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.
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.