"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

August 26, 2010

Dept of Filthy Neocon Litcritter Lies

I'm taking the liberty of reposting in its entirety this concise exposé of kultur-kaiser Adam Kirsch by Steven Augustine from The Endless Thread. Kirsch belongs to the same sub-genre of "critic" as James Wood -- smarmy-smart, facile propagandists of the empire's cultural bureau for "higher-toned" readers from the professional-managerial class (Jed Perl's another one). Kirsch recently wrote a couple of know-nothing take-downs of Slavoj Zizek in which he condemned the Slovenian philosopher/provocateur for being "fatally attracted to violence." These were published in the New Republic, a magazine psychopathically attracted to violence.

Here's comrade Augustine's piece:

Like all his fellow Neocons, Adam Kirsch scores his points by lying; the techniques he prefers are creepy sleight-of-hand, or the 20th-Century propagandist’s sadistic favorite, which is to assert, with a wink, that Blue is Red or a Cow is a Butterfly or that a Fundamentalist Guerrilla and a Secular Dictatorship are chummy together (for example). It only works if you aren’t paying attention… or if you really want to believe.

In his eulogy to Frank Kermode, the mendacious Adam quotes a review Kermode wrote about a collection of essays by Martin Amis. Kirsch would have the reader believe that Kermode’s introduction to his review of “The War Against Cliché” is a quietly devastating put-down:


“The last book he published before he died was Bury Place Papers, a collection of his LRB essays, which shows that he was a tough and witty critic as well as a learned one. His review of Martin Amis’s essay collection The War Against Cliché is a master class in quiet devastation: “The main title of this collection may at first seem wantonly non-descriptive, but it turns out to be exact,” Kermode begins. “The first thing to see to if you want to write well is to avoid doing bad writing, used thinking. The more positive requirements can be left till later, if only a little later.” It takes a minute to realize that Kermode’s verdict on Amis has just been delivered and that there will be no appeal.”

From the review, by Kermode, Kirsch quotes:


“That said, or, as Amis allows himself to say, ‘simply put’, we have here a literary critic of startling power, a post-literary-critical critic who, incorrigibly satirical, goes directly to work on the book. Often, being right and being funny are, in this book, aspects of the same sentence. Often, as one reads on, one finds oneself quietly giggling, or gigglingly quiet. The precision of the attack is astounding, and is matched by the bluntness of the condemnation.”

or this:

“The long central New Yorker essay on Larkin is probably the most considered and the most permanently valuable part of the book. It recycles some earlier remarks to great defensive effect. More than any other piece it confirms one’s opinion that Amis is the best practitioner-critic of our day – just what Pritchett was in his prime, though without the bad punctuation and the jangling train-wrecks.”

Seems, strangely, like very strong praise, doesn’t it? Well I’m afraid you’ll have to keep reading it, again and again, until it doesn’t.

Neil Bush 2012.

August 9, 2010

Fiction Ain't All The New Yorker Domesticates

From the blog "Have a Good Time," an insightful post entitled "What the New Yorker doesn't publish":

For starters, this letter:

To the Editor,

While I was glad to see praising reviews of poets Rae Armantrout and Anne Carson in recent issues, I was somewhat disturbed by their contents. Dan Chiasson says that Armantrout is the “best poet of the [Language] group” because she “takes the basic premises of Language writing somewhere they were never intended to go.” This ideological attack on experimental writing is repeated in Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Carson’s “Nox,” when O’Rourke says that Carson’s “singular gift” is complicated by “a postmodern habit of pastiche and fragmentation,” which O’Rourke calls “so much formal detritus.” Not all critics have to be behind Language poetry or formal experimentation, but to praise a Language poet and a formal experimenter for all they do that isn’t subsumed by those categories is a shockingly brazen party-line statement of what is and is not acceptable in poetry.

It’s no surprise that a reviewer unsympathetic to Language poetry would only find praiseworthy the least Language-like elements in Armantrout’s work, nor is it surprising that a reviewer unsympathetic to formal experimentation would only care for Carson as a traditional lyric poet. What is surprising, and troubling, is that the New Yorker would print what amount to polemics against Language poetry and experimental writing in the form of reviews that pick out their outliers for praise. And in drawing the line where they do, excluding most Language poetry and experimental writing, the New Yorker obviously also excludes (for example) explicitly political poetry or poetry by people of color, which receive even less critical attention.

This is obviously not as important as the New Yorker failing to cover, say, Gaza* (nothing in the print edition since a shocking Lawrence Wright article in November 2009–which might be worse than not covering it at all–and very little before then); and that in turn is obviously less important than the actual situation in Gaza. But the very rare and selective eye towards poetry reflects the same deep ideological biases as the Gaza coverage. Similarly, the New Yorker‘s poetry predilections are mere instances of the broader biases of Official Verse Culture, which themselves only reflect more pernicious forces of reaction and white supremacy. Perhaps I am overstating, but for me at least, the New Yorker has a profound role as an arbiter and definer of culture and politics. Presenting the ideological as neutral, even as it is of course ideology’s oldest trick, must be resisted!

* Nothing on Oscar Grant. Nothing on SB 1070. Two brief stories on Sean Bell, one making fun of how black people speak, and one round-up of musicians’ responses. These kinds of stories on Sean Bell are emblematic: the New Yorker casts attention away from police violence making language and political music the real story.

August 2, 2010


from an interview with Steven Moore, author of The Novel: An Alternative History, at 3 Quarks Daily:

What about the earliest fictions you include in the book fascinate you the most?

The daring of them. This goes back to your first question about alternative fiction. These early fictions, especially Egyptian and Assyrian stuff, they're almost like avant-garde magical realist novels. They're more like García Marquez than John Updike, say. The freedom I saw there really interests me. This is the same freedom avant-garde writers adopt. As soon as literature started becoming written, critics came up with rules for poetry and drama. Anyone who was writing tales or longer fictions were pretty much free to do whatever they wanted. There was this real spirit of experimentalism, to use a modern term, in that early fiction, that fit in perfectly with my whole thesis: the avant-garde novel is not a modern aberration, but goes all the way back to the beginning. If anything, the conventional novel is the aberration. That's a very late development.

