In an email exchange with a sympathetic but critical reader of this blog, an objection was raised over my assertion, in an earlier post, that James Wood is essentially an advocate for domestic fiction, that the domestic novel, as I wrote, is his “default setting.” All one had to do to rebut this claim, the reader argued, was to look at the sheer variety of authors to whom Wood has awarded positive reviews. Recently, for instance, he’s recommended Bolaño’s Savage Detectives and Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, neither of which could credibly be categorized as “domestic fiction.”
It’s a line of reasoning that bears a striking resemblance to Wood’s own self-defense against charges of negativity and narrowness in his reply to the editors of n+1 magazine in 2005. In the course of his career thus far, writes Wood,
I have written in praise, and often at considerable length, of Norman Rush . . . José Saramago, Saul Bellow, Graham Swift, Jeffrey Eugenides, Philip Roth, Victor Pelevin, Alan Hollinghurst, Amit Chaudhuri, Monica Ali, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Kazuo Ishiguro, Muriel Spark, J.F. Powers, V.S. Pritchett, W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee, Vikram Seth, Anne Enright, David Means, Geoff Dyer, David Bezmogis, James Kelman, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Yates, Francisco Goldman, V.S. Naipaul, and . . . Christina Stead . . .
What begins as a response to the idea that he is somehow primarily a negative critic turns into a demonstration of his breadth. He continues:
There is no obvious pattern here. I am assumed to be a defender of “realism,” but I have skeptically reviewed Robert Stone and Tom Wolfe and John Irving, finding precisely their “realism” too conventional to deserve that noble and expansive word. I am assumed to be an “aesthete,” but it is precisely John Updike’s aestheticism that has goaded me again and again into print in the last ten years. I am assumed to be a “moralist,” but I like best to lose myself in the rich prose of a Bellow or a Melville or a Henry Green; probably no critic of contemporary fiction is more drawn to style and the enjoyment of style. I love ideas in fiction, but not as Julian Barnes or Richard Powers practice them. I praised Sabbath’s Theater and criticized The Human Stain; I was lukewarm about Disgrace but admired Elizabeth Costello.
At first glance the diversity of this list can look like an open-and-shut refutation of the charges of narrowness and the privileging of domestic fiction alike. But there are at least two key ways that this line of defense is flawed. The first flaw is that the breadth of the list is only apparent; it is really more a book-retailer’s than an intellectual’s idea of breadth, a list of names culled from the Fiction section of Border’s or Barnes & Noble. Wood never really evinces any interest in art or culture or even literature (which includes drama and poetry as well as fiction) per se; with few exceptions he’s concerned solely with novels – which, by sheer coincidence I’m sure, tend to generate better sales than poetry, plays, and books on painting or sculpture or art-music. And even his interest in novels is limited to Anglo-American and European novelists with the occasional garnish of some Anglo-postcolonial ginger.* Of course one might offer as a counter-argument that Wood is, after all, a book reviewer, and to that extent dependent on the output of the market. To which I would respond: Now we are getting somewhere.
But there’s a second and, in my view, more serious flaw in Wood’s protestations of breadth. To understand it, however, we have to look behind the sleight-of-hand of his “There is no obvious pattern here.” Once one has read a critical mass of his actual reviews, one sees that there is indeed an “obvious pattern.” He might award positive notices to what are arguably some quite different novels, but he awards them for more or less the same reason: because they have (or can be construed as having) depictions of supposedly autonomous human consciousness. They are all, in one way or another, versions of the “novel of character” he called for in his Franzen essay, and which he counterposed to the nemesis of hysterical realism. Certainly a critic needs critical standards, but in Wood’s case, as in Procrustes’, the application of the standard has a funny way of leaving its subjects – or victims – standardized.
The essay, “What Chekhov Meant by Life,” from his first collection, The Broken Estate, is programmatic in this regard. Chekhov is Wood’s avatar of Negative Capability: “More completely than any writer before him Chekhov became his characters,” he writes. Chekhov’s characters enjoy “true privacies,” which amounts to a kind of watershed in the history of literature: “It is the movement of free consciousness in literature for perhaps the first time.” He explains:
Chekhov’s characters, however they yearn, they have one freedom that flows from his literary genius: they act like free consciousnesses, and not as owned literary characters. This is not a negligible freedom. For the great achievement of Chekhov’s brilliantly accidental style, his mimicking of the stream of the mind, is that it allows forgetfulness into fiction. Buried deep in themselves, people forget themselves while thinking, and go on mental journeys. Of course they do not exactly forget to be themselves. They forget to act as purposeful fictional characters. They mislay their scripts.
This is the desideratum – if a novel has this, it is good; if not, not. It’s the summum bonum, which becomes the programme, which becomes the metric: in review after review, for book after book, with a finally numbing regularity, the citing of these little moments (or their absence) in which characters reveal their ostensible ‘free, spontaneous’ human interiority. What he says about Chekhov he says about Hamsun, what he says about Hamsun he says about Woolf. The most important thing about Woolf’s technique, he writes, is that it “frees characters from the fiction which grips them; it lets characters forget, as it were, that they are thicketed in a novel.” We, however, are never allowed to forget that we are straitjacketed in Wood’s criticism, which soon enough takes on an identikit quality: pick up the sentence from the Woolf piece and plunk it right back down into the Chekhov essay (because the most important thing about Woolf’s technique, after all, is also the most important thing about Chekhov’s technique), or further back into the Shakespeare essay, or fast-forward it into his reviews of Monica Ali, Jeffrey Eugenides, or Norman Rush, of whose novel Mortals he writes, “its central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness.” Or, for variety's sake, you could try his recent (June 2008) review of Rivka Galchen's first novel: "Atmospheric Disturbances is a novel of consciousness." The catholicity of his taste and the variety of his benediction are hollow blessings, he is indeed a narrow critic. In one way or another he reduces almost every novel that he approves of to this boilerplate. Other aspects are secondary, mere vehicles of his humanist ideology; even style and form are just windows – dressed according to the transitory fashions of their times – through which good authors reveal, and poor authors obscure, these little flashes of private human inwardness. His approval reduces the approved down to his own size. He measures them with an inchworm metric.
