Reviews — From the February 2015 issue

How Much Damage Can It Do?

On the intellectual element in modern fiction

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Discussed in this essay:

The Fun Stuff, by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
352 pages. $27.

Happiness: Ten Years of n+1. Faber and Faber. 384 pages. $16.

Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas, by Adam Kirsch. W. W. Norton. 320 pages. $26.95.

Strange as it might seem in the age of Miley Cyrus Studies and Fifty Shades 101, Columbia University’s English department offered no courses in twentieth-century literature until well after World War II. When the department finally relented to student demands for such a course, the job of designing it fell to Lionel Trilling. University English departments were then still very much dominated by the New Criticism, with its emphasis on close reading and its radical aversion to authorial intent and other extratextual matters. As Trilling laconically put it in his 1961 essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” “A couple of decades ago the discovery was made that a literary work is a structure of words.” Trilling found such an approach unsuited to the great modernists, because of “its polemical tendency, which is to urge us to minimize the amount of attention we give to the poet’s social and personal will, to what he wants to happen outside the poem as a result of the poem.” To read Joyce and Lawrence, Proust and Kafka, Yeats and Mann that way, he said, “went against the grain of the authors themselves — structures of words they may indeed have created, but these structures were not pyramids or triumphal arches, they were manifestly contrived to be not static and commemorative but mobile and aggressive, and one does not describe a quinquereme or a howitzer or a tank without estimating how much damage it can do.”

The poet-critic Adam Kirsch dedicates an entire chapter of his short book Why Trilling Matters (2011) to this essay, which he views as emblematic of Trilling’s critical approach. “The best way to describe Trilling’s uniqueness as a critic,” Kirsch argues, “is to say that he was always less concerned with writers than with readers, less interested in the way novels work than in the way we put them to work in our own lives.” I don’t know whether Kirsch was thinking of James Wood when he wrote those words, but the echo with Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008) is instructive in any case. For two decades Wood has been the dominant literary critic of the English-speaking world, the closest thing our era has to a cultural authority of Trilling’s stature. He has altered the way a generation of literary readers read and — what’s more impressive — the way a generation of literary writers write, and one obvious result of this influence has been the nearly complete abandonment of the view of the novel Trilling championed.

Wood is in many ways deserving of his eminence. He is a subtle and gifted close reader with an exhaustive knowledge of literary history, and an inspired stylist in his own right. When it comes to assessing the structural soundness of a novel, no one is better. Even the most common complaint about Wood — that he celebrates a narrow form of realism at the expense of more “experimental” literary traditions — isn’t quite fair, though it’s true that Wood is concerned with fiction that seeks to represent life. “It is impossible to discuss the power of the novel without discussing the reality that fiction so powerfully discloses,” he writes in the preface to the essays in his first book, The Broken Estate (1999), “which is why realism, in one form or another and often under different names, has been the novel’s insistent preoccupation from the beginning of the form.” But this “in one form or another” is an important caveat: Wood’s vision of realism is expansive enough to include László Krasznahorkai as well as Alice Munro, Roberto Bolaño as well as Marilynne Robinson. What he admires in all these writers is the sense of life they convey, particularly of interior life, of what it feels like to be conscious in the world. While he makes frequent reference to the structuralism of Roland Barthes and the formalism of Viktor Shklovsky, Wood’s real critical model seems to be Henry James, and his view of the novel is similar to the one James articulated in his 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction.” James believed that a writer, like a painter, must be allowed his choice of subject and judged on his treatment of that subject. The treatment may be naturalist or impressionist or expressionist, but it will always be finally a treatment of life. “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life,” James wrote. “When it ceases to compete as the canvas of the painter competes, it will have arrived at a very strange pass.”

“Oblomov, Interior Spread” by Kerry Mansfield, from her series Expired

“Oblomov, Interior Spread” by Kerry Mansfield, from her series Expired

But this formulation — art not representing but competing with life — suggests an aspiration that Wood does not often recognize. Most literature seeks not just to depict life in some manner but to question it, to put life as we know it under some critical pressure. This critical tendency is what Trilling found challenging about the modernist tradition: “No literature has ever been so shockingly personal as that of our time,” he wrote. “It asks every question that is forbidden in polite society. It asks us if we are content with our marriages, with our family lives, with our professional lives, with our friends.” For all his supposed mandarin detachment, Trilling readily admitted when a novel made him uneasy. This is not a sense one ever gets from Wood, despite his sensitivity as a reader. He evinces curiously little interest in the possibility that a book might intervene in our lives, that something might happen outside the work as a result of the work. He seems to find the desire for such an intervention a bit vulgar, if not self-defeating, as though it could only descend into brute instrumentalism (How Proust Can Change Your Life) or crass plays for relevance (Proust Was a Neuroscientist).

It isn’t quite right to say of Wood what T. S. Eliot said of James: that he has a mind so fine no idea could violate it. Wood is interested in ideas, but mostly religious and metaphysical ones, that is to say, the intellectual questions that interest Wood are questions about the nature of reality — which is the central preoccupation of literary realism. Wood shows almost no interest in social questions, the kind of questions — about our marriages, our families, our professional lives, our friends — that Trilling found so shocking when he encountered them in modernist novels. Jonathan Franzen, Wood wrote in his mixed assessment of The Corrections, “is at his finest when being ambitious and even theoretical about the soul, when he is examining consciousness. . . . [When he] attempts to enlarge his theme of correction socially, the attempt stalls.” Perhaps Wood is right in this case, but it is striking how frequently he finds that a novel has succeeded when it deals with the questions Wood himself likes to ask and that it has failed when it strays into territory alien to him.