Could you say that we have it backwards, that what we see as normal is one current of many in terms of the way the novel has gone? We've focused so much on one subset, that has seemed to us to be the only thing?

Exactly. Without question, it's the most popular form of fiction, the conventional novel, the beginning, middle, end, and all that. It's the easiest to read, has the largest appeal, blah, blah, blah. But when you step back and look at the whole stream from ancient Egypt to what's being written now, it's just a tributary that goes off to the side. I wouldn't push it too hard, but the experimental novel is actually the main river. The conventional novel is a popular sidetrack.

July 28, 2010

The Erudite Mr. Wood, Part Deux

Would you buy a used car from this critic?

Nigel Wood has done us the service of directing our attention to a continuation of Hershel Parker’s remarks at Amazon.com on James Wood and the Melville chapter of The Broken Estate, the first part of which I had cited in my previous post as a challenge to Wood’s reputation for deep and wide “learning” or "erudition." I repost the entirety of the continuation here, followed by my response.

Parker writes:

In what I posted earlier on James Wood I did not mention what he had said of me in the 17 March 1997 New Republic and, somewhat revised, in The Broken Estate. In the New Republic he had begun with a subtle insult: mine was a "semi-biography"--not because it was half fiction or half essay but because it was the first volume. And I was "not a critic" but merely "a connoisseur of facts."

According to Wood, I had confessed that in writing this "biography" (or "semi-biography"?) I had assembled documents chronologically in my computer then "simply moved chunks of the Log from one computer file to the other," not bothering to construct a single sentence of prose of my own. This is, let me say, false. I made no such confession. The only time I moved chunks of the Log into the biography was to avoid retyping something I was going to quote. I was saving effort and trying not to introduce new errors.

Then Wood charged that I quoted "from almost every published contemporary review of Melville's novels." Now, I take some pride in having searched for many months, all told, since 1962, for unknown reviews and having publishing most of the known reviews, with the help of Brian Higgins, in the Cambridge Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews, but I had been selective in quoting in the biography. Wood complained that I had filled "twelve pages with reviews of Omoo" but had almost neglected to describe or interpret the book. My view is that the reviews of Omoo that came to the attention of Melville's publishers and his friends and family were important--indeed, they were crucial. If they had not been favorable, he and Elizabeth Shaw could not have announced their engagement and proceeded with plans for marriage, and Melville could not have confidently embarked on Mardi. Then, the reviews by Horace Greeley and G. W. Peck came just in time to sour the mood of the wedding. Finally, in 1849 Richard Bentley would not have taken a chance on Mardi if the English reviews of Omoo had not been favorable. I could not tell the story without the reviews.

As for not describing the book, in Ch. 12, "Beachcomber and Whaler, 1842-1843," I had told what was known of Melville on Tahiti and Eimeo, drawing on old sources and two previously unpublished sources, one passed on to me from Wilson Heflin's papers and one in the 1878 Shaker Manifesto, discovered by Rita Gollin but not yet used in a biography.

In Ch. 23, "Winning Elizabeth Shaw and Winning the Harpers," I had reviewed what scholars had shown about the sourcebooks for Omoo, focusing on the way he "used, misused, and downright abused his sources."

Now I see that, deluding myself that I was a critic, I had devoted a substantial paragraph to one "of the characteristics of his mature style," Melville's "powerful portrayal of images from different times and places which alternate rapidly in the mind, merge with each other, and (in later examples) disentangle again. In Pierre and in Clarel, he made profound use of this psychological phenomenon, but it appears in most of its essentials in Omoo."

I see that I had also devoted most of a page to describing "Melville's new command of language, particularly in the way his descriptions of events and actions were now saturated with the Scriptures." You would have thought that Wood would have liked that paragraph on Melville's use of the Bible, since in 2006 he wrote the passage I quoted in my earlier initial comment: "Melville's words muster their associations, their deep histories, on every page. There are scores of allusions to the King James Bible."

Indeed, there are scores of allusions to the King James Bible in Moby-Dick. Therefore I would have thought that Wood might have been intrigued by my concluding that Omoo was "saturated with the Scriptures." He ought to have liked my conclusion that some readers would enjoy the evidence that Melville's brain was "Bible-soaked," even while his use of the Bible would offend "many pious people who kept a wary eye out for the use of God's word in vain, and who would find such submerged allusions blasphemous." Melville was taking a risk, I said.

A decade and a half after writing the passage, I look at my concluding paragraph on the composition of Omoo with delight and pride. I had been delicately humorous about the sexuality in Omoo, demonstrating Melville's own adeptness at sexual innuendo in describing how a stranger in Tahiti should have his knife in readiness and his caster slung. In a parenthetical exclamation Melville had identified Mr. Bell, the husband of the infinitely desirable Mrs. Bell, as "happy dog!" That term was loaded. Melville had passed on to the publisher John Wiley the review in which the Times of London had said this about him: "Enviable Herman! A happier dog it is impossible to imagine than Herman in the Typee Valley." I laugh aloud now, in reading, after this space of time, my summation of the successful author and lover: "Meanwhile, his knife in readiness and his caster slung, there were hours when it was impossible to imagine a happier dog than Herman in the Hudson Valley." At the moment I wrote that, I must have been in my modest way a "happy dog." I did well by Omoo, take it all in all.

Melville, Wood charged, was "tied down by Parker's Lilliputian facts." Nevertheless, it was "at least a fine family chronicle." Then Wood abandoned my "semi-biography" for rhapsodical excursions of his own. Midway, he recollected me long enough to slap me into the dirt before snatching me halfway up, his mighty fist clutching my shirt: "His [Melville's] reading, which had been eager but arbitrary, now took on a systematic wildness. Here, Parker, with his dribbling data, is useful." The slapping down is in the "dribbling," and the jerking up comes fast in the assertion that the data is "useful." Useful, if one paid a little attention, but my dates of Melville's reading, for instance, got mixed up in Wood's mind. Far, far into theological rhapsodies in the New Republic, Wood remembered me again: "Parker is right to call Moby-Dick "the most daring and prolonged aesthetic adventure that had ever been conducted in the hemisphere in the English language." Then Wood was swept up and away with his metaphysical effusions. Well, what was the New Republic paying him for? for reviewing a book fairly and conscientiously or writing a dazzling critical essay which he could collect in The Broken Estate?


