"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

September 16, 2008

An Ideological Itinerary

James Wood's rise to preeminence as a literary journalist has unfolded in the context of two distinct but related historical periods.  The first is the “post-ideological” 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.  This was the era of the continuation of Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal politics under the rubric of the 'Third Way' – Tony Blair’s 'New' Labour in Britain and the hegemony of Clinton and the ‘centrist’ DNC over the Democratic Party in the United States.  Neoliberal politics under the guise of the ‘end of ideology’ called for a culture-critic with a neoliberal view of ‘humanity’ cloaked as aesthetic autonomy:  cue the irresistible rise of James Wood.  Chief literary critic at the Guardian by 1992 and installed at the New Republic by 1996, Wood was a perfect reflection in the field of culture of these developments – always ready to slam left-leaning critics (see his ‘reviews’ of George Steiner and Edmund Wilson, for instance) and "tedious" aesthetic radicalisms (for which the nouveau roman stands as arch offender) in the name of a vacuous and mystificatory humanism that dovetailed nicely with the End of History.  Artistic avant-gardes are now as passé as the political kind; there is only the ‘realism’ of TINA: There Is No Alternative.  

But Wood also successfully makes the transition to the next historical period, for which 9/11 stands as the turning point.  It’s not that surprising, of course, because ultimately the two ages aren’t that different either, the latter merely ‘baring of the device’ (fangs? thumbscrews?), you might say, of the former.  The End of History morphs into the bad infinity of the permanent War on Terror.  What is called for now is smug moralism and smarmy superiority, priggishness and sanctimony and more than a little fundamentalism – which is why Tony Blair was so well-qualified for making the transition from the first period to the second.  Likewise Wood, who is in so many ways the ultimate Blairite critic and even a transposition of Tony Blair into the realm of letters (even after Blair outstayed his welcome in Britain he enjoyed very high approval ratings in the U.S.).  Ever true to his times (in the name of ‘eternal’ human nature!), Wood is always exposing threats to the purity of the novel, policing and strengthening its borders (see how often he pronounces his foes’ works to be ‘not novels’), exposing heretics and enemies with the interrogatory beam of his vigilant surveillance.  

His ditching of the New Republic for the New Yorker last year and publication of the "magisterial" How Fiction Works in this confirm that he's an imperialist for our times.  

I'll be having more to say about How Fiction Works in the coming weeks and months, but in the meantime I'd like recommend the two best reviews of it I've read so far, the first by Daniel Green -- the web's best critic of Wood's work -- at Open Letters Monthly (make sure you also visit his blog, The Reading Experience) and the second by Walter Kirn at the New York Times Book Review.


bgz said...

pretty interesting. I am not as versed in all things Woodlandian as you are. But I liked his demolition of Coetzee in one essay a while back. Still--am intrigued to see you continue your case. And to that end I should think you would want to comment more fully on the precise chair title Wood crafted for himself??? at harvard---i.e. it sounds very contra all that old and horrible "theory" of the previous terrible dark age we have just come through in the last 30 years of academe (decon, strux, etc) as Wood would cast it. ?

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thanks for your comment, bgz. I agreed with Wood's critique of Coetzee's Disgrace as a fundamentally "frigid" book (I would have had other things to say about that novel as well, however). I can find myself in agreement with many of Wood's judgments, at a very general level -- he champions the books of Norman Rush, which I think are terrific, for example, and I don't enjoy the particular novels of Pynchon and Rushdie that he's tried to demolish, etc. etc. But often, at a more particular level, our reasons are very different. I don't have anything necessarily against the overall mode that Pynchon and Rushdie are working in, which he derides as "hysterical realism"; I think Gravity's Rainbow is wonderful and Midnight's Children very good. So while there might be overlap in our judgments, what I really take issue with is his fundamental approach, which I hope to be examining in the coming posts.

Yeah, he's "Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism" at Harvard. As a professional title, I have to say it's got a sort of Gilbert & Sullivan ring to it. He's clearly anti-theory, as you say, so maybe he sees himself as being more in the line of "practical criticism" like some of the pre-"theory" critics, I.A. Richards etc. I have a response to Wood's Harold Bloom/Shakespeare essay in which Wood lays out a little more fully his objections to "literary theory" which I'll be posting before very long. Stay tuned!

Richard said...

I think your characterization of Wood as the perfect critic for our neoliberal times is spot on.

I find value in the things Wood notices in a given writer's use of language, but, like you, his overall method and outlook bothers me.

I look forward to more...