I never paid much attention to James Wood – his writing, his career, or his reputation – until n+1 did. I know I’d read a few of Wood’s reviews over the years, but they never struck me as anything so special, and anyway the New Republic was not my kind of magazine. n+1, however, was, and that Intellectual Scene editorial in the first issue, “Designated Haters,” back in the fall of 2004, with its spot-on if too brief critique of TNR’s cultural pages, prompted me to take a second, and this time more concerted, look at James Wood’s reviewing (I can’t quite bring myself to call it “literary criticism,” although it’s rather poignantly clear that’s what it thinks it is). I read what was available online at the Powell’s Books Review-a-Day archive, and eventually bought his two collections of reviews, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self. By the time I was well into the second collection, I was convinced of two things – that as a cultural phenomenon James Wood was interesting and possibly significant enough to merit further investigation, and that as a literary critic he was a fraud. If anything, n+1 had been too charitable.
Like so many among n+1’s readers, I was waiting for the more sustained critique. The editors had laid out some basic, suggestive lines of attack – Wood was narrow, antiquarian, and somehow complicit with the overall ideological agenda of TNR – but they never sufficiently defined their terms, and so James Wood himself stepped in to do it for them (see his “A Reply to the Editors” in n+1 #3, Fall 2005). He seized the initiative, and simply steamrolled the fledgling journal’s editors. Narrow? Negative? Asthetician’s interests? He had answers for all the charges, and more besides. You could sense a lot of rancor there, mixed in with uneasy, defensive boasting – “probably no critic of contemporary fiction is more drawn to style and the enjoyment of style” – stored up and now being discharged against the arguments of all those (including his blog critics such as Dan Green) who hadn’t fallen in line with his coronation as the leading literary critic of the English-speaking world.
The n+1 editors’ response? Their best response was the photograph that served as the reply’s frontispiece, showing a reader’s hand holding a copy of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn open to the page that reproduces the Victorian-era daguerreotype of Edward Fitzgerald, a sly reassertion of Wood’s essential antiquarianism and a tweak at his receding hairline. But otherwise the editors ran for cover – in this case the cover of “a roundtable on the current situation of American fiction.” James Wood had sent these Harvard grads back to school.
I’m still a devoted reader of n+1 – it’s about the closest thing we get to a really necessary periodical these days – but nowhere have I found the sustained critique of James Wood that I think he merits as a cultural phenomenon, and as the symptom of a disease. He is a very narrow critic indeed, but it is the narrowness of the hole that the culture industry has dug – is digging still – for literature.