"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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January 27, 2009

Critic, Run: On James Wood & John Updike

Given the incredibly narcissistic and self-serving eulogy that James Wood came out with on the occasion of David Foster Wallace’s death, we can only imagine what kind of wreath he’ll show up with, uninvited, to lay on the tomb of John Updike.

With the DFW eulogy, Wood was doing a bit of damage-control, since in his own recently-released etiquette manual, How Fiction Works, he had derided the future suicide’s fiction as, among other things, “the whole of boredom.”  Thus Wood felt it necessary to assure us of his great respect for Wallace as a writer and of how much he had looked forward to each of his books, especially since Wallace had been showing promising signs of “maturing,” i.e., becoming more like James Wood.  To round things out, Wood also used the occasion to respond to a negative review of HFW by dishonestly misrepresenting what the reviewer had said.  

In the wake of further high-profile negative reviews of How Fiction Works and other assaults on his critical reputation, however, Wood felt the need for an additional public relations move to “humanize” his image or at least make people feel sorry for him and lay off a little.  Therefore he or his publicist released a home video of the reviewer doing a little kitchen-table finger-drumming routine, in which he gives evidence of the speed he had needed to type his way so swiftly to the top of his profession as well as the flexibility he developed doing so much of that typing for Marty Peretz.  It is truly Wood’s best performance, and if nothing else succeeds in demonstrating that he missed his true calling (and an honest living) as a back-up studio percussionist for radio promotions and so forth. 

Before HFW, Wood had never spilled much ink on DFW, typically lumping him into amalgams with the other usual suspects of so-called “hysterical realism” when castigating this or that imagined infraction of literary good breeding.  But Updike is, so to speak, another story; Wood’s opposition to Updike and to the sort of hollow aestheticism that Updike’s prose represents has been a touchstone of his reviewing.  It has also motivated some of Wood’s most withering snark:  “It seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book,” begins one review.  At least now Wood won’t have to worry about any more books.   

Wood has always been a deeply calculating literary professional and has picked his fights accordingly.  Shrewd strategic sense alone would have dictated to an ambitious young critic a course of action that included setting himself up as the opponent of: 

1) a popular and preferably leftish tendency in contemporary fiction (“hysterical realism”)

2) a major establishment novelist (Updike), and

3) a major establishment critic (George Steiner) 

Wood’s savaging of Steiner is especially revealing when it comes to charting the critic’s career-building moves – it appeared in December 1996, the very same year that Wood dumped the dowdy Guardian to trade up for the much sexier New Republic.  By a remarkable coincidence, Wood’s new employer, Martin Peretz, also happened to be virulently hostile to George Steiner because of the latter’s reasoned and humane critique of Zionism (Peretz’s preferred brand of Zionism is somewhere closer to Meir Kahane’s).  It would have been too obvious for Wood’s hit-job on Steiner to appear in the pages of TNR, of course, so it ran instead in Prospect magazine.  But, midwifed by Wood’s flexible fingers, the article nonetheless achieved its purpose. 

This is not to say that Wood’s antipathy to Updike’s work is insincere – I’m sure it makes him as uncomfortable as his writing about it suggests.  Nor is it to say that his antipathy is unfounded; Updike is indeed a purveyor of fatuous drivel dolled up in pretty stylistic confections.  But so is Wood, and the terms Wood uses to criticize Updike are easily applicable to the critic himself.  The preacher's son saw himself reflected in the grandson of another preacher, and didn’t like what he saw.  It’s been obvious for a long time now that Wood is a classic hysteric, and one well-known symptom of hysteria is the projection of what is unacceptable in one’s self onto a host figure whom the hysteric proceeds to excoriate and exorcise – always in very revealing terms. 

I’m thinking in particular of Wood’s essay “John Updike’s Complacent God,” in The Broken Estate, which was originally a review of Updike’s 1996 novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies.  Take any number of sentences in that review, and substitute the name Wood for the name Updike, and the word critic for the word writer, and you’ll see what I mean.  Here’s one:  “Surely John Updike is one of the least tragic of major writers; and of all theological writers, one of the more complacent.”  This can be rewritten as, “Surely James Wood is one of the least tragic of the major critics; and of all theological critics, one of the more complacent,” and the only thing inaccurate about it would be the word “major.”  Wood is far too lightweight to be a tragic critic (unlike, say, George Steiner), and he is very much a “theological” critic.  Although he never passes up a chance to bore us with the story of the sophomoric bout of theodicy that supposedly deprived him of his faith, Wood nonetheless retains all the categories of a bland, backwards-looking Christian humanism in a nominally secular form.  Which leads us to our next quote from his Updike review:  “Meville was a truly metaphysical writer.  Updike is only a theological writer,” becomes, “Coleridge was a truly metaphysical critic.  Wood is only a theological critic.”  Now try it yourself with these examples:  

  • “Updike is not, I think, a great writer, and the lacuna is not in the quality of his prose but in the risk of the thought.”
  • “Updike seems to mock excitability itself, to close it off, to drown it in perfect language.”
  • “This is, in fact, lyric kitsch, something Updike’s prose descends into too often.  This kitsch is sentimental and false.”

What better description could there be of Wood’s own vaunted style, “lyric kitsch,” sentimental and false because founded on a vacuum of thought, a narrow and even demagogic view of fiction, and a complacent (to say nothing of opportunistic) acquiescence in the world-as-it-is?  Yet even people who are wise to a lot of Wood’s limits still seem to fall for the received opinion about what a wonderful writer he is, what with those gaudy candy-floss metaphors and all.  Like the other received opinions about Wood (that he is widely read, that he is prodigiously intelligent), this one holds up only if his words are read with the same quality of attention that a tired middle-manager is able to devote to them while flipping through the New Yorker on the crowded subway-ride home.     

Then again, if our hypothetical reader happened to be taking the tube home and passing the time reading Wood's critique of Updike's story collection Licks of Love in the 19 April 2001 issue of London Review of Books, she might have encountered the following: "Updike is unduly fond of a certain literary register - that of the mandarin essayist - and certain gauzy words . . ."  Punting a leaf, anyone?

But to return to the essay in Broken Estate, I’ve saved my favorite quote for last:  “Updike, unlike Beckett or Bernhard, never appears to doubt that words can be made to signify, can be made to refer, to mean.”  For Wood to have written this is either breathtaking hypocrisy or a jaw-dropping lack of self-knowledge.  Wood’s aesthetic sympathies and commitments place him as far as possible from writers like Beckett and Bernhard; he has never demonstrated the least capacity to genuinely appreciate or even really understand them.  Nor does the fact of a few such disclaimers scattered sparingly here and there throughout the many pages of his reviews really convince us that Wood has ever, in any serious way, doubted “that words can be made to signify, can be made to refer, to mean.”  See his objections to Barthes in How Fiction Works – Wood, like Updike, is a linguistic positivist for whom the word is a window, even though he’s canny enough to realize that he should hedge his bets now and then. 

It’s possible that Wood’s strange secret-sharer relationship with Updike will somehow prompt him to hold his tongue on the occasion of the latter’s death.  On the other hand, it’s probably also true to say that it seems easier for James Wood to stifle a yawn than to let an opportunity pass for airing his amour propre, in which case we have only to wait for the eulogy in which he tells us that, whatever reservations he may have had about Updike’s work, he always had the profoundest respect etc. etc. etc. etc.  

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