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 Weekly contributor) 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 Fury a “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 Guardian at 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.”
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 Statesman in 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.”
As for reading, Wood suspects that it’s done with headphones on and the TV and computer screen glowing in the corner. But — surprise — he confesses he sometimes has trouble concentrating on a book himself. “I get restless,” he explains. “I find it is in some ways a boring activity. I mean, I love it, but the natural part of one would much rather be walking down the street in a busy city.”
“But you obviously read a tremendous amount.”
“I do, but perhaps not as much as it sometimes seems. One reason I’m able to read a lot is not that I’m unnaturally scholarly, it’s just that I don’t do much else. I don’t have much else of a life, and I’m quite happy for that to be the case. And unlike most people I do have a real central fascination with the novel. That never leaves me. I’m truly interested to read novels.”
So, given that much of his life is spent immersed in novels, how is the form holding up? Can it go on being vital in a world of videos, cell phones and computer games?
“No, and I actually think it isn’t vital at the moment. I think it can’t be. The old 19th-century notion of the novel as something really riding on the gusts of popular interests has quite gone. I can’t see it will ever come back, actually.”
“What about the overwhelmingly leftist or liberal nature of the literary world now?” I ask. The term “right-wing novelist,” for instance, is practically an oxymoron. Yet if you look at the early 20th century, any number of great writers were on the right — Conrad, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Celine . . . with just as many on the left, and no doubt in the middle, too. Now every poet in the known universe is against the war, and if he isn’t, he’s not saying so. How did it get to be so one-sided?
“I think there is a general cultural fear now of being dislikable,” Wood replies, after giving it some thought. “That’s why Philip Roth interests me a lot. That’s why I like Sabbath’s Theater so much, because he really turned that novel into a little bomb of offensiveness. It’s quite dramatic in that sense. Roth actually said once that Celine was his Proust — he has a lot of anger, and I like that. But it’s a very good question. In no way are we living in less interesting times, we’re living in terrifying times. Writers ought to be engaged with a whole host of issues. Why is it, for instance, that it’s Conrad in The Secret Agent who provided a better analysis than we’ve yet had of contemporary suicidal terrorism?”
Wood ponders the matter some more. “Is it not possible,” he says eventually, “that we’re all a bit too well-off, and well-remunerated, relatively speaking? We’re not in any danger. So then what are we risking? If I have a literary fervor that reminds people of Trilling, for myself I’m also a bit of a romantic, and I sometimes lament this idea that novelists should all be well provided for. They’re all going to get their big advance, or they’ll get their job teaching, or they’ll get a Guggenheim, NEA, whatever it is. Someone will bail them out. And then the question is, What’s at stake for these writers? Of course, it’s always easy for something to be at stake for a critic, because it’s so parasitical — you can just let other writers be your stake.”
Wood’s own novel, in which Thomas Bunting, atheist, procrastinator and chronic liar, struggles to keep his wife, complete his Ph.D. and come to terms with the death of his father, is a hit-and-miss affair, the work of a talented apprentice struggling to master narrative form. Because of its obsession with loss of faith — a dead issue for most of us – it is not a trendy book, and Wood concedes that were it not for his reputation as a critic, it might not have been published at all. In some ways the book is brave, however, because Wood has taken the risk of creating a protagonist who is neither likable nor entirely understandable. The novel begins in a conventional, slightly rakish “man-about-town” manner, but soon gets disastrously bogged down in discussions of theology interspersed with scenes from the breakup of a marriage. It recovers only in its final 100 pages, which are strikingly well done.
Here, in miniature, Wood gets to practice what he is always preaching from his New Republic pulpit. He has criticized many of our most acclaimed novelists for producing “books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things — the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons! — but do not know a single human being.” Well, in The Book Against God the reader comes to know ä
at least one human being, Thomas’ father — a happy, erudite and rather admirable priest — quite well. And though there are times when one thinks the book ought really to be called The Book Against Dad, the portrait is deeply loving. At a party at his parents’ house, Thomas looks across the room and catches sight of his father:
One of his hands was on my mother’s shoulder, the other held a wine glass. He was a picture of genial energy. His bald head was glowing. I saw his round, clean face, with its little loyal ears — seemingly tightly pinned to his head — and his smooth young cheeks, and at that moment I thought, “He will live for a long time.”
Unfortunately, the book’s defects tend to crowd out its virtues. Thomas’ militant atheism proves more tiring than inspiring, while the discussions of classical music (Thomas’ wife, Jane, is a pianist) have none of the charm and precision of, say, Vikram Seth’s in An Equal Music. Worst of all, perhaps, is the puzzlingly dud portrayal of Thomas’ best friend, Max, an influential newspaper columnist. It seems cruel to compare such a nullity to Dewey Spangler, the all-powerful columnist so vividly and sinisterly evoked in Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December, but given that Bellow is one of Wood’s novelistic touchstones — he wrote the introduction to Bellow’s Collected Stories — the comparison does spring to mind.
Luckily, Wood seems able to take criticism in stride. “I’m averagely sensitive to bad reviews,” he says, having already received a few of them. “There’s a nice line by Kingsley Amis: ‘A bad review should spoil your breakfast, but not your lunch.’”
Does Wood ever see himself reviewing something other than books? Could he imagine writing movie reviews like his compatriot Anthony Lane, for instance? The thought seems to horrify him. “I don’t know how he does it,” he says of the New Yorker writer, shaking his head. “He pulls this mode off very well, but he does it in a way by avoiding criticism in the deep sense. He knows what he is, which is a brilliant entertainer. I know that if I wrote about film I would end up being terribly earnest week in and week out, and terribly negative, and I’d just make people very upset. The films people like I always hate, anyway. Particularly the so-called art movies, like Affliction, or In the Bedroom.”
“What kind of movies do you like?”
“I tend to like honest trash, like Ronin, or very pure unmediated stuff like Kurastami’s films.”
There’s another kind of movie Wood enjoys: ambitious adaptations of great novels. Not because he thinks they will be good, but because he knows they will be bad. He went to see Jane Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, for instance, for the sheer pleasure of comparing the “40 or 50 hours it takes to be in the swim” of the original, “with its cathedral-like movement through different rooms and spaces,” to the paltry two-hour cinematic version — a 12-course meal next to a Big Mac. He had similar fun with a BBC adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The book begins with a long, poetic account of the thoughts going through a child’s head as he anxiously looks forward to a journey. But in the film, “All they could do is train the camera on the boy,” Wood says pityingly. “And I sort of love that. I cheer in the stalls.”
He even pumps his fist, like a soccer fan whose team has scored a winning goal. James Wood: defender of the faith, partisan of the novel.