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

August 2016

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, a story by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Chances that a Republican man believes that “poor people have hard lives”:

1 in 4

A school in South Korea was planning to deploy a robot to protect students from unwanted seductions.

Nuremberg’s Neues Museum filed a criminal complaint against a 91-year-old woman who completed a crossword puzzle that was in fact a $116,000 piece of avant-garde Danish art.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today