"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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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.


Frances Madeson said...

Lord, I haven't owned a car since 1977, but I'd consider buying a used car from James Wood. Why not? This one looks not only pristine. http://www.jameswood.com/?http://www.autofind.com/group/listing/266/used/ but “solidly novelistic: nicely paced, socially and historically acute.” And at just under $10k it comes far cheaper than the per capita social cost of Wood's unprincipled and unwholesome, wanton jottings. (As for Nigel, the Beale menfolk are a ruggedly proud and stubborn lot. His little brother climbed Everest last year. No reasoning with him on this score, I'm afraid, even if you threw in a free GPS, a cash rebate, a low financing and a extended warranty.)

Chris said...

I'd never noticed this envy of knowledgeable critical precursors before, but this trait of Wood's is clearly present in his dislike of very erudite novelists as well, such as DeLillo and Pynchon.

In fact, I think you've sniffed out the key to understanding Wood. This resentment and envy of those more learned than himself is the key refrain running through almost everything memorable he's ever written. Again and again, he castigates writers for revealing any esoteric knowledge they might possess: even a mere passing mention gets an immediate wrist-slap from Wood for parading, flaunting, showing off.

Take another gander at this piece, published in the Guardian in the wake of 9/11, what does Wood demand from writers? Tell me, how does it feel?


Nowadays anyone in possession of a laptop is thought to be a brilliance on the move, filling his or her novel with essaylets and great displays of knowledge. Indeed, "knowing about things" has become one of the qualifications of the contemporary novelist. Time and again novelists are praised for their wealth of obscure and far-flung social knowledge. The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result - in America at least - is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very "brilliant" books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.

Note the hostility towards anyone more erudite than himself that oozes off the page: "Anyone in possession of a laptop is thought to be a brilliance on the move..."

And who can forget the keystone of his famous reply to N+1?

At present, contemporary novelists are increasingly eager to "tell us about the culture," to fill their books with the latest report on "how we live now." Information is the new character; we are constantly being told that we should be impressed by how much writers know. What they should know, and how they came to know it, seems less important, alas, than that they simply know it. The idea that what one knows might – to use Nietzsche's phrase – "come out of one's own burning" rather than free and flameless from Google, seems at present alien.

Note the snide remark about knowledge coming "free and flameless from Google," as if a writer like Pynchon, for example, didn't genuinely have a solid grounding in physics or the other sciences, but was just a typical kibitzer or dilletante. And notice how whenever Wood discusses his problems with Pynchon's writing, he always talks about how "bright lights are not evidence of habitation" - but when he specifically points to Pynchon's "bright lights," he always points to Pynchon's fondness for useless trivia and pop culture, he never ever draws the reader's attention to Pynchon's real trademark: his lifelong interest in math and science. Wood points us towards Pynchon's trivial pop culture references and not his more formidable erudition (whereas virtually every other reviewer of The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity's Rainbow or Against the Day has drawn particular attention to the latter). Coincidence? I think not.

Wood's reference to Nietzsche in his N+1 reply is certainly pertinent however: Nietzsche as the analyst of ressentiment.

Edmond Caldwell said...

"when he specifically points to Pynchon's 'bright lights,' he always points to Pynchon's fondness for useless trivia and pop culture, he never ever draws the reader's attention to Pynchon's real trademark: his lifelong interest in math and science. Wood points us towards Pynchon's trivial pop culture references and not his more formidable erudition (whereas virtually every other reviewer of The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity's Rainbow or Against the Day has drawn particular attention to the latter)."

Excellent point, Chris. Have you ever noticed how Wood uses the adjective "ambitious"? It's always a cut when applied to someone like Pynchon or DeLillo, and then he'll turn around laud as "genuinely ambitious" something actually far more modest, because it deals with, yes, depicting "consciousness" (or even "the soul!"), and is really more of his preferred mode of psychological-domestic novel. I believe this is what he does for instance with Monica Ali's "Brick Lane", which of course we all know is a much, much better novel than Underworld or Gravity's Rainbow.

Along the same lines, Wood tells us that Franzen's Corrections is at its best (and most "ambitious") when it confines itself to dealing with that "typical" Midwestern family; that Underworld only really succeeds as something that could be dignified by the name of "novel" when it deals with the protagonist's memories of his Italian-American family; that Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex" succeeds in spite of its coquetting with Hysterical Realism because it stays "loyal" to its depiction of a Greek-American family... These are Wood's family, er, literary values.