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How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood | The Nation

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How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood

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A critic who prizes realness above all else will naturally favor a realist aesthetic. Wood's touchstones are Austen, Tolstoy, James, Chekhov, Mann, Bellow, Naipaul. Of antirealist writers--experimentalists, postmodernists, magical realists; Rushdie, DeLillo, Zadie Smith--he is famously critical (though with exceptions, like José Saramago). He extols Joyce and tips his hat to Kafka and Beckett, but he has little to say about them, and when he does say something about Joyce--or Woolf, for that matter--he makes them sound like realists, avoiding everything that is characteristically experimental or Modernist about them. He acknowledges the force of J.M. Coetzee's work, which is founded on allegory and parable, but rather than investigating that force, he chooses to pick an argument with Coetzee's most realistic and therefore least characteristic novel, Disgrace.

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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There is a larger issue at work here, and it is precisely that of literature and belief. The Broken Estate is framed as an inquiry into the transmutations of belief as it migrated from religion to fiction during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In its title essay, Wood remarks that "the child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but he rejects it religiously." A kind of theologian manqué, Wood confesses his atheism with a ritual regularity; as vigorously as literature mobilizes his emotions, he saves his deepest feelings for theological dispute, the one place his impeccably confident prose tends to lose its composure. As he says of Melville, he can neither believe nor do without belief. What he finally seems to want from fiction is that it recapture his lost faith without spilling a drop.

In order to do so, it must be, as it were, "literally" true--transparently true. It must feel exactly like life, must exhibit not, as he puts it, "lifelikeness" but "lifeness: life on the page." Of a descriptive phrase in Henry James, Wood exclaims, "Aren't these exactly the best words in the best order?" The idea suggests the possibility of a perfect transmission from world to work, from life to "lifeness," as if the artistic medium could function like a clear pane of glass. Wood knows, of course, that realism is a set of conventions, but like a liberal Catholic who understands that Jesus wasn't really divine, he would prefer to forget it. Hence his discomfort with the artful distortion, the allegorical dislocation--the bank shot, the knight's move, the indirect approach.

Too much is sacrificed on the altar of this aesthetic theology--too much in fiction that is fine; too much, finally, that is true. Magical realism is indeed unconvincing in Rushdie and Morrison, as Wood says, but what of García Márquez, who integrates it into a seamlessly imagined world? Does it matter that Borges doesn't create realistic characters? Nabokov's characters may be "galley slaves," as the novelist boasted, but he is still able to use them as, in his words, "a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion." To Roland Barthes's charge that realism is merely a collection of effects, Wood correctly replies that "realism can be an effect and still be true." But so can antirealism. Wood defends realism, justly, from accusations of naïveté, but the terms in which he does so make him susceptible to the same charge. "Almost all the great 20th-century realist novels," he says, "are full of artifice," which makes artifice sound like a kind of optional ingredient, sort of like sugar, that novelists are free to add in greater or lesser amounts. Of course, everything, in every novel, is artifice. The only distinction to be made is between artifice that is flaunted and artifice that is concealed.

Wood's unwillingness to confront the contradictions in his thinking about these matters--to distinguish between realism and reality, artifice and experiment, character and person--points to a larger problem. Wood is a daring thinker, but he is not a particularly rigorous one. His powerfully associative mind tends to run him into logical cul-de-sacs that his supreme self-assurance prevents him from noticing. He often wanders from topic to topic, always too willing to be seduced from his path by the dappled description, the blooming detail. The general question tends to make him especially approximate; reading his critique of the gaseous George Steiner, I sometimes feel like I am watching two men beat each other with balloons. As at the larger scale, so at the smaller. Wood asserts that Mann's fiction is childlike because, among other things, it contains a lot of children. He says that human free will is not necessarily important to God, since God could have made us less free. While we might grant him enough room to argue that Morrison loves her characters too indulgently and then, four pages later, that she loves them less than she loves her language, we must draw the line when he tells us that Hamsun's characters "lie both to themselves and to us" and then, later in the same paragraph, that in his work "a character can lie neither to us nor to himself."