Wood’s criticism of Parker’s biography is not original – in fact it is the standard knock against it. Wood needn’t have so much as touched the cover of one of its volumes to write what he did about it (although the tone of jeering superiority is all Wood’s); he is most likely just passing on what he read elsewhere, all too happy if readers who don’t know any better take the insight as yet more evidence of his critical brilliance. Yet in spite of having too many notes too many Oomo reviews, Parker’s biography has succeeded in becoming a standard, crucial reference for anyone writing seriously (as opposed to journalistically) about Melville.

No, Wood’s criticism of the Melville biography tells us more about Wood himself than it does about Parker – and this is why we should be grateful to Nigel for bringing it to our attention. It fits into a pattern that surfaces whenever Wood writes about other critics, or at least those – George Steiner, Edmund Wilson, Harold Bloom, and even Parker – who might, whatever their flaws, limits, or excesses, genuinely merit the rhetorical bouquets of “erudite” and “learned” so regularly strewn in Wood’s path. In one way or another, Wood arraigns them all for the crime of knowing too much.

Take for instance Wood’s deeply nasty (yet ultimately trivial) hatchet-job on George Steiner. It opens with a number of substantial paragraphs ridiculing the occasionally pretentious ways that the older critic has of displaying his breadth of reference and allusion. To give just one example: Steiner’s “habitual tic,” Wood writes, “is a consumer’s definite article. Just as one asks for a coffee, a Coke, a scotch, Steiner asks for 'a Socrates, a Mozart, a Gauss or a Galileo…'” Wood sets him straight: “There is ‘a coffee,’ but there is no such thing as ‘a Mozart’. There is Mozart, singular and nontransferable—a concretion, not a vapor.”

(Amusingly, Wood has had recourse to this proscribed rhetorical device himself, as in his epistle to the wayward lads at n+1: “I like best to lose myself in the rich prose of a Bellow or a Melville or a Henry Green…” A Melville, Mr. Wood? Pardon me, but there is simply no such thing. There is Melville, singular and nontransferable—or nonredundant, if you prefer…)

It goes unsaid by Wood that it is possible to read pages and pages of Steiner without encountering such rhetorical excesses, and the pages themselves – for instance from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in Contrast, from his useful introduction on Heidegger, from his book on translation, After Babel, and from essays on Homer, Shakespeare, Thomas Bernhard, Kafka, Lukacs, Brecht, Schoenberg, and on topics as disparate as literary pornography and the Holocaust (and this represents only a small portion of his work) – render the excesses, when they do appear, minor and forgivable. But like a true contemporary media pundit Wood relies more on his audience’s ignorance of his subject than their knowledge of it; from its first word to its last the essay is devoted to construing a whole ugly man out of a few warts.

Wood’s essay on Edmund Wilson – who wrote for the New Republic back when it was staffed by humans – is far more generous (Wilson was safely dead, after all, and Marty Peretz didn’t have a hit out on him). Yet when it comes to Wilson’s erudition the underlying message is strikingly similar. Speaking of Wilson’s “exhaustive and sometimes exhausting scholarship,” Wood writes:

Wilson's method was likewise to eschew the fragmentary, to strive for integration, and it is both a strength and a weakness in his work . . . He seems to rear panoptically above his subjects, like a statue overseeing a city square, sternly, anciently surveying the busy activity, compressing and elucidating vast amounts of mobile information. John Berryman joked that whenever one met Wilson he was always "working his way through the oeuvre" of some writer or other. His letters become rather wearisome to read because of his need to whale his correspondents with his learning; as someone in the Goncourt journals remarks about a minor French writer, "Yes, yes, he has talent, but he doesn't know how to make people forgive him for having it."

[ . . . ]

What [Wilson] wrote about Michelet, in To the Finland Station, can also be applied to himself: "The impression he makes on us is quite different from that of the ordinary modern scholar who has specialized in some narrowly delimited subject and gotten it up in a graduate school: we feel that Michelet has read all the books, been to look at all the monuments and pictures, interviewed personally all the authorities, and explored all the libraries and archives of Europe; and that he has it all under his hat." Occasionally one wishes that Wilson would keep his hat on.

Oddly, although Wood speaks of this pedantry as a weakness of Wilson’s “work” – clearly implying his publications – the only examples he musters are from the letters (see the review itself for the text I clipped). I personally can’t remember Axel’s Castle, To the Finland Station, Patriotic Gore, or The Wound and the Bow being marred by “too many notes,” but that’s just me.

Later in the essay – Wood just can’t let it go – he adds, “There is something very moving about Wilson’s independence, his erotic curiosity for knowledge – though the conquistador of knowledge, bedding one fact after another, becomes tiresome after a while.” This defty combines Wood's defensiveness about Wilson’s erudition with a bourgeois moralist’s sniff at the latter’s robust sexual appetite, suggesting that in the presence of such a figure Wood feels castrated.

It's one of Wood’s most unintentionally funny essays, not least because it is so transparent that when he points up Wilson’s ostensible flaws, the ideally "correct" critical model he has in mind is – himself: Wilson didn’t do enough close readings, wasn’t attentive enough to style (“it is hard to find any sustained analysis of deep literary beauty in his work”), and, needless to say, shouldn't have been a Marxist. Other than that and the stuff about knowing and fucking too much, though, he was a great critic.

