James Wood, the ferociously intelligent critic whose reviews appear regularly in The New Republic and the London Review of Books, has single-handedly done a great deal to improve the literary atmosphere in the past few years. With their extraordinary intensity, Wood’s literary essays are like nothing else being written today; he seems to be a man who couldn’t live without literature, and for many of us, his example has been inspiring.
Wood is one of those rare critics whose discernment is so strong that he helps us to become better readers of fiction. More than that: He’s one of those rare writers who can enrich one’s own engagement with life. In a brilliant appreciation of Saul Bellow, for example, Wood showed how Bellow is alone among contemporary writers in his power to make the reader see–and after reading Wood’s demonstration of where Bellow’s greatness lies, one came away feeling that one’s own ability to see had been magnified.
Most book reviews are just plot summaries with a few adjectives thrown in; Wood is rare among contemporary reviewers in that he has a considered idea of what a good novel should be, and he’s confident enough to make his premises clear. Wood believes that the special magic of fiction lies in the writer’s ability to create “characters out of nothing”–and when he finds fault with a novel it’s often because he believes that the novelist has avoided the hard work of trying to bring fully imagined characters to the page. Reviewing Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, he writes that “Its characters exist to dispense lessons, ideological or philosophical. Although they have a certain alluring liveliness, they do not quite exist as people.” Of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, he writes that “the paranoid vision incorporates a certain restless despair that makes the creation of rounded individual characters impossible.” And of Toni Morrison’s Paradise, he writes that she “is so besotted with making poetry, with the lyrical dyeing of every moment, that she cannot grant characters their own words…. Morrison loves her own language more than she loves her characters.” Wood is an advocate of literary realism, but his idea of realism is wide enough to embrace Kafka and Gogol–because however fantastic the worlds they place their characters in, the characters themselves are imagined with a frightening vividness. Gregor Samsa, antennae and all, is indelibly real. In an essay on Iris Murdoch, Wood refers to her belief that “we judge the great novelists by the quality of their awareness of others…for the novelist this is at the highest level the most crucial test.” His discussion of Murdoch is nuanced, and I’m not sure he explicitly endorses her formulation, but I think that a similar view is at the heart of his notion of what good fiction should be.
In one of his best essays, “Half-Against Flaubert,” which is included in his collection The Broken Estate (2000), Wood contrasts Flaubert with Chekhov in a way that underlines the values he prizes in fiction: “If Flaubert disliked his characters from afar, Chekhov loved his closely; if Flaubert’s people are all mistakes, Chekhov’s, even the fools, are always forgiven; if Flaubert turned style into a monkish fetish, Chekhov made of it a worldly devotion.” Beneath the demanding intellectuality of his essays lies a foundation of old-fashioned humanism.