Postcard From Nebraska
Charles Kuralt gathered friends around him like a family at CBS News Sunday Morning. (No, people like John Leonard, Bill Geist and me were not essayists for Charles simply because of our rugged good looks!) The best description I heard of John’s work was from a friend in Oklahoma who couldn’t remember John’s name. “You know…” he sputtered, “that guy…the one who uses big words…the one you can’t understand but you can tell from the way he says it that you agree with him.” We all agreed with John, even when we didn’t agree with him [“John Leonard,” Dec. 8].
ROGER WELSCH, “Postcards From Nebraska,” Sunday Morning (ret.)
Knock on Wood
La Mirada, Calif.
William Deresiewicz’s “How Wood Works” [Dec. 8] compelled me to read every word because it is “heroic criticism” indeed. I began at the end, then had to go back to the beginning. Hardwick, Trilling et al. would smile, as I am. Thanks for the superb analysis/critique.
William 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 in the name of “lifeness,” and our critics should be required to avoid it at all costs.
William Deresiewicz did a good job of categorizing James Wood’s stylistic infelicities and his limited repertoire of tropes, not to mention his limitations of vision. But one wishes that Deresiewicz’s critique had been an investigation of such devastation that the subject must simply slink away. His review comes close but backs off from full dismissal, partially because of a fealty to the so-called New York intellectuals, whose only still readable member, fifty years on, is Edmund Wilson. Deresiewicz’s allusion to that club underscores the closed-shop quality of New York reviewery (New Yorkers reviewing one another’s books ecstatically). To the list of vital alternative writers he offers up, I would add B.R. Myers, whose all-too-infrequent reviews are exactly the down-to-earth tonic Deresiewicz appears to seek in the face of Wood’s Olympian disengagement.
Wood doesn’t really seem to fit The New Yorker; he remains more a man of The New Republic, where a hostility to culture continues to thrive. To The New Yorker, Wood has brought his ill-fitting monastic severity, kicking off his stint with a review of fellow New Republic scribe Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms.