Cracks in the Woodian Edifice

Daniel Miller over at Prospect offers a useful summary of the recent ups and downs of uber-critic James Wood.

It's an entertaining piece, but I think it misses the point when it crowns Wood "king" critic and speculates that his reign is ending.

First of all, I don't know that Wood was ever king of the critics. (In fact, culture being an ongoing exchange of ideas, I'm not even sure the term makes sense for anyone.) Yes, it's true that he managed to draw a lot of attention to his particular dislike for "hysterical realism," but even from the start there were plenty of people that could see the problems with his arguments.

Secondly, an even larger problem with crowning Wood "king" is that his that I still don't know exactly what Wood wants from a book, other than a vague sort of modernist realism. I believe this was what Lauren Elkin was getting at when she wrote "it's a mistake to take him for a literary critic, when he is a fine specimen of a book reviewer."

If you look at previous ascendent literary critics, there's a very clear sense of what their critical vision was. Say the names "Northrop Frye," "Roland Barthes," or "Jacques Derrida," and you'll instantly bring to mind the basic ideas that have become synonymous with each. These critics had original philosophies on literature that they expounded upon at length, and this was what let them dominate for a time.

I don't see this with Wood. In fact, it's telling that the term that has become most synonymous with James Wood doesn't define him as something he's for but as something he's against.

I don't mean this to be criticism of Wood. I do agree that he's a fine book reviewer, and I've never heard him claim to be anything more than that. This is more a criticism of the people, like the author of the Prospect article, who confuse good book reviewing with literary criticism, or, like Cynthia Ozick, who seem to want to wish Wood into being something he's not going to be.

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For a comprehensive look at why Wood should not be king, it’s hard to beat Edmond Caldwell.

Wood has good ideas, but it’s not new. He corrects in some ways Barthes, but it’s more a book reviewer than a theorist. I love the best Wood’s critics because he pays attention to the language, to his beautifulness.
But it’s not Derrida, Barthes or Frye, that’s absolutely true. And that’s why I like so much his Work: How fiction works is a very little book without any pretentions and it shows an interesting man and his thoughts.

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