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Web Letter

How severely misunderstood, yet rightly-righteously glimpsed! Perhaps we of wounded faith have just enough ardor left to corral the full mass of our soul and submit wholly, fanatically, to the altar of literary veritas. We atone in dappled descriptions, confess to the blooming detail; nay, not detours of a Spenserian knight in filigree woods, but soul-grieved wanderlust for, yes, lifeness, hoping, believing, praying, that no prophet intermediates Truth and Knowing, God and Revelation, text and being, but that only a direct, diaphanous tunnel cleaves word to Word. Perhaps Wood's close readings, as Deresiewicz deplores, is a symptom of the malaise of pomo sociocultural numbness. The metastasizing chase of false gods has soundly caught us. Perhaps (and why not? for what good has even postcoloniality, post-9/11, post-all-post vivisections done? what glory now prevails in Cambodia, Congo, Darfur, Rwanda, the Gaza Strip, rickety tread of the dispossessed on Pul-Sirat capillaries of the world?) amid all the dross, a cellular craving eggs us on for and toward something outside of the self, a pulse both concrete yet imaginary, alphabetic yet synaptic, shadows refined"real"... where we may cull some solace, some opium, even a single decibel of echoing truth no matter how subjective and how illogical... (for aren't they all, despite all urgings and urgencies, merely metaphoric semaphores?) I concede the textuality of the real, the merely figurative/synthetic consolation of literature... yet the pious soul prostrates before fictive twins, palms arrowed toward alms of meaning, significance. Perhaps only the cloister of a shriveled book-array--select, singular tomes and tombs -- is the only hermitage one can still afford now. To Wood his study, to me my (less than or equal to) 8 by 11 mind (room, page, book). Our claim to private truthiness ain't for public bidding. Thank god(s).

Sabrina Sadique

Cambridge, MA

Jan 2 2009 - 2:21pm

Web Letter

Deresiewicz reiterates Wood's prizing of "realness above all else," his "microscopic alertness to verbal texture" and his "deep feelings for theological dispute," yet never once asks what these thematic fetishes may indicate. To me they indicate that Wood is a critic obsessed with the act of creation--in other words, obsessed with God. Wood's criticism centers on the decisions made in the mind of the artist during the act of creation; he attempts to "bend" his language around the authors he criticizes, "so that it seems to spring from their minds." The realism Wood prizes in Chekhov's depictions of characters is identical to the realism he prizes in his own depictions of authors. He is alert to verbal texture because he is alert to the decision-making process of the artist, as Deresiewicz admits, "so feelingly does he follow the movements of their minds, that he seems to write from within the books themselves."

Though Deresiewicz points to true gaps in Wood's criticism, his mistake is in assuming that they are faults of Wood's. He wants to drag Wood away from his expertise and launch him into a political and cultural context that really isn't Wood's forte. He wants Wood to look outside in, when Wood favors looking inside out. What Deresiewicz brands as detachment from the real world is really Wood's frightening intimacy with the author's he critiques. A critic who emulates Wood would not end up in the desert, they'd end up in the minds of the authors they criticize, just as Wood does. It is, however, no coincidence that the minds of the greatest writers seem as vast and empty as deserts, vacated by their possessor in order that he may enter the minds of his characters. Fiction is an elusive business.

Todd Portnowitz

Orlando, FL

Dec 2 2008 - 8:10pm

Web Letter

Mr. Deresiewicz did a good job of categorizing Mr. Wood's stylistic infelicities and his limited repertoire of tropes, not to mention his limitations of vision. But I would like to point out two or three residual disappointments. For starters, one (or at least this reader) wishes that Mr. Deresiewicz's critique were at the level of, say, Renata Adler on Pauline Kael, an investigation of such devastation that the subject must simply slink away, as Kael did after a discreet grace period. This review comes close, but backs off from full dismissal, partially because Mr. Deresiewicz shows a continuing fealty to the so-called New York intellectuals, whose only still readable member, fifty years on, is Mr. Edmund Wilson, whom he does mention.

Mr. Deresiewicz's allusion to that club, however, does underscore the closed-shop quality of New York reviewery (New Yorkers reviewing each others books ecstatically), a continual problem which the World Wide Web may yet undermine. To the list of vital alternative writers Mr. Deresiewicz offers up, I would add (or replace one of them with) B. R. Myers, whose all-too-infrequent reviews are exactly the down-to-earth tonic Mr. Deresiewicz appears to seek in the face of Mr. Wood's Olympian disengagement.

I would add, finally, that Mr. Wood doesn't really seem to fit in The New Yorker. He remains more of a New Republic man, where a hostility to culture continues to thrive, as in the work of house jokester James Wolcott, where prejudices and mere impressions are garbed in formulaic witticisms construed as a "lively style," but where otherwise high seriousness prevails as a backhanded dismissal of the plebeian. To The New Yorker, Mr. Wood as brought his ill-fitting monastic severity, as shown in kicking off his stint with a review of fellow New Republic scribe Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms.

D.K. Holm

Vancouver Voice<br />Portland, OR

Nov 30 2008 - 2:07pm

Web Letter

Deresiewicz is kinder to Wood than he rightly deserves, but the conclusion of the piece certainly rings true: Wood is precisely the wrong sort of standard-bearer for modern literary criticism, academic or otherwise. Our authors should be held to account for wanton navel-gazing (to say nothing of muddle-headedness) in the name of "lifeness," and our critics should be required to avoid it at all costs.

James walling

Vancouver, WA

Nov 28 2008 - 3:41pm

Web Letter

William Deresiewicz makes an interesting attempt to categorize James Wood. However, he misses the main thing about him. Wood isn't an American. Beside "the New York critics," he will naturally seem more detached. But his political insights are sharp. Read his review of V.S. Naipaul's biography in The New Yorker. It shows a genuine understanding of colonialism and what it meant to be a colonial in Trinidad and in Britain. Note the reference to Fanon. Decolonization is not a "purely aesthetic issue." It's the biggest event in England since WWII. For an example of politics being separated from culture, read George Packer's review of the same biography in the New York Times. It makes you think that Naipaul was awarded the Nobel prize for his managing of a weird sex triangle.

Peter Byrne

Lecce, Italy

Nov 25 2008 - 1:52pm