"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.

February 3, 2009

Reactionary Road: James Wood Revisits Richard Yates

In a 2004 Guardian review of Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty, James Wood gave the following evaluation of the author best known for Revolutionary Road:

Bailey's book, so densely researched and chattily peopled, is not just the biography of one writer's heroic struggle to be himself, but a portrait of a distinct literary scene:  that of minor American realist writers, who during the 60s and 70s began to fill university creative writing courses (Iowa being the most famous). Yates was in some ways a larger and broader talent than this world allowed; but he was prey to its limitations, too, above all its stubborn anti-intellectualism and its fixed conviction that fiction can have nothing to do with "ideas".

Bailey calls Yates a "great" writer, but he seems more often a beautiful minor craftsman. 

It’s a sober and sensible summing-up in a remarkably – for Wood, anyway – sober and sensible review.  It shows what sort of middling, inoffensive reviewer Wood might aspire to be if he weren’t always determined to write “his usual hectoring sermon,” as Dan Green once so pricelessly put it.  And it is right about Yates, too, a minor figure whose best work does no more than elevate him to the status of a major-minor.  The review even comes within spitting distance of the really crucial realization that Yates was limited by the very artistic means that enabled his work in the first place.  But to go further would mean to indict “realism” itself, whose bad-faith conventions and superceded protocols must necessarily consign any contemporary practitioner (not to mention critical advocate) to minor status.  That honesty, “tragic” or otherwise, eludes Wood. 

So instead, in his more recent New Yorker article on Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Wood doubles down on the bad faith.  There is an interesting and, I think, revealing difference between the earlier and the later reviews.  It’s not that Wood openly reverses his judgment and elevates Yates to a great or major figure, but the superlatives are noticeably more lavish – “the decade’s great, terrifying indictment of suburban surrender” and “a brilliant rewriting of Madame Bovary” are offered as blurb candidates – and the negatives are correspondingly more muted, with the overall verdict of “minor,” in particular, wholly omitted.  The difference between the two evaluations is still one of degree rather than kind, but pushed to the very threshold where the former turns into the latter – another few taps of the chisel and the bust would be ready for an alcove in eternity.  And the tone of the later article is different as well, more polemical and, yes, hectoring; the critic has mounted his hobby-horse again – it is James Wood, you might say, with a vengeance.  But revenge against what, or whom?  What accounts for this difference between the two Yates articles? 

Yates’s 1961 Revolutionary Road is a well-crafted instance of what amounts to an identifiable subgenre, the realist novel of suburban dysfunction, which grew out of the earlier (pre-WW2) novel of small-town dysfunction (such as Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street or John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara) and which would grow into the dull-as-dishwater “minimalism” of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie in the 80s.  If John Cheever was hailed as the “Chekhov of the suburbs,” some readers would like to claim Yates as that terrain’s Dostoevsky, but his work ultimately feels too merely “crafted” rather than wrung from its own inner imperative.  No doubt this is why Revolutionary Road is a favorite MFA-program novel – it is often the centerpiece of “Time Management in the Novel” workshops, for instance – where the “writing as craft” (i.e., paint by numbers) ethic prevails.  What realist “suburban dysfunction” novels have in common is the extent to which they almost invariably appear constrained by the very sensibility they purport to critique.  They are straitjacketed critiques of straitjackets, provincial novels of provincial narrowness, carefully staking out that “serious” middle ground – the suburbs, if you will – between the disorderly metropolis of actual literature and the vast acreage of commercial realism’s rural idiocy.*

Now that we know the score on Rev Road, let’s turn to the polemical heart of Wood’s sermon on the text of Yates:

