Vivian Gornick on James Wood
New York City
William Deresiewicz’s attack on James Wood strikes the common reader–inclined neither to anoint nor denounce–as extraordinary, so extreme is the avalanche of accusatory prose that is being leveled at a critic of comparable age, education and ability ["How Wood Works," Dec. 8, 2008; "Letters," Jan. 5]. I happen to agree with Deresiewicz on every point he makes about Wood’s criticism: it is narrowly aesthetic; it does worship at the wrong literary altar; and increasingly it sounds as though it is coming from a world other than the one the rest of us are squirming around in (herein lies its true weakness: that the work is not grounded in the emotional undercurrents of its own moment). Yet James Wood, champion of the now painfully inadequate realist novel, is indeed the most celebrated critic of this decade as well as the one before. Instead of writing thoughtfully about this singular development, Deresiewicz goes on the warpath, confusing symptom with cause so badly that by the end of the piece his subject begins to seem an innocent bystander.
Wood is charged with being an unhappily lapsed Christian who displaces onto novel-writing an inappropriate demand for moral (i.e., spiritual) accountability; at the same time, Deresiewicz praises the famous New York critics of some generations past for regarding literature in relation to politics and society. Yet Lionel Trilling was every bit as much a sermonizer as is Wood, declaring repeatedly that the novel had the sacred duty to serve the idea of the moral imagination because it alone could save us from ourselves. In fact, Wood and Trilling are almost exactly the same kind of conservative critic, the major difference between them being that Trilling had the edge because he was writing in a time when literary culture flourished: women and men read widely if not deeply–The Liberal Imagination sold a remarkable 70,000 copies when it was published in 1950–and looked happily to elegant criticism to cast light on the way they were living their lives. There were, however, even then, readers who looked upon Trilling as an aesthete and a moralizer and did not at all love his take on world, self or literature; for them, he never spoke persuasively to what Wallace Stevens called "this iron solitude"–the penetrating psychological truths behind modernist despair. No matter. Trilling’s convictions were the middlebrow convictions of his time–and he linked them brilliantly to novel-reading.
Today, literary culture is not only not flourishing, it is on the defensive: very few read (or for that matter, write) to save their lives, as people did fifty years ago, and no critic, of whatever stripe, can be immune from the knowledge that he or she is working at a moment when the very act of holding a book in one’s hands seems like it might soon become an artifact. Yet, as Randall Jarrell once said, whether we know it or not, without literature human life is animal life–and Wood is the critic who still takes this proposition most to heart. As Deresiewicz acknowledges, Wood goes on writing about literature "as if our souls depended on it, which for any serious reader, they do." And that, finally, is why he is celebrated.
It is not that Wood is necessarily smarter, or even better read, than half a dozen others–and God knows, his sense of mission is misplaced–it is simply that he writes about literature with unequaled passion in a time and place when the drive to make storytelling art seems imperiled. The content of his criticism may indeed be retrograde, separated as it is in so many ways from the actuality of our shared experience–and for this reason will probably not stand any test of time–but for now, his work is a holding action: a kind of bridge between an era in which the reading world was saturated in self-confidence and a time when it may yet again believe in itself. Wood’s readers–the same people who would have been Trilling’s readers–do not need to engage with what he is actually saying as much as they need to rhapsodize over the gorgeousness of his endlessly adjudicating prose: it reminds them of what they are most in fear of losing. Seen in this light, he hardly qualifies as the enemy Deresiewicz is bent on shooting down. To the contrary: he is one of our own, struggling to deliver a message, perhaps to the wrong base but still to a base on our side of the divide.
Vivian Gornick agrees with every point I make about James Wood; she just doesn’t want me making them in public. She wants to see a revival of literary culture, but not at the cost of actually having a literary culture.
I did not charge Wood with being an unhappily lapsed Christian who looks to literature for moral accountability; I charged him with being a proud apostate who looks to literature for metaphysical certainty. Wood’s problem is precisely that he has no interest in the way literature bears on moral questions–that is, on personal or social or political ones. He isn’t as much of a "sermonizer" as Trilling; he isn’t a sermonizer at all. But of course, Trilling wasn’t a sermonizer either. He didn’t affirm the middlebrow convictions of his time; he exposed them to relentless scrutiny by uncovering the ways that literature called them into question. He probably would have greeted Gornick’s talk of "the penetrating psychological truths behind modernist despair" as an example of what he called "the modern self-consciousness and the modern self-pity."
But why are we even talking about Trilling? I named five of the New York critics and gave him no more space than most of the others. Trilling, however, has long since been reduced to a toy soldier in the culture wars, the last of the Dead White Men. No wonder it is so difficult to find an intelligent appraisal of his work, let alone an honest one (Stefan Collini’s December 8 piece in this magazine being a rare exception).
I did not acknowledge Wood’s passion as a critic: I announced it, I celebrated it, I trumpeted it. I spent three paragraphs near the start of my review extolling his virtues, and I reaffirmed them in the very last sentence. In fact, I seem to have a much higher opinion of his work than does Gornick, who values it only for its passion. But passion alone is not enough to justify Wood’s criticism, or anyone else’s. The ideas that travel on the winds of that passion matter as well. Yet Gornick believes that we "do not need to engage with what [Wood] is actually saying." Don’t need to engage with what he is actually saying! What a brave conception of intellectual discourse. But that, apparently, is my sin: that I take Wood seriously enough to criticize him–precisely what Gornick admires in Wood’s treatment of literature itself. His passion is good. My passion is bad. My passion means that I am treating Wood like an "enemy" whom I am "bent on shooting down." (If you really want to see a critic "on the warpath," read Gornick’s essay on Saul Bellow and Philip Roth in the September 2008 issue of Harper’s.)
For Gornick, cultural life is a kind of political struggle, complete with "sides" and "enemies" and "bases" to whom the right "message" must be "delivered." We must show solidarity at all cost, even if it means betraying every one of our principles. Taking another critic to task is akin to attacking a fellow Democrat, and Wood becomes the Joe Lieberman of the Reading Party, someone we are obliged to embrace simply because he caucuses on our side of the aisle, even though we don’t agree with a single thing he says. But culture isn’t about being on the right team, or any team. There is no "us." With a remarkable lack of self-consciousness, Gornick employs the very rhetorical device for which Trilling was most consistently criticized, the use of the first-person plural. Yet when Trilling spoke of what "we" believe or do, he used it as a form of collective self-criticism: "we" the self-flattering liberal middle class. Gornick uses it, instead, as a form of self-flattery: "our own," "our side"–the blessed "us," heroically holding the bridge against the barbaric "them."
Nothing will enfeeble a literary culture more effectively than this kind of tribalism. You don’t protect criticism (or art) by not criticizing it; you kill it. Culture isn’t a tea party, or a political party. It is a debate: loud, passionate, even, at times, intemperate. If you really care about reading–or writing–you care about it enough to want it done the right way. "Passion" doesn’t mean approving of everything that exhibits passion. It means having standards and being willing to say when those standards are being met and when they are not. And the person who understands this better than anyone is James Wood.