And then there’s Harold Bloom, another figure who, in spite of having become a windbag in his dotage, might actually be considered “erudite.” Wood’s Bloom-envy comes in two alluring scents, Poisoned Kiss and Daggers Drawn, so you can take your pick. His review of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, included in The Broken Estate, opens: “Harold Bloom has been so abundant, so voracious with texts (more than twenty books, five hundred introductions), that it sometimes seems that he has kidnapped the whole of English literature and has been releasing his hostages, one by one, over a lifetime, on his own spirited terms.” As a toast it’s equivocal, the kind of praise that has you wondering the next day if you hadn’t also been slyly insulted. Wood indeed goes on to criticize Bloom for being overly rushed and repetitive in parts of the impressive oeuvre, but at this point in their relationship he is willing to be charitable: “[Bloom's] weaknesses, of which he is doubtless aware, are merely the gases emitted by an overwhelming and natural energy. That is the cost of combustion, and it is combustion that interests us…” By the time Wood comes to write his review of Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, however, the Bloom is off the rose, and the gaseous emissions have become uneuphemistic farts:

There have been twelve books since 1990, which means a book roughly every sixteen months . . . The only way to conduct this kind of permanent revolution of print is to have the word factories ablaze all day and night, and to relish the inevitable duplication and mass production . . . An extraordinary amount of the work of the last decade is luxurious with padding and superfluity; there is hardly a book of his that would not have been better off as an essay. He is not a critic anymore, but a populist appreciator; the close readings of poems, sometimes thrilling in their originality, that characterized books such as The Anxiety of Influence and Agon have been replaced by a peculiar combination of character-psychologizing and canonical divination, producing that familiar Bloomian sentence, which is always adding superfluous codas to itself, and in which three or four favored authors are tossed around in an approving oil and coated with the substance of their creations…

All true, of course, but it was also true five or six years earlier when Wood wrote the very positive review of the Shakespeare book, published well within that decade of “luxurious padding,” “superfluous codas,” and the rest of the late-Bloom afflatus. What Wood chides in the first review he castigates in the second, without ever explaining the inconsistency.

What is consistent, however, is Wood’s discomfort with a prodigiously well-read and productive precursor, consistent not only between the two Bloom reviews (in spite of the difference in tone), but across all of the essays in which Wood puts aside his usual novel-gazing to treat of well-known critics from previous generations. Steiner, Wilson, Bloom – by some astonishing coincidence these three quite different figures all suffer from variations of the same “too many notes” disorder. They know too much and are vulgar enough to show it. James Wood, on the other hand, knows better (or at least less) and has the good manners to be the right kind of critic: a miniaturist.

July 26, 2010

The Erudite Mr. Wood

Picador (a division of Macmillan, which in turn is a subsidiary of the Holtzbrinck Publishing mega-conglomerate) is bringing out a new edition of Jiminy Critic’s first collection of literary journalism, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Credulity. It’s got a new introduction by the author, a new cover design to bring it in line with the quaintly (and appropriately) old-fashioned look of How Fiction Works, and a new price: $17.00. For a trade paperback.

In honor of the event, I’ve taken the liberty of lifting this interesting reader’s review by Hershel Parker from the book’s Amazon.com page (it reviews the original edition, but it was posted only a year ago, in July 2009). Parker, if you don’t know, is the author of the definitive scholarly biography of Herman Melville (in 2 volumes), as well as co-editor of an edition of Melville’s complete works. His remarks on Wood generally and the Melville chapter of The Broken Estate in particular are valuable because they speak to the meme, repeated so many times that it has taken on a lifeness of its own, that Wood is a tremendously “erudite” and even “learned” individual (by which standard Malcolm Gladwell is a “man of science” and Thomas Friedman a “public intellectual”).

“The Redundant Smirking Mr. Wood”

by Hershel Parker

I've been working hard on Herman Melville and not paying attention to recent criticism, although I have been aware of James Wood when he popped up in one English or American paper or another taking pay for writing reviews on Melville which turned into bullying bloviations on theology. His information about Melville's life was sketchy, I knew, and I thought his notions of Calvinism vs. Unitarianism were shaky. Well, while I was dismissing Wood as a religious obsessive posing as a book reviewer everyone else was strewing palm branches along his way. Cynthia Ozick huffed at the idea that Wood was called "our best young literary critic." Untrue, cried she: "He is our best literary critic." Adam Begley in the Financial Times proclaimed Wood "the best literary critic of his generation." In Los Angeles Times Gideon Lewis-Kraus elaborated: "To call James Wood the finest literary critic writing in English today, as is commonplace, is to treat him like some sort of fancy terrier at Westminster. It both exaggerates and diminishes his importance. . . . It would be better to say simply that Wood is among the very few contemporary writers of great consequence. . . . He has earned a rare and awesome cultural authority." How wrong could I be?

Not very. Take the New Republic review of Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work which begins with some off-base theological bullying then frankly turns into an essay on Melville's language in Moby-Dick:

"Melville's words muster their associations, their deep histories, on every page. There are scores of allusions to the King James Bible. Adjectives and adverbs are placed in glorious, loaded convoy: 'The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbert, heaped up, flaked up, with rose water snow.' With a tiny smirk of irony, Melville saves the word 'redundant' for the last place in that gorgeous list: as if to say, 'I dare you to find any of these multiple adjectives . . . redundant!'"

Well, correct "sherbert" to "sherbet" and put a hyphen in "rose-water," to start with, assuming my online text is right. Then what?

The first thing you think of, if you know even a shallow history of Melville's words, is that he cannot be using "redundant" to mean "duplicative." He must be using it in a Latin sense, one easy enough to establish with a dictionary if you don't know Latin.

If you know Melville, whether or not you know Latin, you know that he takes many latinate words from John Milton. It takes only a moment on Google to locate a couple of likely analogues in Paradise Lost and in Samson Agonistes.

As it happens, the use of "redundant" in Paradise Lost is in a description of Satan as serpent which Melville was very familiar with: "his head / Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes; / With burnish'd neck of verdant gold, erect / Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass / Floated redundant: pleasing was his shape, /And lovely" . . . . Melville used the passage in The Confidence-Man, for example. Or look at this passage in Samson Agonistes where the fallen hero laments his condition: "to visitants a gaze, / Or pitied object, these redundant locks / Robustious to no purpose clust'/ring down, / Vain monument of strength" . . . . (lines 567-570).

