Ironically, Dyer ended up writing for Wood at the Guardian, along with Claire Messud (now married to Wood), John Lanchester, Philip Hensher and Jonathan Coe — arguably the most stellar group of young critics assembled at one British publication since Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens were at The New Statesmanin the 1970s. But Wood was the only one of the group who was purely a critic. In fact, by the 1990s, it was somewhat startling that anyone so young should have such ambitions for literary criticism, or care so passionately about the novel’s role in society. This, after all, was the era of “bitch journalism” and the Modern Review, in which the likes of Toby Young, Julie Burchill and Nick Lezard took pleasure in treating trashy movies as if they were products of the academy, and analyzing highbrow novels as if they’d been produced in Hollywood. But Wood’s essays and reviews, obsessed with the relationship between literature and life, read like something that might have been written by T.S. Eliot or F.R. Leavis, the solemn champion of D.H. Lawrence.
For the English, such earnestness was startling, even moving, and Wood himself became the subject of considerable curiosity. (The same phenomenon has repeated itself in this country. In her Believer essay, Julavits admits to having an “obsession” with Wood.) “People were always asking me what he looked like, what age he was, because he wrote like someone entirely different from the man I saw in the office — someone much older and far more presumptuous and incisive,” says Claire Armitstead, an editor at the Guardian. “In his own writing, he was a great procrastinator. From a sub-editor’s point of view, it was often a white-knuckle ride, as he used to leave the business of writing until the very last minute. He would appear to be completely distracted all day, and would then turn in these magisterial, word-perfect reviews, which fitted to the line.”
But how appropriate is a “magisterial” style amid the colloquialism of blogging, e-mail and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? To what extent should a contemporary critic — and a relatively young one at that — remind readers of past giants like Leavis, Trilling and Eliot? It’s not, after all, as if anyone actually reads Leavis anymore. Does Wood ever worry that he might be providing a kind of “retro” literary experience, good for nostalgia but not really appropriate to the time?
“On the whole it doesn’t worry me,” he replies, smiling briefly at the thought. “People know I had a very religious upbringing, and that I stopped believing in God at the age of 14 or 15, and that allows them then to say, ‘Well, what’s happened is a transference of religion on to literature. Literature is his religion, and therefore there’s a tradition here — Ruskin, Leavis, Pater . . .’ So it’s literally just how to explain in the 21st century this old-fashioned literary fervor. In general, I’m quite flattered.”
Although he says he is prone to “aloneness, of having contact only with books,” Wood is in fact extremely personable and easy to talk to. Still youthful, his face feels lived in and completely untouched by fame. Nor does he exude the chill hyperefficiency of the typical superachiever. On the contrary, with his vanished hairline and stubbly chin, he looks like a slightly disreputable teacher on the lam from a small provincial school. And, in fact, he has just completed a stint of teaching — at Kenyon College in Ohio. Though without professorial ambitions, he concedes that the pedagogical instinct so apparent in his writing transfers easily to the classroom.
“And how were the students’ papers?” I ask, unable to suppress a grin. (It’s hard enough to get a passing grade from Wood when you’re Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen. Imagine how it feels when you’re, like, not sure who Jane Austen is.)
“Atrocious, really,” comes the answer, delivered with a laugh. “Some of the undergraduates are very bright, but the worst don’t have the first rudiments of punctuation and syntax and grammar.” Wood did get some amusing anecdotes out of the experience. One student quoted the New Testament chestnut “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven,” and also felt the need to provide a footnote. Not, as you might expect, “Matthew 19:24,” but “Internet search for ‘needle, bible,’ www.christiansunite.com.”
Then there was the student who began an essay on a Philip Larkin poem with the lines “Whenever I like a work of literature, it’s very hard to say why I like it. Like a hug, or a back rub, I just know it’s good.” Wood drew a big red line in the margin with the comment: Please be less personal!
“When you and I were at university, not to sound too old-fogyish about it, university was actually an escape from TV,” he says. “Nowadays they bring their TVs with them. So you’ll find that when students talk about stuff, it’s pretty much what conversation would be like in an office around the water cooler. They talk about Joe Billionaire, or whatever his name is.”