"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

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.