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.