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.
James Wood isn’t an American. Beside the “New York critics” he will naturally seem more detached. But his political insights are sharp. Read his New Yorker review of V.S. Naipaul’s biography. It shows a genuine understanding of colonialism and what it meant to be a colonial in Trinidad and in Britain. Note the reference to Fanon. Decolonization is not a “purely aesthetic issue.” It’s the biggest event in England since World War II. For politics being separated from culture, read George Packer’s review of the same biography in the New York Times. It makes you think Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for his managing of a weird sex triangle.
D.K. Holm and Peter Byrne seem to subscribe to what might be called the geographical theory of book criticism. Holm, who apparently reads minds, assumes that I “backed off” from a full dismissal of Wood’s work out of fealty to the New York critics, when it should be clear that I found much in Wood to praise, and that when I compared him to the older critics it was to underscore his limitations. Why would fealty lead me to be lenient toward him? Holm also apparently doesn’t realize that since coming to this country, Wood has based himself in Washington and Boston but never, as far as I know, in New York. He might also be interested to learn that I don’t live there, either. His hostility to New York writers seems based at least in part in a kind of reverse snobbery; but in any case, I can only feel pity for a reader who finds nothing of interest in Trilling, Kazin, Hardwick or Howe.
Peter Byrne seems to think that only Americans can write engagedly about the United States. He also assumes that the sociopolitical investment I find lacking in Wood refers exclusively to an interest in the American scene. In fact, though I don’t accept the first assumption, I took pains to compare Wood’s writing on English novelists with that of the New York critics on American ones. Notwithstanding Wood’s recent essay on Naipaul, which is highly atypical, his criticism generally exhibits no interest whatsoever in political, cultural or intellectual history–of the United States, Great Britain or anywhere else–as I am by no means the first to point out.
I Vant to Be Alone
Blooming Grove, N.Y.
Re the three poems (“Night Soil,” “The Sea-Fight Tomorrow” and “Poorly Grounded Notions“) by Keith Waldrop in the December 8 issue: Keith Waldrop’s poems remind me of something. Now what was it? Ah, yes. Where poetry goes to be alone.