When Melville's two-volume Milton first came into view in 1983 in the Phillips Gallery I got a glimpse of it, and when it came up for auction again at Sotheby's in 1989 I was equipped with a copy of the same set, onto which one cloudy Manhattan day I inscribed all Melville's marks and annotations I could see. Now I open my duplicate of Melville's Milton, marked as he marked his copy, and see that Melville did some underlining and marking of the page opposite "Floated redundant" and that in the Samson Agonistes he drew a line along all of 559-574, with another, shorter line along 567-569, three of the lines I just quoted, including "these redundant locks / Robustious."

It apparently did not occur to Wood that "redundant" did not mean something like "duplicative." If he had been sensitive to Melville's language enough to know the word had to be Miltonic (or most likely was Miltonic), he could have consulted Melville & Milton (2004), ed. Robin Grey, which reprints from Leviathan (March and October 2002) the transcription of Melville's marginalia in his Milton by Grey and Douglas Robillard, in consultation with me. But that would have meant being scholarly instead of a smirking, superior critic.

Nice people don't smirk. Dubya was a compulsive smirker, and look where he got the world. Wood may smirk, also compulsively, but he is wrong to bring Melville into his nasty little clique of smirkers. I could muster many other examples from Wood on Melville. He may be the greatest critic in the world, but he does not know anything worth knowing about Melville, and he certainly does not understand the nobility of Melville's literary ancestry and the towering grandeur of Melville's spirit.

July 22, 2010


An excerpt from a Harvard Crimson article, “Humor Reveals the Road to Faulkner,” on the subject of James Wood’s pedagogy (he holds, after all, the title of “Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism”):

In James Wood’s popular class “Postwar British and American Fiction,” the first half of a lecture is invariably devoted to Wood reading aloud his favorite excerpts from the book under discussion. “Flip to page twenty-nine where Nabokov writes, ‘The cat, as Pnin would say, cannot be hid in a bag.’” Wood grins, before eagerly pushing forward, “Ah, yes, yes! There’s a great bit four pages earlier when Pnin gets dentures and Nabokov describes his tongue as ‘a fat sleek seal, [which] used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, but now not a landmark remained.’”

“What do you think about this passage?... Why is it funny?... Is it funny at all?... Is there another phrase you liked?... What made you laugh?” Wood asks. At first the students are taken aback by this barrage of surprisingly personal questions. After a half-minute of silence one girl gathers the courage to ask Professor Wood what the passage meant. He leans back chuckling in his chair before reassuringly answering, “Oh, I don’t have much to say about that bit. I’ve just always found it a good laugh.” Looking back on the class, I now realize Wood’s response is the most genuine reaction to the passage.

The professor’s unusual approach to lecturing immediately immerses his students in the milieu of the novel through short, funny excerpts, but more importantly it gives students permission to enjoy reading a book . . .

Ah, yes, yes! – I remember when this kind of charming thing was called “Affective Criticism.” Along with Moral Criticism – another of the distinguished Professor’s specialties – it was supposed to have gone out with the daguerreotype and ladies’ finishing schools. I can just see the final exam: What do you think of Elizabeth’s decision at the end of the novel? Would you have made the same choice? Discuss. No doubt it’s the English Department’s most popular course offering – among Journalism majors and athletes.

* (In the Brechtian sense.)

July 17, 2010

The Wrong Kind of Snow

British playwright David Hare on James Wood:

How can there be a wrong way to make good art? And, indeed, what point does criticism serve when it asserts only “This is not the sort of thing of which I approve”? When a literary critic such as James Wood twists himself into a pretzel explaining exactly why the novel he has under review is the wrong kind of good novel, he sounds like nothing so much as a Railtrack official railing against the wrong kind of snow.


March 6, 2010

How Corruption Works

James Wood's Favorite Books Are the Ones His Editor Also Happened to Edit

Posted by Mark Asch on Fri, Mar 5, 2010 at 4:36 PM
As we reported earlier, the new editor of the Paris Review will be the impeccably credentialed Farrar, Strauss and Giroux editor Lorin Stein; news items on his appointment mention, by way of introduction, that his recent high-profile credits include collaborations with Richard Price on Lush Life, Lydia Davis on many of the stories recently included in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, and James Wood on How Fiction Works.

Two of the most generous reviews Wood has written during his time as a critic at the New Yorker were of Richard Price's Lush Life, and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

Publishing is of course an incredibly incestuous business—if you eliminated all conflicts of interest not even amateur Amazon reviewers would be left standing—nobody's arguing that Price and Davis aren't terrific. Or, for that matter, that Wood's reviews of their books aren't illuminating and admirably specific in their analysis and praise—we're better off having them.

Still, to the best of my knowledge nobody has yet pointed out that the book critic for the New Yorker shares an editor with some of the authors he's advocated for. This fact seems worth mentioning—it's better publicized than unacknowledged, for a number of reasons having to do with us being honest about what criticism is for and how it's possible to practice it.

(He also shares a publisher with Rivka Galchen and John Wray, whose recent novels he also liked.)

January 31, 2010

Woodcutter's Weekend

From A.D. Jameson's critique of How Fiction Works at Big Other:

Literary critics are storytellers themselves, and we appraise them by how compelling, and how useful, we find their stories about fiction. Wood’s own account is smug and small. Again and again he dogmatically insists upon fiction that’s written in the third-person limited, that enlists only the most appropriate metaphors and details, that employs a language that’s musical but not over-aestheticized, and whose plot takes a definite backseat to the characters—the all-important characters!—who should “[serve] to illuminate an essential truth or characteristic” (128). By the time that Wood is finished carving away at fiction, little remains of the art form that I know and love. But James Wood, ever the arbiter, ever the tastemaker, desires only a certain fiction: one that’s primarily truthful, stylized but never over-stylized, and never intrusive—like Goldilocks’s chosen bowl of porridge, chair, and bed, it must be exceedingly, prissily just-so. Unsurprisingly, Wood’s preferred fiction is realist, and bourgeois, and 99.9% dead, white, and male.