Wood's critical authority has become so daunting, it seems, that even he is afraid to challenge it. His argumentative method rests far too heavily on hand-waving, and while he is superb at turning a phrase, the fact that something sounds good doesn't guarantee that it makes any sense. Wood never stops to ask himself what his favorite formulas actually mean: characters who feel "real to themselves," who "forget" they're in a novel and so forth. These are obviously only metaphors, but metaphors for what? What, for that matter, does "lifeness" mean? And to what extent is Wood willing to take responsibility for his assertion, near the end of How Fiction Works, his new treatise on novelistic technique, that we should "replace the always problematic word 'realism' with the much more problematic word 'truth'"? Is something true (or beautiful, or good) just because James Wood says so?

For so imperious a critic, Wood is surprisingly sloppy. He repeatedly writes "literature" when he means "fiction." He confuses Jane and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, thinks the Professor in Conrad's The Secret Agent is a real professor and fails to see that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza know exactly how they're depicted in the first half of Cervantes's work, since someone tells them at the beginning of the second (a particularly surprising oversight, given that their resulting self-consciousness shapes the couple's behavior throughout the rest of the novel). In How Fiction Works, he spends two full pages burbling over the delicious mystery, in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, of Mr. Casey's having gotten his "three cramped fingers making a birthday present for Queen Victoria" (Why Queen Victoria? Whatever could the present have been?), when anyone can see that something sardonically political is intended, a suspicion confirmed by Richard Ellmann's standard biography of the author. Wood's prodigious ability to trace lines of descent across novelistic history, usually so illuminating, can become first a bookkeeper's compulsion (he'll complete his double entry whether it's relevant to the discussion or not), then an obsessive's delusion. Cormac McCarthy's Anton Chigurh is not a "reprise" of Conrad's Professor, even if one makes Wood think of the other; the only thing the two characters have in common is that they're both scary.

The looseness extends even to style. Aside from its profusion of metaphor, the most conspicuous feature of Wood's prose is his taste for the angled modifier: "royal fatalism," "fat charity," "white comment," "trapped loyalties." A book is described as "curlingly set in the present." Again, these sound good--they are essentially a kind of compressed metaphor--but what do they mean? Sometimes Wood unpacks them; sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes I can guess; sometimes I can't. At times it seems like he just throws an adjective at a noun and hopes it will stick. At others, the technique involves the displacement of a modifier from its expected syntactic position, a trick he probably picked up from Shakespeare. We're told that "Melville's faith quivered" on a "violent bevel," but since it's hard to see how a bevel could be violent, we understand Wood to mean that Melville's faith quivered violently, as on a bevel. This kind of wobble is frequently to be found among his metaphors, as well. Melville fingers his torment "like a wounded rosary"; Woolf "embarrasses words into confessing their abstract pigments"; Steiner's wager on the existence of meaning "is no more than the milk of optimism, and is soaked in errors." But soaking milk is like burning fire, a confessed pigment is a verbal color improperly mixed and a wounded rosary is one incarnation too many.

These stylistic imprecisions, however, are programmatic. For Wood, metaphor naturally runs away with itself, overreaches, and will necessarily at times be unsuccessful. His angled adjectives and mixed metaphors are a form of cognitive exploration, a search party stumbling on its way to new discoveries. What's more, he claims metaphor is the proper language not only of fiction but of criticism. Because literary criticism, unlike that of music or art, shares its subject's language, it can "never offer a successful summation...one is always thinking through books, not about them." Moreover, "all criticism is itself metaphorical in movement, because it deals in likeness. It asks: what is art like? What does it resemble?" The language of literary criticism, Wood says, must be literary, "which is to say metaphorical."

This is a provocative idea, but it is based on several false premises and, indeed, faulty metaphors. Literary criticism may share its subject's language, but unlike music or painting, words can also be used to form concepts. Language is not only representational and emotive--that is, literary--it is also logical and analytic--that is, critical. Wood's distinction between "thinking through" and "thinking about" (both prepositions are also spatial metaphors) is another rhetorically attractive statement that turns out upon examination to be logically void. If Wood's work cannot be described as "thinking about" books--making conceptual statements about them--then neither word has any content. And the reason criticism needs to make use of the conceptual resources of language is that while it does indeed deal with what art is like, it also deals with what it means.

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