How To Get A Literary Woody

The great literary critic James Wood has a new book out, and he is being publicly fellated in print all over town. Nothing gets a book critic more excited, it seems, than the success of another book critic.

“In studying how fiction works, Wood shows how the critical mind ought to work,” exclaims Peter Conrad at The Observer (UK).

“Wood’s reviews are events,” froths Delia Falconer at the Australian.

“Reading Wood, no matter the book under review, provides enormous pleasure; his prose is at once buoyant and momentous, his judgment swift with imperial grace.” That’s from Gideon Lewis-Kraus at the LA Times.

David Gates at Newsweek, in one of the more tepid reviews, still manages to remind us that Wood is “one of the best critics alive.”

And Louis Bayard, over at Salon, starts his review with this line: “James Wood makes me want to be a better man.” He follows that up with: “Wood writes like an angel, with all the austerity and voluptuousness that implies.”

Bayard’s review is actually one of the better ones, despite these ebullient lines. He brings some of his own insights to bear, including this one, on the question of whether fiction even really needs to be explained:

Surely, if it’s doing its job, it need only be experienced. If it can’t be experienced without tearing off its gown to expose the skivvies beneath, then it’s even more of a minority art form than we feared. What, finally, is better for the soul: reading Tolstoy or reading how to read Tolstoy?

I’d vote for the former, but then I’m a sucker for writing about writing and insights into literature, so I’ll be checking out the book anyway. There’s something about the reverential tone reserved for Wood that irks me, though, which is why I was amused to see this somewhat crass attack on the Wood oeurvre from the authors of the Vulture blog over at New York magazine. The great literary critic James Wood seemed to feel so misrepresented that he responded to their implied attacks on his intellect in person. That’s all well and good, James, but do you still collect dirt?


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5 Responses to How To Get A Literary Woody

  1. Delia Falconer says:

    Did you actually read my review, Nancy? I’m surprised you interpret taking JW to task over his fetish for realism and his restrictive critical criteria in How Fiction Works “frothy”. I suggest that JW’s new manual is ultimately a failure at what it sets out to do, and far less successful than his essays — it doesn’t tell us how fiction works across a broad spectrum, only how post-Flaubertian psychological realism works (although it does do this very well).

    That said, JW’s books _are_ “events” — ie, texts that generate a huge number of other writing and international attention, far beyond what one would would usually anticipate for literary criticism, as I also pointed out in my review. This is called putting a writer’s work into context for an audience that may not have read it. This is what reviewers do.

    Do have a look at How Fiction Works, for all its flaws. JW’s emphasis on close and careful reading might even do you some good.

  2. nancyrawlinson says:

    Oh wow. Snap. Consider me put in my place. I can see, now that you have pointed it out, that in using just the one word to summarize the entire content and tone of your review, I may have been, I don’t know, a little reductive. I should probably have used more words.

    Hopefully, despite me and my flippant one word critique, your reputation as an esteemed literary critic will remain intact.

    Loved that piece about your love affair with the TV program CSI by the way. Not at all frothy.

  3. nancyrawlinson says:

    Actually, in all seriousness, I have to say that being taken to task for one-word flippancy has made me think more seriously about what it is I’m trying to do here, as a blogger, and that’s a good thing. So I’m grateful. Thank you.

  4. [...] the great literary critic James Wood, a judge from 1994, has this to offer: “Some wonderful books win the Booker, of course, just [...]

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