Look again at his paean to Chekhov’s supposed “free, human” consciousnesses – what is it but a displacement into the realm of fiction of the bourgeois-liberal political utopia? It is a Chamber of Commerce-style political vision: the classic liberty of the shopkeeper, laissez-faire “freedom from” as opposed to “freedom to,” etc., etc. The fictional characters get to enjoy an idealized little republic in their heads – oh, and hearts! and, oh! souls! – and the reader gets to enjoy it on the page, while meanwhile each must compromise themselves to the edicts of “reality.”
You can see the same bourgeois-liberal ideology at work in Wood’s negative reviews, and nowhere more so than in his reviews of the writers he arraigns for practicing so-called “hysterical realism” and its other postmodern variants. In these polemics Wood’s language tars anti-realist aesthetic modes such as allegory, the “paranoiac vision,” and magical realism with the brush of totalitarian and anti-human (and therefore anti-novelistic) political agendas that supposedly subvert the liberties of the novel’s ideal republic. The word “agenda” is Wood’s, carefully drawn from the deep well of his received wisdom, because we all know that leftists have agendas: thus our red-baiting reviewer speaks of “the agenda of Pynchon’s writing,” and of DeLillo he writes that, “he can employ only characters who are loyal to him and his agenda” – get it? And because we all know that leftists and radicals like to pretend to espouse liberatory ideals but really want to enslave people, Wood has developed the clever rhetorical trick of turning his opponents’ radical libertarianism against them. Toni Morrison’s magical realism, he writes in his review of Paradise, “bullies” her characters and “oppresses” them – get the trick? Pynchon gets the same treatment in Wood’s review of Mason & Dixon: The “fantastic comedy” for which Pynchon is “famous” is actually “willed” and “unfree,” says Wood, and his characters are “serfs to allegory.” “Pynchon’s allegories are somewhat tyrannical,” Wood continues, and just in case we didn’t get the point: “Pynchon’s novels have . . . the agitated density of a prison.”
Of course this rhetorical trick involves the reviewer in a logical contradiction: If these authors’ characters are just cartoons, ciphers, and stick-figures, as he says, then they can’t be bullied and oppressed. So Wood must transform them into a trapped population of “live” characters, presumably yearning to breathe free and requiring his special agitation on their behalf. It’s this missionary zeal that makes him, as I wrote in an earlier post, the perfect example of a Blairite in the realm of letters. Once the characters are liberated, of course, they can be bitch-slapped with “personal responsibility.” It will be high time for them to quit loafing and get real jobs, if any are available.
The function of humanism at the present time: apologetics to keep a certain sector of the population – specifically the book reading part of it, and especially the part that reads “literary fiction” – on board with galloping inhumanity. It doesn’t matter if they watch CNN or FOX, it doesn’t matter if they vote Democratic or Republican, as long as they keep watching the news and subscribing to popular magazines, as long as they keep going to book club, as long as they keep going to the polls – in other words as long as they keep believing in and cherishing the “free, spontaneous” privacies of their profoundly human consciousnesses. James Wood’s inchworm humanism is intended to give the culture of imperialism a human face. The system must be legitimized as it hurtles to destruction and drags the entire globe with it. The novel – as a recent post at the Existence Machine has done an admirable job in outlining – has always played a privileged role in this legitimizing task. You need look no farther than the pages of the New Republic and the New Yorker themselves: advocacy of “free” characters and their precious interiorities in the ‘cultural’ back pages, and advocacy of bombs away in the Middle East and bulldozers to bury Palestinians in the front pages. “Interiority” for some and nullity for the rest.
Abjection is humanism’s eternal Other, the abject always the shadow the humanist drags in his wake. The fraudulent Anglo-European ideology of humanism and “free” human interiority, in its Christian-humanist and Enlightenment rationalism flavors – the Middle Passage long ago exposed it as a sick joke. It shouldn’t have survived King Leopold’s Congo ‘Free’ State, shouldn’t have survived Wounded Knee, shouldn’t have survived two European world wars, shouldn’t have survived Auschwitz or Hiroshima or the Nakba or Algeria or Vietnam. To the extent that it does survive, it is sheer apologetics. The real shadow cast by Wood’s bourgeois-liberal republic of “free human consciousness” is the ghetto, the bantustan, the shantytown, the occupied territory.
*If you want to at least start to get a feeling for the genuine breadth of global literature, scan the postings at the invaluable Literary Saloon site, the weblog of the complete review; if you want an idea of a critic with real breadth, go back and read George Steiner, on whose reputation Wood broke a lance in 1996, or Edmund Wilson, about whose career Wood wrote a defensive, grudging review in 2005. Next to these two figures Wood is a dwarf.