Sentences — April 27, 2009, 5:07 pm

It’s Very Childlike

howfictionworks What is literary criticism for? The question came up years ago as the subject of a London Review of Books 25th anniversary forum that included Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode, Zadie Smith and James Wood. “The ‘What is it for?’ question is interesting, it’s very childlike, isn’t it?” Eagleton said. “You know: What are people for? What is the moon for? —we’re all card-carrying functionalists.” Nonetheless, the question is useful, if not for obtaining its answer, than for segregating our expectations about the form.

My early sense of the medium was as a question answering form: input a novel, output a report on the nature of that novel and, more largely, the nature of novels, what they are for. I sense that I still expect this of criticism, and don’t think I’m wrong to. What I think was wrong in my early thinking about what such reports should provide was my once belief that one could muster, through quantity and quality, so overwhelming a report of one’s findings about a given work that it would yield not merely a truth about a work but the truth of it— an objective aesthetic truth.

These days, I expect that the form should produce questions more than answers. I know that my thinking about the medium has changed, because my feelings about James Wood’s criticism have changed. When I wrote about his work in these pages in 2003, I was already a great admirer of his essays, those several scores of shorter pieces that had appeared in the Guardian in the 90′s, and the still quite many, but much longer, pieces he had been writing for the New Republic. And yet, I was often frustrated then by Wood’s work, feeling as I then did that there was a kind of shortsightedness in his purview, a narrowness of taste that rendered some writers–too different from what he liked–invisible.

In retrospect I was shortsighted in my view of Wood– not my diagnosis of what he liked, but what the use of those well-delineated preferences were. Though Updike’s much-ballyhooed catholic literary tastes were certainly a strength, Wood’s narrower kingdom has come to be, for me at least, a much more worthwhile place to visit (and as he has written more the argument that his kingdom is that narrow becomes much harder to credit at all: while not quite the literary democrat that Updike was, to ignore the variety of good writing Wood has championed in the past twenty years is to maintain a bias without proving a bias). Anyway, it’s agreeable to disagree, I’ve come to conclude, particularly when the point of view of the person with whom you don’t see eye to eye is so scrupulously well-substantiated. Wood manages to be interesting even when I disagree, perhaps especially when I disagree, for the very reason that he opens up a second or third way to think of reading a book that I wouldn’t have come to on my own.

Lately, with Wood’s small fame– small, I mean to say, in the way that to be a famous literary critic is not to be very famous, in our culture, at all– has come an enormous reaction from some younger writers in the blog-world who take on Wood at every turn. We needn’t pity Wood for being so often scolded by such small hands. Rather, we can pity ourselves for missing the very point of literary criticism despite our passion for it: to present not the answer to a book but a very good series of questions about it. No other critic I read these days has the regular, consistent capacity to remind me not why I read but how one can: with– among many virtues– care.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2017

City of Gilt

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tyranny of the Minority

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Texas is the Future

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Family Values

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Itchy Nose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Black Like Who?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Texas is the Future·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Post
The Forty-Fifth President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Article
Itchy Nose·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

Artwork (detail) © The Kazuto Tatsuta/Kodansha Ltd
Article
A Matter of Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

Photograph (detail) by Edwin Tse
Article
Black Like Who?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

Photograph © Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

Ratio of the average cost of a gallon of gas in Britain last September to that of a gallon of Starbucks coffee:

1:4

The faculty of embarrassment was located in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex by neurologists who made brain-damaged subjects sing along to “My Girl” and then listen to their own singing played back without musical accompaniment.

Greece evacuated 72,000 people from the town of Thessaloniki while an undetonated World War II–era bomb was excavated from beneath a gas station.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today