"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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February 18, 2009

The Critic as Cracker: James Wood's Sister Souljah Moment

While the memory of Colson Whitehead’s payback is still fresh in everyone’s memory, it might be a good time to revisit James Wood’s other – and even more virulent and cynically opportunistic – trashing of an African-American novelist.  I’ve called Wood “the ultimate Blairite critic,” and when it comes to African-American writers, he vividly proves himself to be a true disciple of the Clinton-Blair “Third Way” (i.e., the Reagan-Thatcher way with a dab of KY-Jelly). 

Clinton ran for president in 1992 under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council, an initiative meant to steer the Democratic Party in a more hawkish, neoliberal direction under the cover of re-aligning it with a mythical political “center.”  This initiative, it is worth remarking, was enthusiastically supported by Wood’s future employer, The New Republic, which throughout the eighties and nineties basically functioned as a DLC brain-trust (Martin Peretz has been a longtime supporter of Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman).  A central tenet of the DLC philosophy was the necessity of freeing the party from the heavy shackles of the Civil Rights movement and disciplining the expectations of the party’s Black supporters.  This would leave the new “centrist” Democrats free to continue prosecuting the “War on Drugs” and “War on Crime” (i.e., the war on Black men) and even to undertake some ambitious policy initiatives of their own, such as “ending welfare as we know it” (i.e., extending the war to Black women and children).  It was crucial, coming out of the gate, for Arkansas governor Bill Clinton to demonstrate his fealty to US white supremacy. 

Clinton did this in two ways.  He interrupted his campaign and flew back to Little Rock to oversee the state’s lynching of a Black death-row inmate, Ricky Ray Rector, whose suicide attempt after the commission of his crime had left him too brain-damaged to understand the sentence being carried out against him.  Clinton’s second performance, less heinous but more headline-grabbing, was his public dissing of Sister Souljah at a Jesse Jackson-sponsored Rainbow Coalition event. 

The alacrity with which James Wood proved himself to be an ideological “fit” at The New Republic is truly impressive.  I’ve already mentioned his 1996 hatchet-job on George Steiner, who by an amazing coincidence just happened to be loathed by Martin Peretz.  Perhaps there was a similar alignment of planets on the night that Wood spontaneously decided to rig a “Sister Souljah moment” of his own – his review of Toni Morrison’s 1997 novel Paradise.  Unfortunately this essay is not available online, but readers may find it reprinted in Wood’s collection, The Broken Estate:  Essays on Literature and Belief under the title, “Toni Morrison’s False Magic.”  I urge everyone to steal a copy of this book from the nearest Barnes & Noble and read the review for themselves.  Paradise is far from Morrison’s best book, and no bad book should ever be immune from a negative review, but the terms in which reviewers choose to cast their reviews are their own responsibility, and the terms Wood chooses to critique Paradise are very interesting indeed.

Wood opens the review with a blanket condemnation of magical realism, one of those tout court dismissals of entire fiction-making modes of which his campaign against so-called hysterical realism has come to stand as the preeminent example.  The problem with putting “magical” events in a novel, Wood argues, is not merely literary, “it is a moral problem.”  Glibly hiding his personal biases behind impersonal and plural pronouns (and a token Johnson allusion), Wood explains his moral problem: 

One can hardly claim that magical realism corrupts our sense of reality, for at any moment we can close the novel and go and kick a stone.  No, magic is most likely to corrupt our ability to judge unreality, it is likely to seduce our skepticism until it expires from unrequital; and hence magic corrupts our ability to judge fiction, which is a measured unreality.  Fiction is threatened by magic (and vice versa).  This is why most fiction is not magical, and why the great writers of magical tales – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Gogol, Kafka – are so densely realistic.

