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:

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

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2015

Come With Us If You Want to Live

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Body Politic

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Problem of Pain Management

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Game On

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love Crimes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Body Politic·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘He wrote all these love poems, but he was a son of a bitch,’ said a reporter from a wire service.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
Love Crimes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If a man rapes a woman, she might be forced to marry him, because in Afghanistan sex before marriage is dishonorable.”
Photographs © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU
Article
Game On·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had posed a truly existential threat.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Come With Us If You Want to Live·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I was startled that all these negative ideologies could be condensed so easily into a positive worldview.”
Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:

36,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today