Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 3

[Click for Part One]
Today’s literary culture—especially, it seems, on the Internet—parallels the culture at large in placing a high value on the mere act of having an opinion. To have an opinion—on anything—and to be free to express it seems to symbolise for many the fundamental freedoms of a liberal society. But to be a scholar takes more than being opinionated. Anyone can form an opinion; a book was recently released that promises to teach readers how to form opinions about books they haven’t read. It is the ability to defend one’s opinion—both to define it and to justify it—that separates the critic from the reader, the professional from the Amazon customer who scrawls, ‘Great read! 4 stars!!’ The inability to approach one’s opinion analytically leaves critics with only two options: relativism (the black hole of rational thought), or internecine war. In Internet discussions one sees plenty of both. Thus critical debate is replaced with the occasional skirmish between opposing fan clubs.

Critics should thank James Wood the way poets thank spring: it begins again with him. Of course he is not always right. But his greatest value to literary culture is not that he is always right, but that—to quote everyone’s high school maths teacher—he shows all his work. He uses no cheap rhetorical trickery, only a transparent chain of logical reasoning; and unlike sophistry, whose purpose is to quash debate and negate thought, the well-reasoned argument invites rebuttal. Like a scientist exhaustively detailing his procedure for his peers, Wood appears to say, ‘You don’t like my results? Repeat my experiment and prove me wrong.’ By doing so, he encourages us all to rise with him to a higher level of literary discussion: to discuss, to define, to risk one’s beliefs in the hope of reaching, through the give and take of rational debate, a more intimate knowledge of truth.

The insults, slurs and misrepresentations of these bloggers should be seen as attempts to reverse this process, to drag Wood down with them to the schoolyard. Ultimately this impulse is rooted in laziness. The Internet being, to all intents and purposes, infinite in capacity, there is no particular reason for online book reviews to be confined to a few paragraphs in length. In their (frequent) discussions about the relationship between print and online criticism, literary bloggers are noticeably reluctant to admit that criticism might be a profession with specialised requirements. But criticism is work: if you want to state an opinion, you must be prepared to defend it; and if you are going to argue with someone, you must do them the honour of reading them properly first. Wood himself made this very point when he responded to some poorly researched criticism at The Reading Experience:
I know that bloggers do everything at breakneck speed—the hermeneutics of multi-tasking—but you should read people a bit less rapidly, and—hey, what a notion!—think before you write.
Hallberg’s essay is, as far as I am aware, the first attempt by the online literary community to rise to Wood’s level of rational debate. It represents, therefore, the first step towards a more mature level of critical debate on the Internet, and opens the door to the possibility of consensus between two very different ideas about the nature and function of fiction. One can only hope that Hallberg’s peers will follow him.

UPDATE 10/3/09: It has recently come to my attention that the best of the blogosphere’s James Wood-defaming power has been refined into a new blog entitled Contra James Wood, whose author accuses the critic, among many other things, of insidious right-wing propagandising and racism (one post is entitled ‘The Critic as Cracker’). How strange that it’s always the bloggers, and never the published writers, that resort to childish name-calling...


Dan Green said...

"Hallberg’s essay is, as far as I am aware, the first attempt by the online literary community to rise to Wood’s level of rational debate."

Maybe you should become more aware. See this post:

Or this one:

Stephen Crowe said...

Hi Dan! Everything I have read on your blog makes your self-confidence less surprising. I had read these posts already, but I'm afraid I just didn't think they were nearly as good as Hallberg's essay.

Your first post is clearly a replay of this post, whose mistakes Wood called you on. But you still fail to engage with his concepts, which really aren't that hard to understand. Your second post isn't even an argument: it's just a list of pedantic asides.

What I was really looking for were essays whose authors had the courage to admit the possibility that they might be wrong. It's impossible to make a good argument without doing this, and you never do.

Read Hallberg's essay on DeLillo again, and see if you can spot the difference.

On the other hand I should apologise, because in the sense that I did say "attempt" and not "successful attempt," my statement was incorrect.

Dan Green said...

"What I was really looking for were essays whose authors had the courage to admit the possibility that they might be wrong. It's impossible to make a good argument without doing this, and you never do."

Does Wood? The self-confident pronouncement is his stock-in-trade. (And I don't quarrel with his self-confidence. Just his judgments.)

My post certainly does "engage" with Wood's concepts. I don't agree with them, but I don't simply dismiss them.

