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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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But beyond his theological preoccupations, Wood never shows much interest in what novels mean. His criticism shuttles between the largest scale and the smallest, the development of fictional technique over the course of novelistic history and the minute particulars of authorial style. His brilliance in describing both is unequaled, but he ignores just about everything that lies in between. He ignores the broad middle ground of novelistic form--narrative structures, patterns of character and image, symbols that bind far-flung moments and disparate levels of a text--and he ignores the meanings that novelists use those methods to propose. (This explains his factual mistakes and interpretive blunders; he simply isn't paying attention at a certain level.) Wood can tell us about Flaubert's narrator or Bellow's style, but he's not very curious about what those writers have to say about the world: about boredom, or grief, or death, or anything else in the wide, starred universe of human experience. He would always rather spend his time tasting the flavor of a phrase or giving the deck of his theoretical interests another shuffle.

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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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Nor is it a very large deck. Wood doesn't develop his ideas from essay to essay so much as reiterate them, often in the same words and with the same examples, like a professor pulling out his old lectures year after year. (In How Fiction Works, he mutes his rhetorical pyrotechnics in an effort not to frighten off the common reader, with the predictable result that, as the title suggests, he comes off sounding even more condescending than usual.) If The Broken Estate is about literature and belief, his second collection, The Irresponsible Self, ostensibly takes up the question of "laughter and the novel." But beyond the very general notion that humor in fiction involves a historically new symbiosis of laughter and tears, comedy and sympathy, he has nothing to say about the subject, which in any case appears in the volume only intermittently. Already in the first essay, he is drawn back willy-nilly to his intellectual lodestone, the question of belief. Wood's reading may be vast, but the stock of his ideas is rather small.

It is not hard to see why. For all his interest in fiction's ability to tell the truth about the world, there is something remarkably self-enclosed about his criticism--a sense that nothing exists beyond the boundary of his consciousness, and that his consciousness contains nothing but books. In a preface to the new work, Wood assures us that he has used "only the books I actually own--the books at hand in my study" to produce the volume. The statement is truer than he knows. Wood has read all the novels and all the volumes that bear upon the novels, and he seems to think that is all one needs to do. But there is a world outside his study, and the books in his study, and one can't understand fiction without understanding that. The novel, more than other literary forms, embodies a massive engagement with the world--has massive designs upon the world--and demands a comparable engagement from its critics. Wood thinks that McCarthy got Chigurh from Conrad because he can't imagine that he got him from anywhere other than another novel. How Fiction Works offers us "a brief history of consciousness" from Homer to Modernism but without any suggestion that the representation of consciousness in literature might have something to do with what has happened outside literature. Wood treats the novelistic canon like one giant Keatsian urn, a self-sufficient aesthetic artifact removed from commerce with the dirty, human world.

Here we begin to glimpse the enormous gulf that lies between James Wood, the best we have to offer, and the New York critics, Wilson, Trilling, Kazin and Howe--and, let us add, lest we fetishize that quartet, which in any case begins to sound like a white-shoe law firm that's being taken over by Jews, another critic with strong claims to inclusion in that company, Elizabeth Hardwick. What made these thinkers so distinguished, what made their criticism so significant not only for American literature but also for this country's intellectual culture as a whole, was not great learning, or great thinking, or great expressive ability, or great sensitivity to literary feeling and literary form, though they exhibited all of these, but a passionate involvement with what lies beyond the literary and creates its context. Wilson, who wrote about everything during his teeming career, from politics to popular culture, socialist factions to Native American tribes, warned about "the cost of detaching books from all the other affairs of human life." Trilling's whole method as a critic was to set the object of his consideration within the history of what he called "the moral imagination." Kazin, whose criticism, like Hardwick's, focused on the literature of this country in particular, sought to illuminate nothing less than "the nature of our American experiences." The goal of Howe's criticism, he said, was "the recreation of a vital democratic radicalism in America." The New York critics were interested in literature because they were interested in politics, culture, the moral life and the life of society, and all as they bore on one another. They placed literature at the center of their inquiry because they recognized its ability not only to represent life but, as Matthew Arnold said, to criticize it--to ask questions about where we are and how where we are stands in relation to where we should be. They were not aesthetes; they were, in the broadest sense, intellectuals.

To turn from Wood to any one of these writers is to breathe an incomparably richer mental atmosphere. Wood's reading of the theatrical performance in Mansfield Park, which causes so much trouble for the characters in Austen's novel by stirring up impermissible feelings, is a crabbed conceit about the difference between theatrical and novelistic pacing. Trilling's, which revolutionized our understanding of this recalcitrant work, brings the history of nineteenth-century ideas about duty, sincerity and much else to bear on the novel's uncongenial insistence on "fixity" of identity and conduct. Wood's essay on Updike conducts a critique of the novelist's religious complacency that feels like an argument in a Cambridge common room--pedantic, persnickety and finally rather bloodless. Hardwick's, slyly sophisticated and elegantly droll, swift and easy and knowing, bespeaks a critic who has lived and moved in the world, and who has made her studies of character from life as well as books. For the New York critics, novelists are people; for Wood, people, including novelists, are ideas. To set his pages on Bellow next to Kazin's or Howe's is to remember everything we've been missing. On the novelist's style they are no less incisive than he, but they understand it in relation to an incomparably broader range of relevancies: Jewishness, the city, the American vernacular--human relevancies, not just aesthetic ones. Nor is this a matter of greater demographic closeness. Compare Kazin on Jewish-American fiction to Wood on postwar English fiction ("English" as in England). The former is nothing less than the psychic biography of an entire community. The latter confines itself to purely aesthetic issues; what has happened in England since the end of World War II--anything that has happened in England since the war, politically, socially or culturally--simply doesn't enter into his thinking. The comprehensiveness of his omissions is staggering.

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One cannot finally fault Wood for this. No one is doing what the New York critics once did. The real question is why. The first answer, it seems to me, has to do with a general loss of cultural ambition. We no longer have anyone who aspires to be the next Joyce or Proust either. The Modernist drive to remake the world has given way to a postmodern sense of enfeeblement. The very idea of heroic criticism, like that of heroic art, is, as Menand so gleefully announced, no longer credible. Related to this is the so-called "cultural turn," the abandonment of the political dimension of radical critique over the past several decades in favor of an exclusive emphasis on social meanings--the domain of cultural studies in the academy and "cultural criticism" in the media. Gone is any sense that politics and culture are connected, or that their criticism should be connected--the real reason we no longer have any public intellectuals, whose activity is predicated on precisely that belief. It was a belief indebted, to a large extent, to Marxism. The struggle to come to terms with Marxism was central to the New York critics' intellectual formation. It is no accident that the few older writers who still practice a broad-gauge criticism, most notably Terry Eagleton, Clive James and Christopher Hitchens, have all had extensive business with that ideology, or that its disappearance has coincided with a diminishment of critical possibility. Wood's distaste for the postmodern and admirable refusal of its easy cynicisms notwithstanding, his narrow aestheticism marks him unmistakably as a product of his time.

I don't know how we're going to get back to the kind of criticism the New York critics wrote, or the kind of intellectual life that criticism made possible. Their emergence was the result of a historical juncture that will probably never recur. But I do know that we won't get back to it by taking Wood as our critical template. Ozick's thicket of Woods would be a dwarf forest. We are immensely fortunate to have him--his talent, his erudition, his judgment--but if American criticism were to follow his lead, it would end up only in a desert.

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