Vivian Gornick on James Wood
New York City
William Deresiewicz’s attack on James Wood strikes the common reader–inclined neither to anoint nor denounce–as extraordinary, so extreme is the avalanche of accusatory prose that is being leveled at a critic of comparable age, education and ability ["How Wood Works," Dec. 8, 2008; "Letters," Jan. 5]. I happen to agree with Deresiewicz on every point he makes about Wood’s criticism: it is narrowly aesthetic; it does worship at the wrong literary altar; and increasingly it sounds as though it is coming from a world other than the one the rest of us are squirming around in (herein lies its true weakness: that the work is not grounded in the emotional undercurrents of its own moment). Yet James Wood, champion of the now painfully inadequate realist novel, is indeed the most celebrated critic of this decade as well as the one before. Instead of writing thoughtfully about this singular development, Deresiewicz goes on the warpath, confusing symptom with cause so badly that by the end of the piece his subject begins to seem an innocent bystander.
Wood is charged with being an unhappily lapsed Christian who displaces onto novel-writing an inappropriate demand for moral (i.e., spiritual) accountability; at the same time, Deresiewicz praises the famous New York critics of some generations past for regarding literature in relation to politics and society. Yet Lionel Trilling was every bit as much a sermonizer as is Wood, declaring repeatedly that the novel had the sacred duty to serve the idea of the moral imagination because it alone could save us from ourselves. In fact, Wood and Trilling are almost exactly the same kind of conservative critic, the major difference between them being that Trilling had the edge because he was writing in a time when literary culture flourished: women and men read widely if not deeply–The Liberal Imagination sold a remarkable 70,000 copies when it was published in 1950–and looked happily to elegant criticism to cast light on the way they were living their lives. There were, however, even then, readers who looked upon Trilling as an aesthete and a moralizer and did not at all love his take on world, self or literature; for them, he never spoke persuasively to what Wallace Stevens called "this iron solitude"–the penetrating psychological truths behind modernist despair. No matter. Trilling’s convictions were the middlebrow convictions of his time–and he linked them brilliantly to novel-reading.
Today, literary culture is not only not flourishing, it is on the defensive: very few read (or for that matter, write) to save their lives, as people did fifty years ago, and no critic, of whatever stripe, can be immune from the knowledge that he or she is working at a moment when the very act of holding a book in one’s hands seems like it might soon become an artifact. Yet, as Randall Jarrell once said, whether we know it or not, without literature human life is animal life–and Wood is the critic who still takes this proposition most to heart. As Deresiewicz acknowledges, Wood goes on writing about literature "as if our souls depended on it, which for any serious reader, they do." And that, finally, is why he is celebrated.