enough to hanker to go head-to-head with James Wood on the topic of a particular book he knows and loves; it's on the topic of certain books he *disdains* (and "the novel" as a concept) that a mere mortal has no problem wrestling him to the ground. His "hatreds" (trailing back to complex issues of self-image, possibly?) betray him.

I'm more than happy to go through his "Hysterical Realist" manifesto (the founding salvo), passage by passage, to support my critique, along with the corollary theory that Wood exploited the post-9/11 zeitgeist of shame about "our" frivolity (and decadence) to seize power, as it were (worry not: I'm laughing).

This post-9/11 era is rife with demagogues, and my feeling is that Wood is a literary critic perfectly suited to his time.

Notabene said...


(Glad the two of you go with different spellings). Please do go ahead and support your critique of Hysterical Realism.

I'm not so sure big name novelists are loath to respond to Wood on the commercial/careerist grounds you suggest. More likely its because they aren't up to engaging Wood at his level. After all, literary criticism is Wood country. Most novelists are out ploughing imaginative plains, and get lost in the forest; witness Smith's painfully emotional,unpersuasive retort.

Contrary to what you say, Wood isn't explaining DeLillo's job to him, he's simply critiquing his work with consumate skill and flair. And he's no 'satisfying scold,' just an accomplish critic who holds refreshingly strong opinions and knows how to defend them.

Your snide remarks about the image he holds of himself and his profession are pure conjecture.

btw. I enjoyed your 'Wood's stocks.'

And another thing: why are you afraid of taking Wood on over books he loves, and not over books he hates? Surely, if you disagree with him it shouldn't matter...

Stephen Crowe said...


I certainly don't have a problem with people disagreeing with Wood, I'm just disappointed in the level of debate. It's the whole literary community that suffers when so many people find it acceptable to use superficial arguments and backhanded insults rather than thinking seriously and deeply about literature.

Stephen Crowe said...

And I'm with Notabene: write your point-by-point critique of Wood's "hysterical realism" argument. What's stopping you? Even better, defend those books he hates in your own terms. Focus on the texts and not on Wood.

Steven Augustine said...


"And another thing: why are you afraid of taking Wood on over books he loves, and not over books he hates? Surely, if you disagree with him it shouldn't matter..."

The point being (perhaps I was somehow unclear?) that Wood tends to be, by leagues, sharper on the former than the latter. And by being sharper on the former, he presents me with far less to disagree with; he functions more reliably as an agenda-unburdened critic; I find myself, quite often, in those cases, *agreeing* with him.

Anyway, clearly (and no disrespect meant here): you will have to remain in the camp of believers, regarding Wood, without the benefit of my futile efforts to move you. I'm more than happy, as I say, to take on Wood's curiously lacunae-aerated "Hysterical Realist" manifesto... though in a setting less likely to guarantee a perfect waste of my energy, Sir (laugh)! I thought I sensed some neutrality in Stephen's posts, which is what inspired my offer to discuss the matter further, with Stephen, in detail.

I have to say that this, for example (a random one), strikes me less as a persuasive, or, at least, elegant, response to a point of mine, than the dewy-eyed cheerleading of a believer:

"Contrary to what you say, Wood isn't explaining DeLillo's job to him, he's simply critiquing his work with consumate skill and flair..."

And the following, I'm afraid, indicates that you don't really get the proper relationship of "novelist" to "critic" (there *is* a hierarchy built into the terminology):

"I'm not so sure big name novelists are loath to respond to Wood on the commercial/careerist grounds you suggest. More likely its because they aren't up to engaging Wood at his level."

On the matter of *their own work*? Tut tut. Absurd proposition.

Again: what happened to your confidence in your own common sense? Read Wood's own effort at a novel (which I have done) and tell me, with a straight face, he's mastered the complex tools of the novelist's trade. He fails, almost immediately, on the basic level: the text is dull in its earnestness; the themes are laid out in a lifelessly predictable schematic: the bloody thing is a term paper. Henry James he's not; he's not even Paul Theroux.

If Wood's garlanded edifice as Supreme LitCritter is the weight behind the presumption that I'm speaking out of turn, what of Mr. DeLillo's much longer run of much-praised novel-writing?

I suppose that none of DeLillo's champions (since 1971) can match Wood for special knowledge? DeLillo's stature, up there with Roth and Bellow, is nothing compared to Wood's? Nonsense. The critic is the Artist's vestigial twin. Academic pretensions aside: please get the hierarchy right.

Even Edmund Wilson has to take his place *behind* Nabokov, and, frankly, I'm not sure that Wood won't end up, in the long run, behind V.S. Pritchett in the lesser canon of critics (his work was certainly less distorted by the need to earn both the stature, and the paychecks, granted in Big Fat Americaland).

Notabene, I'd say that my overall comment contained a few interesting/original ideas worth engaging on a serious level, whereas your response was pat. The defensive reflex of a fan. Again: no offense meant. I don't doubt your intelligence. I question your neutrality.

I'm not out to troll any and all positive references to Wood as they appear in the blogosphere; I'm just leery of the distinctly boys-clubbish, extra-literary, saint-making mechanisms I "see" forming around characters as disparate as Wood, Denis Johnson and Ron Paul (laugh).

I'm interested in interesting ideas, not personalities, and I'm not intimidated by cant.

Steven Augustine said...

"Even better, defend those books he hates in your own terms. Focus on the texts and not on Wood."

Stephen, (a certain few of) those books don't need "defending". I'm critiquing an occasional fault that I, personally, find in Wood's production. My points address that, and I'm not interested in being dragged into a different contextual venue. Why should I? I'll stick to the purview of the aspects of this argument that interest me.

Notabene said...


The only thing I am a fan of is good writing and convincing argument, the latter of which I had hoped to get from Steven re: his objection to Hysterical Realism. Pardon me: to Wood's "lacunae-aerated "Hysterical Realist" manifesto."

Not sure why you consider this setting one "guaranteed to be a perfect waste of my energy." Because you think that I'm unlikely to change my position? Quite the contrary Sir. Happy to do so if sufficiently persuaded. Or perhaps you're thinking that rattling on in a commenting forum is unproductive generally speaking...or possibly that you'd prefer to engage with Stephen alone, in which case I'd be pleased to sit by as a silent 'fan' in the bleachers.

As for critics taking places behind novelists...I know critics have been compared to parasites...I happen though, again, to delight in good writing, regardless of who expatiates it. I also happen to prefer good criticism over mediocre fiction. Wood's analysis over DeLillo's novels. I haven't yet read Wood's novel. But really, this matters little. Samuel Johnson wasn't much of a novelist either.