Actually, most fiction is not magical because we live in a secular age; when the world was not secular most fiction – from Gilgamesh and The Odyssey to The Divine Comedy and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – was plenty “magical” and got along fine.  But Wood is concerned with more important things than mere truth.  He warns us that too much miscegenation between magic and realism is “likely” to weaken “our” critical judgment about fiction and therefore eventually to weaken fiction itself.  For Wood the novel is a weak form, whose purity needs to be defended from the “threatening” intrusions of alien and illegitimate modes.  Even weaker, however, are its readers, who are all too “likely” to succumb to the Mandingo-like allure of magic’s “seduction.”  Wood’s use of “our” at this point is no more than a trick to dissimulate his condescension towards the “Common Reader.”  Wood likes to posture as their advocate, but because he knows their interests better than they do he often, alas, cannot rejoice to concur with them.  Instead – like a high-end version of those “concerned” busybodies who want to protect children from the corrupting sorcery of Harry Potter – he must defend them in loco parentis. 

But Wood’s argument is as illogical as it is patronizing.  That great works of fabulation do exist is so obvious an objection that even our agile reviewer cannot simply avoid it, so instead he turns it into a rare and elevated mystery, ringed tightly round by a select, masonic cadre of dead Europeans who anyway were actually – being European and all – doing realism.  Rhetorically it is meant to be forbidding and ex cathedra – don’t try this at home kids! – so that readers will simply gulp down the signifiers of authority and miss how completely the argument begs the question.  The fact is that “magic” is no more and no less appropriate for the novel than anything else; it is only a matter of how well or poorly it is done.  Skillful practitioners of fabulation compel our assent, unskillful practitioners fail to do so, and termites who subsist only on a diet of Wood might be surprised to learn that the list of skillful practitioners includes names such as Ishmael Reed, Angela Carter, Kobo Abe, and Juan Rulfo, in other words writers who might happen to possess, in addition to their skill, a melanin-rich complexion, a non-European address, or a vagina.  But Wood is less interested in logic and reality than in casting a spell of his own, trying to deploy his rhetorical authority in such a way that his readers will be discouraged from exercising a proper skepticism over his arguments.  Maybe he has a “moral problem” after all.   

Those who encounter “Toni Morrison’s False Magic” in its place towards the end of The Broken Estate may become aware of an odd contradiction.  So many of the earlier essays find Wood going into raptures about how good (realist) fiction conjures our belief, how it plumbs the mysteries of the human “soul,” etc.  In one essay he lauds Virginia Woolf as a fundamentally “mystical” writer; in the next essay he calls D.H. Lawrence one of the greatest “mystics” writing in English.  Suddenly, however, when it comes to Paradise, he is on the side of skepticism and reason against the seductions of “magic” and “superstition.”  Why is this?

Morrison’s talent – and she certainly has great novelistic talent – has been to combine magic, myth, and history, and to make of this a dignified superstition.  Her fiction, at best, is an examination of this superstition, and at worst, its ready choir.  In the best parts of Song of Solomon and Beloved, Morrison uses her fiction to narrate an African-American history which, because it has so often not been written or officially recorded, has become a necessary superstition – a myth, made of oral tellings and retellings.  Her often distinguished prose, with its flushed, oral cadences and vernacular stammer, attempts to become another of these retellings, a myth that is written down but that reads as if it were spoken.  In her most acute moments, Morrison works against this collusion, by telling stories about people who are suspicious of mythical history . . . [But] Paradise, her new novel, is a choir for superstition, and rarely an examination of it.

What a hodge-podge of colonialist atavisms.  Somebody needs to tell our benighted reviewer that just because history is written down doesn’t save it from being a myth, and that when it is “officially recorded” it is guaranteed to be one.  But for the colonist, written history is a rational scripture, oral history a howling wind.  Thus when Morrison appears (to Wood, anyway) to be handling the “necessary superstitions” of African-American history in a suitably detached manner, her prose is “dignified” and “distinguished” – i.e., it has the bearing of a Negro you can bring home to meet your parents, like Sidney Poitier or Joe Biden’s “clean, articulate” Barack Obama.  But when Morrison appears uncritically to embrace this history and participate in it, she is rolling in the aisles of a superstitious “choir.”  Woolf and Lawrence come out of a Judeo-Christian and European tradition; their magic is a limpid, beautiful “mysticism.”  Toni Morrison’s magic brokenly traces its lineage to Africa; it is “superstition” which must be treated with distance and skepticism.  It should come as no surprise that the magazine James Wood worked for when he wrote these words was the same one which, a few years earlier, had published the initial installment of The Bell Curve.

Stay tuned for Part 2.  While you're waiting, watch this.

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