How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood
An iron law of American life decrees that the provinces of thought be limited in the collective consciousness to a single representative. Like a poor man's Noah, we take one of each. One physicist: Stephen Hawking. One literary theorist: Harold Bloom. One radical social critic: Noam Chomsky. Before her death, we had one intellectual, Susan Sontag, and one only. (Now we've dispensed with the category altogether.) We are great anointers in this country, a habit that obviates the need for scrutiny. We don't want to have to go into the ins and outs of a thing--weigh merits, examine histories, enter debates. We just want to put a face on it--the logic of celebrity culture--and move on.
It has been decided of late that the face of literary criticism shall belong to James Wood. A writer first at the Guardian (from 1992 to 1996), then at The New Republic and now, since last year, at The New Yorker, Wood has long been considered, in a formulation that soon assumed a ritual cast, "the best critic of his generation." Coming from elders like Sontag, Bloom and Saul Bellow, and nearly always incorporating that meaningless word "generation," these consecrations have bespoken a kind of Oedipal conflict, betraying the double urge first to possess one's offspring by defining them, then to destroy them altogether. For Wood has come to be seen as something more than the best of his generation: not just the best, full stop, regardless of generation, but the one, the only, even the last. Beside him, none; after him, none other. The line ends here.
Contributing to this mythology is a belief in cultural decline, as constitutive a feature of modern consciousness as its reciprocal faith, a belief in material progress. Cynthia Ozick recently called for a "thicket of Woods," a battalion of critics raised in Wood's image, to renovate not only literary criticism but literature itself. Wood is the "template," Ozick announced, from which a new cultural "infrastructure" must be built--or rebuilt. For Ozick, Wood recalls the glory days of American criticism during the middle of the last century, the age of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe. Indeed, he may surpass these forebears. "We have not heard a critical mind like this at work," Ozick declared, "since Trilling's The Liberal Imagination." The Liberal Imagination was published in 1950. Everything since includes some of Wilson, most of Trilling himself and nearly all of Kazin and Howe. Perhaps Ozick was only indulging in a bit of polemical hyperbole, but the comparison she urges convinces me that there may be something to the idea of cultural decline after all. Wood may be the best we have, but to set him next to Wilson, Trilling, Kazin and Howe is to see exactly how far we have fallen.
But before we measure that distance, let us first give Wood his due. It is large. A critic's first necessity is learning, and Wood's learning is immense. He has not only read all the novels; he has read all the lives, all the letters and all the manifestoes, and he quotes them, with an exquisite ear for accent and echo, as if he'd read them all yesterday. He has read criticism, theory, aesthetics and, a special interest of his, theology. The apostate son of an evangelical childhood, he writes about literature as if our souls depended on it, which, for any serious reader, they do. For Wood, literature is truth, or as close as we're going to get to it in a world without God. In this postmodernist age, when Wood's New Yorker colleague Louis Menand can note, with a sense of amused relief, that the language of entertainment has displaced the language of moral seriousness in popular literary discourse; when Caleb Crain can declare, in the hipster literary journal n+1, that "literature is only an art," no more worthy of university instruction than wine tasting; when those same universities can turn literature over to ideologues who fear and despise it; Wood's unapologetic commitment to literature's transcendent value and criticism's high calling is his most important virtue.
The charge of that commitment is transmitted by the electricity of his style. Wood's writing is stretched taut by his command of syntax, made brilliant by his virtuosity of metaphoric coloration. For Wood, Melville "went tidally, between belief and unbelief"; "Flaubert's characters are doomed, while Chekhov's are only imprisoned"; Coleridge's style features "voluminous sentences that stretch like library corridors"; "Woolf's work is a kind of tattoo peeled off the English poets and rubbed onto her sentences"; Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, a faux eighteenth-century novel, "functions as an allegorical picaresque, rolling the brougham of itself from implication to implication, taking on extra implications at one town, and throwing off a few at the next." These are more than ornaments. In his essay on Woolf, Wood argues that the metaphoric abundance of her critical prose marks "her nearness to her subjects--her ability to use an artistic language," and so it is with him. So intimate is Wood with his authors, so feelingly does he follow the movements of their minds, that he seems to write from within the books themselves. His essays, snatches of an ongoing conversation, open midstride. Eschewing the old or fashionable question, he is always already on the second thought.
That conversation spirals around the issue that organizes all of Wood's thinking about fiction. In the words of the subtitle of his first collection, The Broken Estate, it is the issue of "literature and belief." How do novels coax us toward belief in things we know to be untrue? How do authors create believable characters? How can novelistic language be at once literary and realistic? How has the nature of verisimilitude--the image we consent to call "real"--changed over the course of literary history? What does it mean to believe a fiction in the first place? Wood addresses these questions through two principal means: broad examination of the evolution of novelistic technique and close stylistic analysis. (It is the first of these, his attention to "indebtedness" and "connectedness," his ability to think the whole of the novel's history in a single thought, that especially recommends him to Ozick.) Wood shows us how unreliable narration developed from Dostoyevsky to Knut Hamsun to Italo Svevo, how stream of consciousness begins in Shakespearean soliloquy and moves to Jane Austen's refinement of free indirect discourse before erupting into the Modernist technique that bears that name. These discussions are never abstractly theoretical but grounded in Wood's microscopic alertness to verbal texture: how Chekhov "bends" his language around his characters so that it seems to spring from their minds, how Bellow renders detail so as to make it both modernly impressionistic and classically solid, how D.H. Lawrence causes a seemingly ordinary description to glimmer with religious intimations.
In all this, Wood is centrally concerned with the ways novelists tell the truth about the world, how they "produce art that accurately sees 'the way things are,'" and it is here that we begin to see both his project's deepest motives and the first of its limitations. Wood's ideal authors are those, like Chekhov and Mann and the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, who are able to invent characters who seem to break free of their creators' intentions, who feel "real to themselves"--and thus to us--because they "forget" they are fictional. A novelist's ultimate achievement is to enable us to know a character so well that we catch a glimpse of his inviolable unknowability, his singular quiddity--in other words, though Wood doesn't use the term, his soul. While Wood esteems Flaubert and, to a lesser extent, Nabokov, he finally finds their exquisite artistic control too confining (hence his remark about Flaubert's characters being "doomed"). For Wood, the essential authorial endowment is what Keats called "negative capability"--the ability to remain hospitable to alien styles of being and antithetical beliefs and values.