Category Archives: james wood

James Wood on Bohumil Hrabal

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Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is a one-sentence book. Just saying.

Here’s Wood:

Like Hasek, Hrabal kept his ear close to the pub table. He sat for hours in his favourite Prague establishment, the Golden Tiger, listening to beer-fed stories foam. Those who knew him recall a man who liked to pass himself off as a beer-drinker rather than a writer, content to sit silently and gather – the community’s generous beggar. Ondrej Danajek wrote a eulogy for Hrabal in 1997, and remembers ‘a very spiritual artist and free-thinker with the ways and looks of a labourer. You were as likely to find him (maybe smiling shyly) in the already slightly drunk crowd at a Third Division football game as overhear him commenting on the game quoting Immanuel Kant or another of his philosophical gods.’

Hrabal, who was born in 1914 in Moravia, started writing poems under the influence of French Surrealism. The poems quickly squared their shoulders and became paragraphs: prose poems, epiphanic jottings, broken anecdotes. The Prague Revue (No. 5) recently printed a number of these early poems, written in the 1940s, and many of them are touched with a characteristic Hrabalian oddity: ‘In the little pub overhanging the river, in a corner by the window, I was reading. You were weeping, I too was weeping and the tubby landlady was weeping.’

Leslie Fiedler–I Admit I Was Missing Out

I've read the first few essays in Love and Death in the American Novel, and now I will wholly endorse the notion that I should have got on the Fiedler wagon earlier. The breadth of knowledge (far beyond literature) and synthesis thereof is simply incredible . . . talk about someone who sounds like he's read everything and knows just how to put it into a cohesive framework. This is the kind of oracular voice that I think we all wish James Wood (who, admittedly, seems to have read everything) was.

Or, to put this all another way, I seem to be underlining an unprecedentedly high amount of my copy of Fiedler. Seriously; the footnotes in this book sound a lot more interesting and promising than a lot of abstracts I've read.

Usual caveats about a great text's resistance to quoting aside, I've got to pass along this:

The American writer inhabits a country at once the dream of Europe and a fact of history . . .

And then at greater length:

A recurrent problem of our [American] fiction has been the need of our novelists to find a mode of projecting their conflicts which would contain all the dusky horror of gothic romance and yet be palatable to discriminating readers, palatable first of all to themselves.

Such a mode can, of course, not be subsumed among any of those called "realism." Our fiction is essentially and at its best non-realistic, even anti-realistic; long before symbolisme had been invented in France and exported to America, there was a full-fledged native tradition of symbolism. That tradition was born of the profound contradictions of our national lise and sustained by the inheritance from Puritanism of a "typical" (even allegorical) way of regarding the sensible world–not as an ultimate reality but as a system of signs to be deciphered . . .

He’s At It Again

For all of you who thought Richard Powers got an unfair review, Wood now lashes into A.S. Byatt’s new novel:

Whenever a detail could be selected at the expense of another one, Byatt will always prefer to buy both, and include the receipts: ‘Art Nouveau, the New Art, was paradoxically backward-looking, flirting with the Ancient of Days, the Sphinx, the Chimera, Venus under the Tannenberg, Persian peacocks, melusines and Rhine maidens, along with hairy-legged Pan and draped and dangerous Oriental priestesses’. There is always an atmosphere of the author reporting for intellectual duty, bristling with diligence. Her fictional world is exhaustively searched, but never quite seen. Some large novels – Buddenbrooks, say – are remarkably lithe, but The Children’s Book is rhythmically stolid. It proceeds judiciously: one character is described, then another, then another. One performance is followed by another.

James Wood’s Richard Powers Takedown

I’m one of those people who has fallen off the Richard Powers bus. When I first read him I had a very favorable impression, but the more I’ve read him the more that impression has been scraped away–and the more I’ve questioned my original readings of Powers.

There’s no doubt that the man can come up with some remarkably clever premises for his novels, and at times he shows a strong facility for structure, but he just doesn’t have the heart of a writer in him.

In his review of Generosity, Powers’ new book, James Wood says as much:

The fiction of Richard Powers sometimes resembles a dying satyr—above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain. . . . The intellectual stakes are high, but, unfortunately, the novelistic means are limited.