From Justin Jamail's critique of Wood's Paul Auster review, posted at The Revealer:

Turning now to the conceptual gobbledygook and beginning with the silliest example: “Saramago and Roth,” Wood writes, “both assemble and disassemble their stories in ways that seem fundamentally grave. Auster, despite all the games, is the least ironic of contemporary writers.” Had I read that out of context I should have thought that the first sentence was meant to disparage Saramago and Roth and the second to praise Auster. If there’s one thing popular writing suffers from it’s a surfeit of gravity and irony. I don’t know who the most ironic of contemporary writers is, but I don’t think I would enjoy reading his or her books. I am, by the way, looking forward to Wood’s forthcoming monograph explaining his method for separating those things which are merely or seemingly grave from those which are “fundamentally” grave. Moreover, I wonder what the “gravity” of assembling (or disassembling, as the case may be) stories has to do with being an ironic contemporary writer. The juxtaposition of the sentences suggests that Wood felt a logical connection between the two sentences, but I cannot find one. It’s as if he had said, “Saramago and Roth are blue. Auster, despite not speaking Chinese, is carrot-colored.”

The notion that narrative “games” must have as their goal the sort of irony associated with post-war European and American post-modern writers betrays a comically limited approach. As it happens, the narrative “games” at work in Auster’s prose come directly out of nineteenth-century American writers such as Irving, Poe, Hawthorne and Melville and, though an awareness of recent European and American literature is evident, the influence of post-war writing is slight. Wood makes no attempt to consider what it might mean for a contemporary writer to be so strongly connected to such nineteenth-century American writers (or, indeed, to those early and mid-twentieth century journalists and fiction writers whose influence is also felt in Auster). Complaining about Auster’s failure to live up to the standards of Saramago or Roth is like complaining that Chesterton doesn’t write like Dreiser: it’s as boring
as a tautology and half as useful.

And from Claire Messud's "Writers, Plain and Simple," the introductory essay to her guest-edited fiction selection in the latest Guernica:

Just over ten years ago, the Modern Library compiled a list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century: only nine of them were by women, and Edith Wharton accounted for two books. Were there really only eight women writers of major significance in those 100 years? [ . . . ] When, in 2006, the New York Times ran a list of the best American fiction of the past twenty-five years, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was pronounced the winner; but she and Marilynne Robinson (for Housekeeping) were the only women out of twenty-two titles (and that’s counting Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy and McCarthy’s Border trilogy as a single book each). Just last September, when the international literary magazine Wasafiri solicited responses from twenty-five global writers about the work that has most shaped world literature over the past quarter century, just four women—Elizabeth Bishop, Mildred Taylor, Toni Morrison, and Quarratulain Hyder—were on the list. And this is in a world where women account for 80 percent of fiction readers.

Hey Claire, while you're at it, let's not leave out your husband's widely-acclaimed masterpiece, How Fiction Works, whose bibliography of over 90 works consulted ("the books at hand in my study," in his words) included only 11 titles by women writers (with Woolf and George Eliot accounting for two titles each), about the same proportion as in that Modern Library list you justifiably criticize. (And, er, only a single African-American, since you seem to be concerned about underrepresented populations...)

January 29, 2010

The Birth of Literary Fiction from the Spirit of Bathos

The secret of James Wood’s criticism lies in its revision of a myth – that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Wood’s restaging of this ancient tale – found nowhere in his work, yet implicit in every sentence he writes – is distinguished from all others by the novelty of a heedful, one might almost say law-abiding, protagonist.

As in other accounts, the song-master Orpheus descends into the vasty deeps of the Underworld in search of his beloved Eurydice, where his plaint so stirs the hearts of heavy-lidded Hades and blue-lipped Persephone that they grant him the unprecedented privilege of fetching his dead wife back to the land of the living. But on one condition: Walk before her on your way, and, while you are still within the borders of our dark demesne, do not set eyes upon her. Don’t look back!

In Wood’s retelling, you can see Orpheus’s lips move as he gets these instructions by heart. Then, confident of success, he makes his way towards the Exit sign, followed by the soft footfalls of his bloodless bride. But as he nears the threshold, a cold wind rises up from the caverns behind him, carrying a haunting whisper: Fail again . . . Fail better . . .

Orpheus experiences a pang of temptation, a sudden and almost irresistible impulse to turn…

As luck would have it, however, there’s this tiny cartoon figure hanging out on the side of the cave, see? His name is Jiminy Critic, and he’s got a little top hat and a little English accent – very cute! And he hops onto Orpheus’s shoulder and squeaks – well, really he’s shouting but it comes out like a high, piping squeak – “Don’t look back, Orpheus! Ignore those whispers and remember your instructions!

Orpheus nods to himself, resolved. Quite right, better not look back! He leads Eurydice across the threshold of the underworld and keeps going until they’re really quite a good distance away – in fact they’re already in a forest clearing by the time Eurydice taps him on his shoulder (the other one, without the Critic on it).

Orpheus turns – it’s her! Eurydice! Orpheus! Darling! They fall into each other’s arms. Success! Reunited! No crumbling to dust or vanishing into thin air! And no maenads to tear him apart! Everything ruddy and shiny and whole! Success! Sweet, sweet success! They settle down to a nice little domesticity, having tea, talking about their day. And then, at night . . . but we won’t go there – it wouldn’t be tactful! Suffice it to say: Mission Accomplished! And a few months later – look! – out pops Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children! And then Ian McEwan’s Saturday! And Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland!

Orpheus turns to the camera, winks, and gives a big thumbs-up – Thanks, Jiminy!

“Remember kids – always let your Critic be your guide!”

January 16, 2010

"There's nothing to the man": Harold Bloom on James Wood

[Interviewer]: Oh, but hey, what about James Wood? I’m sort of kidding, of course.

[Bloom]: Oh, don’t even mention him. He doesn’t exist. He just does not exist at all.

I thought his last book was fun to read because he gets so enthusiastic about things, but yeah, I don’t really understand the phenomenon of him on the whole.

My dear, phenomena are always being bubbled up. There are period pieces in criticism as there are period pieces in the novel and in poetry. The wind blows and they will go away.

His last book seemed to be a period piece at least in terms of its cover design. It looked like a textbook from the 30s or 40s. It was kind of cute.