By aiming for “topicality, relevance, a large audience, the mainstream,” Wood writes, the novel gives up on the things that only the novel can do — particularly the Jamesian “palpable present-intimate” — and in the process dooms itself to further irrelevance. Franzen’s novel appeared just before 9/11, the review just a month after, and the timing was significant to Wood’s argument:

If anyone still had a longing for the great American “social novel,” the events of September 11, 2001, may have corrected it, through the reminder of an asymmetry of their own: that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk smarts — in short, the contemporary American novel in its big triumphalist form — are the novel’s chosen sport, the novel will sooner or later be outrun by its own racing material.

Here Wood seems to be committing one of those non sequiturs he is so quick to spot in others. Why must “social comment” go hand in hand with “preachy presentism”? Is the choice really between dealing only with those aspects of the human predicament that endure in all times and places — or else producing reportage? In one of Trilling’s best critical essays, 1948’s “The Princess Casamassima,” he argues that it was precisely James’s talent for social observation that gave his work lasting value. In the underrated novels of his middle period, Trilling writes,

James is at the point in his career at which society, in the largest and even the grossest sense, is offering itself to his mind with great force. He understands society as crowds and police, as a field of justice and injustice, reform and revolution. The social texture of his work is grainy and knotted with practicality and detail. And more: his social observation is of a kind that we must find startlingly prescient when we consider that it was made some sixty years ago.

Trilling’s extended reading of The Princess Casamassima abounds in references to Marx and Bakunin and the anarchist movements of the late nineteenth century, and part of what Trilling shows is how a full reading of James’s novel demands consideration of the violence and social turmoil around him. To read James only as a formal virtuoso is to do a disservice to his work.

Wood’s insistence on the false distinction between art and social comment leads him to misread the novelists he most admires. In his latest collection, The Fun Stuff, he praises Mortals, Norman Rush’s novel about a Milton scholar and CIA agent named Ray Finch, for its “superb combination of free indirect style . . . and stream-of-consciousness” but ignores the content of that consciousness. Wood calls Rush’s characters “proficient, perhaps slightly glib intellectuals.” He notes that “ideologically speaking, Ray, the liberal who eventually leaves the agency, is perhaps too good to be true, so that one wonders about the likelihood of such a right-thinking (or, rather, left-thinking) fellow ever joining the CIA in the first place.” This bothers Wood as a lapse in verisimilitude; he does not spend a moment on what Rush might have been getting at by joining such a man to the CIA. Could Rush be suggesting to his own right-thinking intellectual American readers that they are complicit in America’s foreign meddling whether they like it or not — that they have, in essence, joined the CIA? Wood isn’t interested. His comment on a lengthy set piece in which Finch helplessly wanders through a battle during an African nationalist insurgency is almost parodically unconcerned with the scene’s subject matter: “One admires the precision of Rush’s effects, which keeps his lyricism on a tight budget.” The reader who feels interrogated by Rush’s novel may be struck by something other than the precise lyricism of the proceedings.

Something similar happens when Wood writes about Saul Bellow, another of his touchstones. As Wood well knows, Bellow’s books are overstuffed with social comment — not to mention sidewalk smarts. But reading Bellow “in the context of his many ‘ideas’ ” is a mistake, Wood writes, because “the comedy of the novels has much to do with the prospect of the inefficacy of ideas.” To Wood, one of the things that recommends Bellow is the fact that he doesn’t really take these social ideas that seriously.

Except of course that Bellow did, as can be seen in his forthcoming volume of collected essays, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, which shows him quoting Tocqueville alongside Tolstoy, Durkheim alongside Dostoevsky. It is no accident that Bellow taught for more than three decades at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He was a social critic. That he was also every bit a novelist, that his novels are never merely vehicles for his own ideas about society, simply proves that the binary Wood offers us isn’t quite so neat in practice. Wood rightly has little time for critics who ignore the artistry of Bellow’s later novels — particularly Mr. Sammler’s Planet and The Dean’s December — because they find them ideologically disagreeable. But it is a fact that Bellow took a neoconservative turn in the face of Sixties radicalism, and it is a fact that his novels of the Seventies reflect this turn. One can’t fully read these books without addressing these facts, any more than one can read The Princess Casamassima without reading it as a response to the radicalism of its own time.

In the bravura ending to his essay about Rush, Wood writes, “For once, knowledge in an American novel has not come free and flameless from Google, but has come out of a writer’s own burning.” But the writer’s burning is useless unless it produces a corresponding fire in the reader. “Well, this famous truth for which he was so keen,” Sammler thinks near the end of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, “he had it now, or it had him.” The truth, or their own version of the truth, is not something that Bellow’s characters come to possess but something that possesses them. For all his skill as a reader, Wood never betrays the sense that he is being possessed, and you will wait in vain for any hint from him that a book can do damage.

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is a deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of the novel Arts & Entertainments (Ecco).

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