If James Wood didn’t exist, the publishing industry would have to invent him.
Early in Don DeLillo’s novel, Libra, there’s a scene where a rogue faction of CIA officials, unhappy with the outcome of the Bay of Pigs operation, meet clandestinely to plot an assassination attempt on Kennedy which they hope will spark the administration to renewed aggression against the Castro regime. For their plot to work they must “script a person or persons out of ordinary pocket litter,” i.e. create a paper trail that will suggest the existence of a left-wing, pro-Castro assassin who doesn’t really exist. As they begin to speculate on the identity such a person would need to have – what kind of background, what kind of psychological motivations, etc. – the reader realizes that their description fits perfectly the Lee Harvey Oswald whose life story is being narrated in the novel’s alternate chapters. The similarity – the identity – between Oswald and the plotters’ assassin is entirely coincidental at one level and inevitable at another, because DeLillo is able to convince us of its being an expression of something deeply, inexorably, pathologically American. As they must, the two plotlines converge, and we know what happens when they do.
I was reminded of this while tracing James Wood’s ideological itinerary, and not only because DeLillo is one of Wood’s favorite novelists. I like to imagine the publishing industry – excuse me, I mean the media and entertainment mega-conglomerates for whom publishing is a sideline – getting together some time in the late-80s or early-90s to plot out their strategy for consolidation and “synergy” and so forth and wondering what they can do to further rationalize and commodify literature while still maintaining its cachet as something that ostensibly “transcends” the market. They come up with a plan, Operation ‘Literary Fiction’, which involves reducing the novel to just another of the marketing categories that they already use for “genre fiction” such as mysteries, sci-fi, romance, celebrity bios, etc. But how will they get away with it? Won’t it be too crass and obvious? They’ll need help to put this one over, so they begin to “script a person out of pocket litter,” i.e., create a paper trail that will suggest the existence of an ideal literary critic who doesn’t really exist. They already own all the magazines and newspapers as well as the publishing companies, so planting the articles shouldn’t be a problem . . .
But of course they won’t have to plant any articles, because even as they speak, on the other side of the Atlantic, a former choir-boy from Durham, little Jimmy Wood, is coming to feel that the Guardian has served its purpose as a stepping stone. Go west, young man . . .
James Wood is the ideal critic for the era in which the novel comes to be defined by its marketing category; it is Wood, preeminently, who puts the fetishism back into the commodity. On the one hand, there’s a great leveling behind the scenes – “literary fiction” is just more product that needs to be moved, preferably in superstore bulk – but selling it is part of a system of “distinction” that depends on the appearance of hierarchy, so that customers get to consume status along with, say, the latest Claire Messud or Ian McEwan novel. Wood’s criticism stabilizes the hierarchy of genres by guaranteeing the literariness of “literary fiction”; his imprimatur allows the novel to appear to have transcended mere marketing. His reviewing functions as a kind of nominating process, in which select works of contemporary “literary fiction” are nominated into the pantheon of great literature that his essays about “classic” texts have already enshrined. Thus, to take just a few examples, Monica Ali, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, and of course McEwan get to share the dias with Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, and Shakespeare. Those stacks of Ian McEwan’s Saturday that you see on that Barnes and Noble table have hovering over them a halo that forms the blurb, “This Is Not A Commodity” —James Wood. And it’s 10% off!
The system will only work, however, if our hypothetical critic is seen to be fussy, highly-selective, as liable to reject – and reject strongly, unequivocally, in the manner of an excommunication (“this is not a novel”) – as to approve. Moreover, the rejections need to be occasionally controversial – bucking popular trends (“hysterical realism”) or dismissing already-established reputations (Updike) – just as his benedictions should sometimes take us by surprise (Houellebecq).
Finally, this critic should ideally be English. Let’s face it, there’s a big fantasy right now, in the American cultural imaginary, about being spanked by a Brit. You see it, for example, on display in the popular reality-TV show, the Supernanny, in which each week Jo Frost sets another brood of kids in order by spanking their too-permissive parents. There’s an Animal Planet version of the concept, too, with a British dog-trainer instead of a nanny. Maybe this craze got its start a few years back with that prime-time game show The Weakest Link, which featured a dominatrix known as Anne Robinson in a long black-leather SS jacket dismissing contestants with snarky put-downs, including her catch-phrase: “Jonathan Franzen, you are the weakest link – goodbye!” The current avatar of this trend, of course, is Simon Cowell, of American Idol fame. But why should popular culture get to have all the masochistic fun? Why can’t there be a high-culture version, too?
James Wood is a Simon Cowell for Americans who read.