A publisher wanted to send me the book and I said, “Please don’t.” I think it was my own publisher, of the huge book I’m working on called
Living Labyrinth: Literature and Influence, in which I’ve been bogged for five years now. It’s meant to be a grand summa and may be my undoing. Anyway, I told them, “Please don’t bother to send it.” I didn’t want to have to throw it out. There’s nothing to the man. He also has—and I haven’t ever read him on me—but I’m told he wrote a vicious review of me in the New Republic, which I never look at anyway, in which he clearly evidenced, as one of my old friends put it, a certain anxiety of influence. I don’t want to talk about him.

(from this interview)

January 8, 2010

Where "Literature" Comes From

In the little over two years since James Wood ditched the New Republic (circulation 60,000) for the New Yorker (circulation 1,062,000), twenty-two of his reviews have appeared in the New Yorker’s pages:






1 Oct 2007

The Book of Psalms

(Robert Alter trans.)



15 Oct 2007

Exit Ghost

Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin


26 Nov 2007

War and Peace

Tolstoy (Richard Peaver & Larissa Volokhonksy, trans.)



24 Dec 2007

Diary of a Bad Year

J.M. Coetzee



3 Mar 2008

His Illegal Self

My Revolutions

Peter Carey

Hari Kunzru




7 Apr 2008

Lush Life

Richard Price



26 May 2008


Joseph O’Neill



9 Jun 2008

God’s Problem

Bart D. Ehrman



23 Jun 2008

Atmospheric Disturbances

Rivka Galchen



26 Jul 2008

The Lazarus Project

Aleksandar Hemon



8 Sept 2008


Marilynne Robinson



27 Oct 2008

Death With Interruptions

Jose Saramago



1 Dec 2008

The World Is What It Is (Naipaul bio.)

Patrick French



15 Dec 2008

Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates

Everyman’s Library


30 Mar 2009


John Wray



13 Apr 2009

Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays / All Art is Propaganda: Literary Essays

George Orwell



20 Apr 2009

Jeff in Venice

Geoff Dyer



29 Jun 2009

Censoring an Iranian Love Story

Shahriar Mandanipour



31 Aug 2009

Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Terry Eagleton

Yale UP


5 Oct 2009


Richard Powers



19 Oct 2009

Collected Stories

Lydia Davis



30 Nov 2009


Paul Auster


These reviews cover twenty-four titles by twenty-five writers (if we include the translators of the Psalms and the Tolstoy volumes). Eighteen of the titles are fiction, or rather, with the exception of Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, novels.

A small number of the fiction reviews concern writers who have already attained some kind of classic or canonical status (Tolstoy, Orwell, Yates), while a roughly equivalent proportion take up relative newcomers such as Wray, Galchen, Hemon. The bulk of the reviews – easily over half – are devoted to the works of writers who, while not necessarily classic or canonical, have established reputations, such as Coetzee, Saramago, Robinson, etc. Sometimes, of course – as in the cases of the Powers and Auster reviews – the argument is that the reputation is undeserved.

Fifteen of the eighteen fiction volumes were written originally in English, by writers living in the US, UK, or former Commonwealth (Australia), although some of these writers have international backgrounds (Hemon was born in Sarajevo, O’Neill is part Turkish and was born in Ireland, etc.).

Only 4 out of the twenty-five total authors are women (Rivka Galchen, Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis, and translator Larissa Volokhonsky). But if the list is primarily male, it is even more “white.” There are no African-American authors, no Latino authors. Shahriar Mandanipour (from Iran) and Hari Kunzru (a Brit with some Kashmiri in his background, who has to share his review with Peter Carey) add a few drops of melanin, and one of the books is about Naipaul even though a white guy wrote it. (If we’re feeling really charitable we could throw in Joseph O’Neill’s Turkish half, but that’s about it.) There were no books by women of color. Interestingly, this breakdown is roughly equivalent to the proportions in the index of the “books at hand” that Wood consulted in his cozy study while writing How Fiction Works, a list of ninety-three titles including 3 by writers of color and around 9 women authors. (Yet Wood’s “wide reading” and “diverse tastes” are regularly extolled by his fluffers.)

Perhaps most significant, however, is the fact that only 2 out of the twenty-four titles that Wood has reviewed at the New Yorker are published by independent publishing houses – i.e., publishers not owned and controlled by one of the “Big Six” media mega-conglomerates (Random House/Bertelsmann, Macmillan/Holtzbrinck, Simon & Schuster/ViaCom, HarperCollins Harcourt/News Corporation, the Penguin Group/Pearson, and the Time-Warner Book Group/Hachette). These 2 titles are Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution, published by Yale University Press, and Robert Alter’s translation of The Book of Psalms, published by Norton. The twenty-two other titles, including all of the fiction, are published by imprints belonging to 5 of the Big Six: 7 titles from Random House/Bertelsmann (Knopf, Pantheon, etc.), 7 titles from Macmillan/Holtzbrinck (FSG, Holt), 6 from HarperCollins Harcourt/News Corporation (Houghton Mifflin, HarperOne, etc.), 3 from the Penguin Group/Pearson (Dutton, Riverhead), and 1 from Hachette.[1]

In the larger literary venues (and on the more sycophantic lit-blogs) this phenomenon of corporate pre-determination of the “literary field” goes almost entirely unremarked. It amounts to “the repressed” of mainstream book-reviewing, as that which must remain unspoken in order for a certain type of utterance to exist at all. Reviews are written as if the titles swim into the reviewer’s ken on their own little spiritual wings or somehow magically materialize in the critic’s inbox; as if literature were somehow self-generating and “immediate” rather than constructed and subject to considerable mediation. There is in James Wood’s work not the least institutional self-consciousness or self-questioning, not a moment of institutional critique. “Literature” and “fiction,” when he speaks of them, are mystified categories.

