How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood

How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood

How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood

James Wood may be the best literary critic we have, but the status he enjoys reveals just how far we have fallen.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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