Stephen Crowe said...

Obviously, since it is the premise of my essay, I would say that Wood has argued his positions very well. He does not merely pronounce: he persuades. One can't define concepts with Wood's precision without approaching the question objectively. Essays written in your style are like Dale Peck's: they can only preach to the choir, because they make no attempt to see the other side.

I didn't mean to imply that you 'dismissed' Wood's concepts, but that you didn't understand them. I don't have Wood's book to hand, so there's a limit to the detail I can go into here, but your reading has some glaring errors and the overall tone is obtuse.

Think of it this way: all comedy that is derived from narrative action must be based on the revelation of a character's flaws. As I understand it, Wood defines the comedy of correction as that in which the character is seen from without and morally censured; whereas in the comedy of forgiveness, we see the character's flaws as our own and accept them. In a sense, we make peace with humanity's inherent imperfection.

But in your post, you claim that Wood is not describing comedy at all, just 'the revelation of character:
'This is a notion of "comedy" that ignores what is comedic in comedy in favor of the revelations of character, a spiritual communion with "fictive inner lives."'
Using Bakhtin as a kind of human shield, you go on to claim that both satire and the comedy of forgiveness are both 'forms of seriousness,' without ever explaining how or why. You then posit another form of comedy, 'radical scepticism,' that you don't even define, presenting instead just a list of novels.

Your claim that Wood doesn't define 'hysterical realism' is fatuous, since he has done, in great detail. You are on safe ground with this comment:
'Furthermore, few of these kinds of comic novels could convincingly be labeled "hysterical realism" because almost none of them are realistic in any credible sense of the term.'
...because Wood never claimed that Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy were 'hysterical realism.' In the White Teeth review, he clearly says that hysterical realism is a genre invented in the past few decades. As to this comment:
'In fact, comedy is almost by definition not realistic, depending as it does on a deliberate distortion of reality.'
...I don't think you've really thought it through. Does nothing funny ever happen to you in real life?

Dan Green said...

Nothing in your comment shows that I don't "engage" with Wood or don't understand him. Indeed, you describe my account of Wood's notion of comedy--and my own differing account--rather clearly. We have a quite different understanding of what comedy entails. My own view--which I've also explicated in several scholarly articles of which the Wood post is a gloss--is that "comedy" in its purest form is an excoriating comedy that is separate from the "comedy of correction" (satire), while Wood's view is that humor is "forgiving." We have a disagreement about how "comedy" should be defined and about how it manifests itself in modern/contemporary fiction. You very uncharitably translate this disagreement into a failure to understand what Wood is saying. I know very well what he's saying, and I'd appreciate it if you concentrated on the substantive disagreement rather than on what you perceive as my "obtuseness."

Notabene said...

This from Dan's post:

"Wood essentially dismisses this kind of modern writing when he describes "the modern novel's unreliability or irresponsibility, a state in which the reader may not always know why a character does something or may not know how to 'read' a passage, and feels that in order to find these things out, he must try to merge with the characters in their uncertainty." Since our common plight is precisely to live in such uncertainty, what's wrong with this?"

Nothing is wrong with this.Wood doesn't dismiss - with words or tone - this kind of modern writing. He's simply defining, and approving of it.

What I find interesting is how close "merging with characters in their uncertainty," comes to Keats'
Negative Capability. The quality that went to form a man of achievement, especially in Literature: his capability " of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason"

Wonder if this man would chose to merge with the novel's characters - to dwell with their uncertainties - in order to understand them better...

or if this would count as irritably reaching after facts...

Stephen Crowe said...

You're obviously not the kind of person who will ever admit that you might have made a mistake. That's a shame. I see I'm not the first person to point this out.

Don't you see that every time you ignore my arguments and contradict me without providing any evidence, you're just proving the point of my essay?

Stephen Crowe said...

Oops: my comment was directed towards Dan, obviously!

Dan Green said...

You haven't made any arguments. You've made unsupported assertions based on a glib misreading of my post and engaged in name-calling. The sort of thing you disparage bloggers for in your post.

Stephen Crowe said...


They do sound like similar ideas. I think there is a spiritual side to this kind of comedy, in the sense that one is reconciled with one's own flaws. Authors who try to explain the world to you are far inferior, I would say: in a sense they're simply making a fetish of their own intelligence.

Did Keats mean that one should not grasp for facts at all? Because I don't think this is even possible. But to accept the existence of irresolvable questions--I can certainly see the value of that.

Notabene said...

I suppose one has to first understand: what is beyond comprehension? Author intent for example...or what's going on in the heads of others, including characters in novels. So Wood is saying there is a new relationship between reader and character in the modern novel...where the reader (following Pirandello) sees characters with a mixture of amusement and pity...laughing with them not at them...empathizing. Merging with them is not necessarily grasping after's more experiencing the specifics of their uncertainties, so we can better live with our own... Wood suggests that although unreliable, modern fiction believes that the attempt to know the character is still worthwhile.

this is where I get lost with Dan's article. Wood is saying that modern fiction believes (which is a bit obtuse) the attempt is still worthwhile. Dan seems to be saying that it isn't...

As for the inferiority of writers who try to explain the world...I'm not so sure. Tolstoy spent a fair amount of space in War and Peace describing how history is made...some may say that it weakened the novel...I found it pretty interesting...

btw: sorry for interrupting the flow of your discussion with Dan. I only incurred a slight flesh wound. Too bad we didn't get more

Stephen Crowe said...


I wasn't really referring to novels with essayistic digressions. Obviously a novel can do two things at once. I was thinking more about authors who write novels whose purpose is to explain or argue some kind of political or philosophical point, like these social novelists that I talked about. They want to show how 'the system' works. Although I don't mind an interesting digression (I haven't read War and Peace, but Proust goes off on many tangents about art and psychology &c.), but on the whole I prefer novelists not to think they know everything, and just to tell a good story.

I don't think it's necessary to know much about a character in order to empathise with them- in fact it might be counter-productive. It seems to me that our inherent tendency to empathise is the reason art exists: like exercising a muscle.

Sorry you got caught in the cross-fire, but there are always casualties in war :)

Notabene said...

Not sure which social novelists you are referring to, but based on what you're saying Orwell and Huxley wouldn't make the cut.

As for art and empathy, I agree with you. Coetzee is a master at saying little, and eliciting a lot. Art makes us feel.

Stephen Crowe said...

I was referring to the 'hysterical realists', Thomas Pynchon &c, but I would include Huxley in that: Brave New World is third-rate, in my opinion. But that's the only Huxley I've read; does it get better?

As for Orwell, 1984 is more rightfully respected as a political statement than a great novel, but its story does have some great dramatic power (Terry Gilliam stole it very effectively in Brazil, his best film). Orwell was a great writer, but journalism was his real gift.

Stephen Crowe said...

Dear me, I used 'great' three times in one paragraph. Terrible...

Steven Augustine said...


I'll print my recent attempt at this "Elegant Variation" comment, on the theme of Mr. Wood, *here*, since it's not possible, apparently, to squeeze through whatever filter Mark has up at the moment; it goes as follows, bafflingly out of context:

----and before I'm the victim of a micro-pedantic tasering: "community dialect" in place of "community ideolect"; however: dialect-schmialect; it's 1 in the morning over here, I'm drowsy and it's time for bed.

Linguistic arguments, in any case, are as useful, re: the purpose and production of the novel, as a biochemistry textbook is to the creation of a five-course meal.

Not that you should take any of this as being delivered with a scowl, on my part. Imagine, please, a "smiley face" appended at the end... a smiley and a warm "good night!"------


To which I would add: believe it or not, Mr. Wood's pronouncements are "opinions". Under all the razzle-dazzle are simple ideas that will live or die (or live a kind of half-life, supported by the unexamined good will of the intimidated reader) according to the apparent rightness of their claims.

Stephen Crowe said...


I have quoted you in full on The Elegant Variation, and responded there, because otherwise things would have got very confusing.

Steven Augustine said...


Duly noted. Glad you liked the "biochemistry" simile, at least... I debuted it on The Valve early last year (to zero acclaim-larf). Glad we Intractables can keep the proceedings jovial...

Notabene said...

I wouldn't say Huxley is third rate. He's an ideas man, using the novel as a vehicle. He's much better as an essayist. If you haven't read any I'd recommend them. Particularly Brave New World Re-Visited.

Apparently among his earlier works Antic Hay and Yellow Chrome are worth the time. Good period pieces.

For years I collected First Editions of Huxley...have quite a shelf full...have cooled off a bit these days. Prize is a first of that third rate novel you berate :)

The cover is beautiful.