Detractors of classic realism like to claim that it is the most complacent of narrative styles, because it never questions its own artifice. But “Revolutionary Road” is, essentially, a novel all about artifice, and thus about its own artifice. When Frank criticizes the suburbs for being insufficiently daring, his complacent ranting has the feel of a performance, no more successful than April Wheeler’s “The Petrified Forest.” But then Frank is always playing a role. He is introduced as a man who had “the kind of unemphatic good looks that an advertising photographer might use to portray the discerning consumer of well-made but inexpensive merchandise (Why Pay More?)” As a student at Columbia, he played at being an intellectual—he was “a Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man.” He plays at being a father, and at being a husband. Later in the book, when he is trying to persuade April not to attempt the abortion, he decides that he must impress her as he had once done when they were young. He embarks on a long effort to dissuade her, which involves “a form of masculine flirtation that was as skillful as any girl’s.” He holds his head “unnaturally erect,” and takes care to arrange his features in “a virile frown” whenever he lights a cigarette. On Revolutionary Road, life has collapsed into advertising: his attempt at dissuasion is described by Yates as “a sales campaign.”

But, of course, a novel in which characters have become brand names—“a Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man”—is a novel that also raises the question: So what is a rounded literary character? Frank’s theatricality is a form of fiction-making, after all. When Mrs. Campbell, at the end of the novel, tells the new owners about the “tragedy” of the Wheelers, she does so in a spirit of corrosive and luxurious gossip—her voice, Yates says, had taken on “a voluptuous narrative pleasure.” But she is doing, in this sense, no more than the novel itself has done; and if we find Mrs. Campbell’s lingering and cruel narrative offensive we shall have also to judge Yates’s own lingering and cruel narrative, and our ready complicity in it. In its forty-seventh year, “Revolutionary Road” seems more radical than ever.

These almost comical contortions place this review at quite a distance from the sober evaluations of 2004.  Now we’re being asked to believe that a novel about characters who “wear masks” or which has self-dramatization as one of its themes is more or less the same as, say, a Luigi Pirandello play.  They’re all in the category of the radically self-reflexive artifact, you see, which is why any responsible teacher of literature can go ahead and substitute Yates’s Revolutionary Road for Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons on the syllabus, just like Wood does in his own Harvard courses.  And for graduate-level students ready to tackle advanced literary theory, he’s put Eric Berne’s classic of Transactional Analysis, Games People Play, on reserve at Widener Library.       

So what has made Wood become so strained and silly?  Or more accurately, what has provoked him to bring his evaluation of Yates in line with his usual standard of strained silliness?  For in most respects this is indeed a run-of-the-mill Wood review, yet another example of his insistent Restorationism, extolling what is traditional and conventional as somehow “advanced” and assimilating what is innovative back into the traditional.  But there is nonetheless an extra edge here, a more pronounced note of hysteria inflecting the desperate illogic of the central argument.  “Detractors of classic realism like to claim that it is the most complacent of narrative styles,” he writes.  Unfortunately there aren’t really so many of these detractors about, and most of them are confined to the “blogosphere.”  Is Wood now swiping at blog critics in the pages of the New Yorker? 

I think it’s rather that a critique bearing some resemblance to those which have been circulating among lit-bloggers hostile to mainstream realism had finally percolated up into a mainstream publication, in the form of Zadie Smith’s much-discussed “Two Paths for the Novel” in the New York Review of Books.  In that article, Smith arraigns a certain type of realist novel – exemplified by Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, much approved by Wood – on charges very similar to those we find Wood responding to in his Yates review, including the charge of “complacency.”  As welcome as Smith’s article was, I have the feeling that it was distilled from a largely unacknowledged tutorial at sites such as This Space, The Reading Experience, and Ready Steady Book, among others.  Whatever its origins, it showed that she had shaken off the case of Stockholm Syndrome that had once upon a time prompted her to thank Wood for putting the screws to her first book, and had marshaled her forces to critique, however implicitly, her critic.  Wood’s review of Revolutionary Road – in which he tortures his own logic instead of her book – must be seen as his rebuttal, equally indirect and so self-lamed as to be impotent.   


* Of course, as novels such as Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland have shown, a fundamentally suburban novel can be written with an “urban” setting.