"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

September 22, 2008

Must be something in the Zeitgeist . . .

" . . . in How Fiction Works, James Wood has written an establishment polemic in the guise of aesthetics . . ."

A terrific discussion of Wood's ideologically tendentious conception of realism and reality by Tony Christini over at A Practical Policy, where Wood is placed - correctly, to my mind - in the critical camp of what used to be called the Cold War liberals, as a kind of latter-day Lionel Trilling.  

Before I read Christini's post I was unaware that Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic (and thus Wood's editor during his stint at that publication) had edited a volume of Trilling's essays.  Christini continues:

"then in 2004 [Wieseltier] promptly hatcheted the first prominent novel critical of the US invasion of Iraq. Even before release for sale by its publisher, Checkpoint, the proclaimed (yet self-nullifying) antiwar short novel from established writer Nicholson Baker, was denounced in 2004 by the New Republic’s literary editor Wieseltier in the New York Times, in easily one of the longest “reviews” the book received, as “This scummy little book,” which opened his review and set the tone of Wieselstier’s screed, a fraudulent and hypocritical defense of capitalism and subservient literature."

Wood's itinerary in the United States has been in the orbit of "liberal hawks" like Wieseltier, ostensible liberals who supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and - no coincidence - who generally tend to be big Zionists).  These include among their number not only Wieseltier at the New Republic but also Peter Beinart and, of course, owner and chief editor Martin Peretz, and now at the New Yorker there's his new boss, David Remnick, as well as George Packer.    

September 21, 2008

An Ideological Itinerary II

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.

September 19, 2008

James Wood's mental universe in six metaphors:

1)  “Novel writing has an entrepreneurial element:  to invent a central story which can function simultaneously as a plausible action and as an emblematic or symbolic one is akin to inventing a new machine or product, a patent that will run and run.” 

(Good writers are like plucky entrepreneurs.) 

2)  “Unreliable narration is almost entrepreneurially efficient:  once the novelist has set up his stall, he can syndicate his technique in chapter after chapter.” 


3)  “Realism produces surrealism; it funds its own defaulters.”  

(Realism is like a bank.) 

4)  Realism is a lenient tutor; it schools its own truants.”  

(But sometimes realism needs to be like a schoolmaster, too.) 

5)  “It is precisely what the novel-form exists for, how it justifies its difference as a genre, earns its genre-salary.”  

(The novel is a white-collar employee.)

6) "Aesthetics, I believe, does not really exist - it is always a form of criticism - and so all aesthetic arguments need to stop at local stations.  The discussion of specific works is the only valid aesthetics."  

(Criticism is a kind of trainspotting.)

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.

September 14, 2008

Starting out

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.