This is not to say that the corporate-monopoly publishers never publish – or that their ad-men like Wood never positively review – “good” books or books by interesting or significant writers, even occasionally writers who, in one way or another, challenge prevailing literary conventions (largely the conventions of the commercial genre known as “literary fiction,” practiced by Wood favorites such as Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan). José Saramago, for instance, is one such interesting and significant writer; J.M. Coetzee, and Lydia Davis, while less accomplished, are two others who have also made the cut since Wood started at the New Yorker. But the industry’s ostensible embrace of such authors is skewed by the way they are institutionally read. As I argued in a previous post, for example, Wood’s approval of Jose Saramago’s Death With Interruptions is purchased at the cost of ignoring the defamiliarizing implications of Saramago’s style (i.e. his deployment of the “baroque sentence”) and foisting onto the text a spurious advocacy of “original sin.” More recently, in his review of Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, Wood smoothes over the “centrifugal” elements of formal experiment and fragmentation in favor of a “centripetal” reading which has the effect of transforming the collection into some kind of trite autobiographical-confessional novel.

The silence of major reviewers such as Wood on the actual conditions of their work is not the result of any conspiracy. Rather, the institutional filters are in place to “vet” the candidate-reviewers as they rise up the ranks: the jump from, say, the Guardian to the New Republic just doesn’t take place unless the reviewer has shown an inclination to be accommodating to prevailing aesthetic and political ideologies (including being marketably “provocative” in ways that don’t threaten the overall system and even help to create the illusion of its “openness”). Wood has always shown himself to be such a supple accommodator of his employers. His December 1996 savaging of George Steiner in Prospect, for example, should be seen as the young journalist’s application letter to the confirmed Steiner-hater who would, a very short time later, become his new boss, Martin Peretz. While working for Peretz, Wood adopted a suitably neoliberal idiom for castigating novelists such as Pynchon, DeLillo, and Morrison for their “unfree” characters (as I outlined here) in order to keep the “cultural” pages in the back of the magazine in line with the explicitly “political” front-matter.

But are the only novels worthy of being covered in major reviewing outlets by supposedly major critics like James Wood those brought to us by these five or six mega-corporations? Or if not the only novels, at least “the best”? Are Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (one of Wood’s favorite books of 2008) and Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice (one of Wood’s favorites of 2009) really “better” than anything published during that time by New Directions (including authors such as Javier Marias, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and César Aria) or Dalkey Archive Press (including Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Gert Jonke, Lydie Salvayre, Jacques Roubaud, Dumitru Tsepeneag, and Juan Goytisolo)? When it comes to young U.S. novelists, are John Wray’s and Rivka Galchen’s books really more interesting and innovative than Lily Hoang’s Parabola (Chiasmus) or Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas (Featherproof)? If Wood is really as ecumenical in his tastes as the fluffers maintain, where then were the reviews of Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands (Grove), Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Graywolf), Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook (City Lights), Abdourahman Waberi’s In the United States of Africa (Univ. of Nebraska Press), and Kazim Ali’s The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press)? Is Wood really as answerable to disinterested considerations of “literary quality” as he purports to be?

Now, one might argue that Wood is indeed fulfilling his professional responsibilities because he is answerable primarily to his readership – his beloved, mythical “common reader” (or at least the readers of the New Yorker[2]). He is constrained to evaluate only those books that such a reader is likely to encounter, likely to purchase. And these books – through no fault of Wood’s own – are likely to be published by the major corporate conglomerates and distributed by the major corporate booksellers that those readers are likely to frequent. Hence the number of reviews of authors with established reputations and already-existing readerships – Wood might like Richard Price’s Lush Life and dislike Richard Powers’ Generosity, but the point is that they were available for reviewing at that time from among the menu of books likely to be read by “the common reader,” to whom Wood is ultimately answerable.

A likely story!

This strikes me, rather, as a sort of white-collar, focus-group version of the “only following orders” defense, to which we might return with that most basic of legal questions: cui bono? Certainly not readers, but it does benefit the corporations, whose monopolization of culture depends on all-important market share, even where actual profit margins might be very slim.

James Wood is an employee of Condé Nast – publishers of a number of prestige magazines including Vanity Fair, GQ, Wired, Glamour, and Vogue – which is a division of billionaire S.I. Newhouse Jr.’s media corporation, Advance Publications. Through its other divisions, Advance Publications owns a variety of newspapers, websites, business journals, TV news stations, and cable and internet providers. To some, the control of such broad swathes of different types of media outlets might sound like a conflict of interest (or at least a conflict with the pubic interest – including the interests of, say, “common readers”), but President Bill Clinton and Democrats and Republicans in Congress alike didn’t think so when they passed and signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996, “deregulating” the industry and abolishing laws that specifically prohibited such monopolization, now known by its euphemism, “synergy.” (One of the biggest cheerleaders for the pro-corporate agenda of the Clinton-backed Democratic Leadership Council was the New Republic, where Wood would soon make himself comfortable for a decade or so). It should come as no surprise that Advance Publications is a robust contributor to Congressional campaigns and media lobbying firms. No doubt the candidates backed by Advance Publications vote the “right” way on telecommunications and media legislation. (It would be interesting to see, as well, which candidates are endorsed for office in the editorial pages of the many newspapers owned by Advance.)

Once again, no conspiracy theory is required to explain how this system works. No conspiracy is needed when a consortium of interests exists among players who all agree on the basic rules of the game, rules which can then, moreover, remain entirely unspoken while the game is in play. James Wood is one small player in this game, churning out ideology in the form of “book reviews” and “literary criticism” to in order to reproduce the political and cultural monopoly of the oligarchs who sign his paycheck. He rose through the ranks because he could write so exquisitely (if you’re into kitsch) about what the sausage tasted like without ever threatening to take his readers into the factory farm where the product comes from.

[1] The reviews that Wood published in other venues during this time-frame do not alter the picture in any significant way. In London Review of Books, for example, we get his appreciation of the dismal mediocrity of Ian McEwan (published by Vintage, a division of Random House/Bertelsmann), and his denunciation of the dismal mediocrity of A.S. Byatt (published by Chatto, a division of Random House/Bertelsmann).

[2] “The average household income of The New Yorker readers in 2009 is $109,877 (the average income for a U.S. household with a subscription to a news magazine is $92,788 and the U.S. average household income is $50,233).” From the Wikipedia New Yorker entry.