|Photo by Jay Muhlin|
Publish a book of criticism, as James Wood did in 1999 with The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, and no one will think to interview you or take your picture. But write a novel, and out come the notebooks and cameras. Which was why, on a recent Sunday afternoon, “the best literary critic of his generation” found himself standing on a slab of warm Manhattan rock in Central Park as a photographer fired off round after round with a medium-format Hasselblad.
Homeboys, women in saris, tourists and bare-bellied teenagers glanced at the unshaven, 38-year-old man in a rumpled beige raincoat. Who was he? No one knew. Even readers of The New Republic, where Wood’s lengthy, incisive essays usually appear, wouldn’t have recognized him. The publication of his novel, The Book Against God, is Wood’s media coming-out party. Having made his name as a penetrating literary critic unafraid to slay a few giants — Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison, to name just three, have all been sliced and diced by his pen — he has now entered the fray himself.
No doubt he knows what he’s getting into. The problem with critics who suddenly publish novels is that it exacerbates the suspicion that, if only they had the ability, they would write them all the time. (Novelists who write criticism, on the other hand, are just paying the bills.) And not only do novelists write better novels than critics, it could be argued that they write better criticism too. After all, who would you rather read a review by? Vladimir Nabokov or Edmund Wilson? Gore Vidal or Edward Said? Martin Amis or Sven Birkerts? At the very least, the novelists can hold their own.
But at a time when few people read serious novels, a major critic may be more subtly influential than he would have been in a bookish age. For many, reading a 6,000-word James Wood essay on Don DeLillo’s latest is probably a perfectly acceptable, even preferable, substitute for tackling the real thing. When he writes about novelists like Herman Melville or Zadie Smith, you don’t just get a review, you get a view of life, too, one which is inextricably bound up with the mission of literature. He can be overly fussy, picking away at isolated paragraphs in a massive novel like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, but his opinions always feel independent and untainted by the academy. “I’m often struck by the way I’m far more interested in reading him about some book than I am in reading the book itself,” says the British author (and Weeklycontributor) Geoff Dyer. “In keeping with this, I’ve not read his novel yet.”
After the photography session, Wood and I walk over to a small Greek diner on Madison Avenue. On the way, Wood talks about Heidi Julavits’ essay on the state of book reviewing in the new, Dave Eggers–backed literary magazine, The Believer (Wood credits it with making a few worthwhile points, but seems unimpressed overall). He also delivers a harsh verdict on the new novel by Eggers’ wife, Vendela Vida: “Completely empty.” Wood seems to pride himself on keeping a distance from the literary world, particularly its hipper precincts. He dubbed Salman Rushdie’s Furya “Nobu novel” (after the exclusive sushi joint in downtown Manhattan), and he has written savagely of the New York novels of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, for whom Manhattan “is a tinkle of restaurants.” One of the reasons he left London for a job as senior editor at The New Republic, he tells me, and why he’s happy to live in Washington, D.C., rather than New York, is that he found himself getting too involved in literary politics.
“London seemed like the Vatican, a city state, a tiny principality, in which people constantly had their ears to the wall,” he says. “Who’s up, who’s down, what smoke is coming out of what chimney, and the problem was I was becoming part of that. I couldn’t exist without reading all the newspapers, all the book reviews, so when the prospect came of leaving, I embraced it.”
Born in 1965, Wood grew up in an evangelical Christian family in the north of England. He sang in the choir at Durham Cathedral, and was deeply religious himself until his teens. After studying at Cambridge University, in 1991 he was appointed chief literary critic for the London Guardianat the tender age of 26. Although by then an atheist, he retained the habit of strong belief. (“The child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference,” he wrote in The Broken Estate. “He is always evangelical.”) His reviews — learned, orotund, severe — read as if they had been delivered from the pulpit. They immediately attracted notice, and ruffled some feathers, too.
“Like many people I began by loathing James Wood,” says Dyer. “He wrote a really vicious review — his first ever, I think — of a novel by a friend of mine. Then, a little while later, he took a passing swipe at my first novel, The Colour of Memory. I was like, ‘Who is this fucking upstart?’ Anyway, as his reviews started to appear more widely, I couldn’t suppress a grudging admiration for them, and gradually I came to realize he was actually a very, very serious critic.”