I haven’t read the new Powers novel, and I don’t intend to, as Wood declares it “his most schematic and coarse.” (Incidentally, I did read the story of his anthologized in the latest Pushcart, and I find it hard to believe that that story would have made it in if it didn’t have the Powers name attached.) I’ve worked my way through a good deal of his collected works, and at this point I can’t believe that Powers is going to suddenly learn how to write good fiction.

I don’t always see eye to eye with Wood, but this nails it:

Powers is an ambitious novelist, but he is also ambitious for clarity, and is never afraid to spell things out. And here it is: on the one hand, high-level ratiocination, and, on the other, the “low-level” system of rutting and coupling. His mating plots tend toward the banal, and are written in a prose that is at once showy and anxiously explanatory (“decided to pull an Aschenbach”). So his novels lead double lives, in which the sophistication of his ideas is constantly overwhelming the rather primitive stylistic and narrative machinery; the reader has to learn to switch voltages, like a busy international traveller. What falls in the gap is any subtlety of insight into actual human beings.

I agree. The more Powers I’ve read the more I’ve realized that he goes to pains to make everything extremely clear, to the point that his work is very over-written. This often combines with a tendency to phrase things in a quasi-oblique/quasi-scientific manner that just ends up sounding adolescent. With his ability to link concepts and come up with original ideas, Powers could probably be a strong essayist, but he’s not a novelist.

On the other hand, for a writer who works with a very scientific bent but manages to hew that into literature, I direct you to Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which I am currently enjoying.

Friday Column: Overcoming Your James Wood Habit

With the publication of James Wood’s new book in England, we can already see the beginnings of the coverage that will soon attend its publication over here. In other words, more attention for the one literary critic in America who actually gets attention.

To me this seems unfair. Yes, Wood rightly deserves some attention, but he certainly doesn’t deserve this de facto coronation as the only thing going. Moreover, focusing on one critic to the exclusion of others is contrary to the idea of literary criticism, which thrives on a polyphonic chorus of competing voices.

In that spirit, here are some critics that are still writing today that you can read as counterpoints to Wood.

William H. Gass—Recently The Guardian published an excerpt from Wood’s new book in which he rather momentarily brings Gass up, onto to then triumphantly dash aside Gass’s thoughts about the nature of fiction. Wood didn’t give the considerable thought behind Gass’s criticism the full respect it deserved, but he was right to say that Gass’s philosophy is strongly opposed to his own.

Readers of Wood could do much worse than opening their minds to the seven collections of criticism that Gass has given us. He shows the same love of minute textual analysis that Wood often exhibits, but he champions authors that Wood dismisses (Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, Gaddis among them). And although Gass is getting old, he still does publish an essay every now and again, often in the pages of Harper’s.

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He has seven collections of criticism available, collecting essays from over 30 years of work. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life, one of his best, which mainly collects essays first published in The New York Review of Books during that publication’s heyday.

Wyatt Mason—The lead literary critic for Harper’s, for some time now, Mason’s been giving us a solid essay almost every month in that magazine. He also publishes in other publications, notably The New Yorker and The London Review of Books. (See Wikipedia for links to his articles on the web.)

Here he is critiquing David Foster Wallace by creatively appropriating his style:

To those of you not disposed to taking Wallace at his word, do so for the sake of argument. Cede to him the right to his belief in his own goodwill. The trouble one faces, the trouble I face – having read the eight stories in Oblivion; having found some hard to read and, because they were hard and the hardness made me miss things, reread them; having reread them and seen how they work, how well they work, how tightly they withhold their working, hiding on high shelves the keys that unlock their treasures; having, in some measure, found those keys; and having, in the solitary place where one reads, found a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value – is the concern that these stories, the most interesting and serious and accomplished shorter fiction published in the past decade, exhibit a fundamental rhetorical failure.

Sven Birkerts—Longtime contributor to and now editor of Agni, Birkerts commonly publishes writing in that journal, usually in the form of an essay-like editor’s note. (See here for a full list of his contributions to that journal.) He also contributes the odd review or article to newspapers, although I haven’t seen his essays too much outside the pages of Agni.

