By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
There’s a YouTube video of the literary critic James Wood in his kitchen, drumming merrily on the tabletop, a coffee mug, and a plastic bucket of chocolates while his young daughter squeals in delight. He’s in a rumpled sweater, a fringe of hair hovers above his bright, balding head, and his face has the pallor of unbaked bread. It is difficult to reconcile his unassuming physical presence with the fever-pitched wrath that has been directed at his criticism. Indeed, he may be the most vilified literary critic alive.
In The Nation, critic William Deresiewicz calls Wood “condescending” and “imperious” and warns that “if American criticism were to follow his lead, it would end up only in a desert.” Edmond Caldwell’s blog, “Contra James Wood,” is devoted solely to attacking Wood, whom he describes as a “symptom of a disease.” Vivian Gornick, in another broadside from The Nation, describes Wood as an “unhappily lapsed Christian ... [who] worship[s] at the wrong literary altar.” In The New York Times, Walter Kirn’s bilious review of Wood’s book How Fiction Works frequently bypasses the text to attack Wood himself. In Kirn’s imagination, Wood speaks with “genteel condescension” and “flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic.” Novelist Colson Whitehead followed up the hatchet job with a snarky piece in Harper’s in which a pompous windbag named James Root gushes inanely over the sentence “He lifted the cup.”
What has Wood done to earn such ire? Perhaps his greatest “sin” is the intensity of his fervor. In his essay collection The Broken Estate, he describes his religious upbringing, and writes, “The child of Evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nonetheless a suspicion of indifference.” Since he became head literary critic at The Guardian at the age of 27 (he subsequently served a 12-year stint at The New Republic, and in 2007 moved to The New Yorker), Wood has never been indifferent. With a craftsman’s precision and a born-again ardor he has carved an indelible line between what he finds sublime and flawed in fiction. In his essays on his favorite authors — Chekhov, Gogol, Melville, Bellow, Naipaul, Sebald — Wood revels simultaneously in the literary technique and the metaphysical force of the prose; indeed, for Wood the two are inseparable. In his close readings — for example, his examination of dialogue in Richard Price’s Lush Life — there is a tangible delight. When he finds a novel lacking, he is rigorous in charting its stylistic and philosophical failings. Some of the most acclaimed contemporary authors have felt the sting of Wood’s disquiet, and yet he never stoops to the petty indignation of a critic like B.R. Myers (A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose), the bazooka tactics of the novelist and critic Dale Peck, or the heedless verdicts of The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani. Wood’s naysayers categorize his aesthetics as narrow and polemical (fancy talk for “not the same as mine”), yet his criticism clearly rises from a deep passion, an intellect fueled by soulfulness, curiosity and hope. He is so easy to attack precisely because he offers so much to consider.
In 2000 Wood wrote his most divisive essay, the New Republic article “Human, All Too Inhuman,” which coined the term hysterical realism to describe the overflowing excess of novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Wood saw this strain of novel as “perpetual motion machines ... all shiny externality, all caricature ... [novels that] continually flourish their glamorous congestion.” The essay can be seen as a sea change moment in the history of contemporary fiction. A movement that had maintained a vice-lock claim on “radical” status since at least John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)had finally been exposed for its conventionality.
Most shocking of all, writers listened. Smith, in her 2001 aesthetic mea culpa “This Is How It Feels to Me” wrote: “Hysterical realism ... is a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own ... the wrong words, the wrong time, the wrong medium. Obsessed with our knowledge, when the last thing people want is the encyclopaedic.... But still I’m going to write. If only because Wood is right; there are still books that make me hopeful, because they function as human products in the greatest sense.”
And this is Wood’s second “sin”: his influence. He is the rare critic — that alleged parasite — whose zeal and intelligence have an impact. In The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen famously sought to humanize postmodernism. Wallace — to judge by the recent New Yorker profile — struggled mightily until the end to unearth the deeper human elements in the cultural philosophy of his prose. DeLillo’s paranoid grandstanding has grown simultaneously confused and obvious. To whatever extent contemporary fiction has lost its infatuation with anorexic self-consciousness, characters as theoretical puppets, and cataloguing cultural phenomena, Wood, in a small way, can be thanked. Some will rise to his challenge, eager to mint new literary styles that speak to the human experience. Others — the old guard avant-garde — merely reach for their pitchforks and torches.