Reviews — From the July 2003 issue

The Critic as Artist

James Wood???s first novel

Discussed in this essay:
The Book Against God, by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 272 pages. $23.

The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, by James Wood. Modern Library, 2000. 270 pages. $19.

The climate into which first novels are often received is uniquely forgiving. Perfection, for once, is beside the point; there is instead a giddy sense of gratitude for the effort. Conspicuous flaws are tolerated, errors of construction and conception are, if not overlooked, seen as peripheral to the necessity of embracing what the new writer does well. Francine Prose exhibited characteristic sympathy for a first novel’s bright failures when, in a review last year, she wrote: “Such scenes are so virtuosic, so appealing—and, finally, just so much fun—that you hardly care when big chunks of the book start to crumble in the last 50 pages or so.”

Yet a climate of sympathy and forgiveness is not to be expected for the arrival of The Book Against God—a first novel, yes, but one that comes with abundant expectations for its author, James Wood. For many, no doubt, it will also bring with it a certain eagerness to see those expectations dashed.

Wood was born in England, in 1965. In the late eighties, when he was just out of university, he began to write book reviews for the Guardian, becoming that paper’s chief literary critic at the age of twenty-seven. In 1995 he moved to the United States, where he had been offered a job (which he continues to hold) as an editor at The New Republic. He writes frequent reviews for that magazine, The New Yorker, and The London Review of Books. Four years ago, he published a collection of critical essays, entitled The Broken Estate.

Wood’s rapid advance is easily explained: His literary criticism has been the most fruitfully polemical of recent years. The judgments it contains are distinguished by their originality and precision, the depth of reading that informs them, and the metaphorical richness of their language. He is passionate in defense of novelistic seriousness and, as such, has been unforgiving of complacency, unsparing of triviality, and unrelenting in his assault on the half-formed or the overwrought.

Similar claims of rigor may be made for the work of any number of literary critics. Severity to the point of cruelty is not untypical of the discipline. Why, then, is Wood written about in The New York Times Magazine (“very smart and very grouchy”), responded to in essay form by the novelists he reviews (“James Wood appeared in this paper last Saturday aiming a hefty, well-timed kick at what he called ‘hysterical realism,’” wrote Zadie Smith, “a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own”), and repeatedly tagged as The Best Literary Critic of his Generation?

That some commentators have called him “fearless” may offer a key. Wood has proven himself undaunted by marquee names, whether members of the old guard (Milan Kundera, Philip Roth), brightly hyped new talent (Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith), or Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners (Yann Martel, Jeffrey Eugenides). Now and again Wood will do a piece on a dusty exotic import—a Hrabal, a Bernanos, or a Svevo. But these are snacks amid his steady diet of contemporary big game, be it the lions or their cubs. Of Pynchon: “Readers of Pynchon often mistake bright lights for evidence of habitation.” DeLillo: “If Tolstoy fought superstition with the daylight of realism, DeLillo merely fights superstition with a new superstition.” Colson Whitehead: “Whitehead’s prose seems decidedly a contemporary instance, a prose of the virtual age that is often merely virtual: imprecise, swaggering when it should be controlled, fruitlessly dense, grossly abundant.” And, of course, Zadie Smith: “As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic….It is all shiny externality, all caricature.”

For Wood, the terrain of these writers, however varied, is seeded with an underlying blight: the complacency of the prose. Whether manifested in “shiny externality” or “swagger,” the self-satisfied surfaces of these writers’ efforts—different grades of smoothness—ruffle Wood:

this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality—the usual charge against botched realism—but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

Of that externality, that cover-up, Wood has judged Updike particularly guilty. In his 1996 novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike includes an account of a loss of belief undergone by a Reverend Clarence Wilmot. “The reader finds belief hard, too,” writes Wood. Why? Because of what Wood sees as the fatally polished surface of Updike’s prose. As the reverend stands in his study, staring at the spines of theological texts for which he no longer has any use, he deems them “ignorant but not pathetic in the way of the attempts of the century just now departed to cope with God’s inexorable recession.” Wood observes:

Does this sound like the Reverend Wilmot’s language, or Updike’s? It is supposed to be a kind of inner monologue on Clarence’s part. But it sounds as if Updike is reviewing Clarence’s loss of faith for The New Yorker, and writing the review at his desk on a fine calm morning in Massachusetts.

Updike’s language proves “alienating at just the moment we should be drawn in.” Rather than reaching into character, we are “drawn back to Updike himself, to the author’s verbal talents.”

Updike’s miss, Wood has argued, is indicative of a larger problem (and it is worth noting that one of the qualities separating Wood from his peers is his ambition, not to say his ability, to discern a credible pattern behind the flaws he delights in finding). Whether through simple incapacity or by complex design, the depiction of interiority, of character, has become less and less a feature of the modern novel:

Some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character…

And, elsewhere, in the same vein:

Zadie Smith is merely of her time when she says, in an interview, that it is not the writer’s job “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.”

“How somebody felt about something” is precisely what Wood wants from a novel; reaching into character is what he expects. Consciousness is the ultimate freedom, and its honest representation in fiction is what draws us into sympathy with the created, not with its creator. This is the hallmark of the work of those authors—Austen, Bellow, Joyce, and Woolf highest among them—for whom Wood has the greatest regard. But on this shelf of excellence there is, if one can reach it, always more room. In that spirit, Wood has written, “A space may now open…for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.”

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