Birkerts was an early fan of David Foster Wallace and generally champions him and similar writers that are trying to push the medium forward. As such, his voice makes a good reply to that of Wood. It’s this philosophy that he brings to the pages of Agni, expressed here in this editor’s note.

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Among his collections of essays is his 1994 essay collection, The Gutenberg Elegies, a useful precursor to the current conversation over the fate of bound paper books in an electronic age.

Tom LeClair—By now Wood’s aversion to Don DeLillo needs no introduction. Tom LeClair is perhaps our best critic and explicator of DeLillo’s work. (See his In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel, among numerous essays and interviews.)

LeClair’s essay on Underworld in The Atlantic, in which he called that book "a masterwork to rank with Gravity’s Rainbow and JR," is a good reply to Wood’s own take on DeLillo’s magnum opus (as is this). He LeClair sums up more or less what DeLillo has been doing all this time:

Since 1971 and his first novel, Americana, DeLillo has taken sometimes blunt instruments to the age’s cultural excrescences: television in Americana, sports in End Zone (1972), rock music in Great Jones Street (1973), big science in Ratner’s Star (1976), and fascination with terrorism in many of his other novels. In Underworld, DeLillo gives his most profound subject — apocalypse — his most subtle treatment, using all the novelist’s devices to examine nuclear malaise and compose a narrative of its displacements. DeLillo awards readers a peace dividend — millennial hope.

LeClair was also an early champion of William T. Vollmann (exposing the world to his love of prostitutes and high-risk journalism in an early New York Times article).

If you can find them, LeClaire’s collections of interviews with authors and essays make for good reading. (Try getting them used on Amazon.) He occasionally contributes reviews to newspapers and Bookforum and essays to glossy mags like The Atlantic.

J.M. Coetzee—Obviously better-known as a novelist, Coetzee has established a strong body of exacting criticism (mostly in the pages of The New York Review of Books). His review/essays are notable for laying out the specific criteria upon which he will judge a book and then taking a book through them step by step. As one may expect from the careful, considered prose found in his novels, Coetzee is a conscientious critic, one who I imagine to be an extremely slow reader who doesn’t miss a thing.

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There’s some hope that as Coetzee ages he’s taking on more and more the role of a critic. His first essay collection, 2002’s Stranger Shores, collected essays from between 1986 and 1999. Only five years later, the equally long Inner Workings brought us criticism from 2000 to 2005. One can hope this trend continues.

Coetzee’s criticism is international in range. He’s written well on a number of Europeans—Harry Mulisch and Cees Nooteboom among them—who have yet to receive much attention in the U.S.

And here’s some recommendations on some classic works of criticism that you might consider reading instead of picking up a copy of Wood’s new book:

The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth

A Rhetoric of Irony, Wayne Booth

Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye

Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson

The Well-Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks

James Wood Redux

I’m always happy to see a new James Wood essay, except when I’ve already seen it. Reading his piece in Prospect, Realism Rules (still), I was seized by déjà vu. Hadn’t I read this somewhere?

Yes, in fact I had. It was published earlier this year in The New Republic (in a much longer version) as The Blue River of Truth.

Compare the opening grafs.

Prospect:

Here are two recent statements about literary realism, statements so typical of their age that a realist novelist would have been proud to have imagined them into life. The first is by Rick Moody, reviewing JM Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello in Bookforum: "It’s quaint to say so, but the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it’s politically and philosophically dubious and often dull." The second is by Patrick Giles, contributing to a long, raucous discussion about fiction, realism, and fictional credibility on a literary blog called The Elegant Variation: "And the notion that this [the realistic novel] is the supreme genre of the lit tradition is so laughable that I ain’t even gonna indulge myself."

TNR:

Here are two recent statements about literary realism, declarations so typical of their age, so finely characteristic, so normative, that a realist novelist would have been very proud to have imagined them into life. The first is by Rick Moody, reviewing J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello in Bookforum: "It’s quaint to say so, but the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it’s politically and philosophically dubious and often dull. Therefore, it needs a kick in the ass." And the second is by Patrick Giles, contributing to a long, raucous discussion about fiction, realism, and fictional credibility on a literary blog called "The Elegant Variation": "And the notion that this [the realistic novel] is the supreme genre of the lit tradition is so laughable that I ain’t even gonna indulge myself."

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