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


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Thanks for the ‘suggestions for further reading.’ I would also add that the kind of thing Wood seems to be up to in ‘How Fiction Works’ was done very well by critic David Lodge about 20 years ago in ‘The Art of Fiction,’ a collection of pieces he wrote originally for newspaper publication. It’s a smart, engaging primer on fictional technique. John Sutherland’s odd recent book ‘How to Read a Novel,’ on the other hand, did not seem to me very successful, despite Sutherland’s obvious erudition and expertise as a critic and scholar–too miscellaneous.

A good list, Scott, but where are the chicks? Throw in Cynthia Ozick and I think you’re on pretty solid ground.

Thank you for writing this. I am especially pleased to see Birkerts and LeClair mentioned. Although they have blind spots, I believe, like everyone else, their work is invaluable. There should be no kings, but a parliament of these.

Excellent post! I’ve been blogging my close reading of How Fiction Works over at Wisdom of the West. I come to the defense primarily of William Gass, but also Roland Barthes. My sense is that Wood focuses too heavily on ‘details’ and gives short shrift to the element of story, losing the forest for the trees. All of the critics you mentioned (except Birkerts) have been cited or mentioned at one point or another along the way and I approve of your list of essential critical texts. There are, of course, others but I would call your attention to Frank Kermode’s essential The Sense of an Ending as well.

The “chicks,” Ed? Well, thanks for standing up for us, I guess, and since you mention it, Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at a Novel” is very good.

Unbelievable that neither Harold Bloom (perhaps he isn’t enough of a counterpoint Scott?) nor John Updike have been mentioned. The two ‘best’ critics at work today, along with Wood. Coetzee is brilliant, but he makes my brain hurt.

Speaking of Kermode, here’s what he had to say: “It is not expected of critics that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.”

Nigel,
I don’t think Updike’s that great. He seems more interest in nitpicking style than in writing criticism that will last.
Bloom is good, but the problem with him is that I never see him publish anywhere anymore. If you know where, please advise.

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