"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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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.


Steven Augustine said...

My goodness, that's fine stuff. But I sometimes wonder if we aren't taking Wood too seriously. Isn't he, in the end, just the pantomime British-accented baddie (think Simon Cowell or Alan Rickman... esp. campy, c. "Die Hard", with that line about the "benefits of a classical education")?

The only people interested in Wood are A) his handsome detractors B) his fusty sucks and some provincial students C) busy civilians who skim neocon reviews by Wood and Kirsch, on the subway, as guilty substitutes for reading long-form fiction.

Jimmy Wood-Cowell is a fading neocon entertainer.

There's a new star of textual revelation out there and he is as vital as Wood is torpid, as Left-inflected as Wood is of the Right... a real hero who accomplishes boldly and directly what Wood attempts, with sly insinuation and humbug, in asserting a radical vision of Life.

I give you: Julian Assange, ladies and gentlemen. And doesn't old Wood just seem like a relic in comparison?

Anonymous said...

I love that he gives the book 2 stars. I wonder how he came to that decision.

NigelBeale said...

Your readers may wish to know that Parker reveals, commenting on his own Amazon 'review', that

"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."

Frances Madeson said...

Mea culpa (with a caveat)! To the extent my use of the term to describe Wood's potential in a comment to Daniel Green's piercing (air-freshening) critique of How Fiction Works (Open Letters Monthly, Aug. 2008) contributed to helping lull Wood into a sense of false confidence, leading him to the exquisitely hubristic moment he is now enacting, I can live with myself.

Steven Augustine said...

I wish Nigel (category B) understood that while Parker's decision to post his deconstruction of the myth of Wood's über-erudition may have had any number of spurs (noble or ig), that has *zero* bearing on whether or not his overall claim is true.

Just as some whistle-blower's being a necrophilic, alcoholic excommunicated member of the Klan would have no bearing on whether or not she had unearthed a conspiracy to sell rubbers to the Catholics in the Congo. The question remains only: is it true?

Well, we know the answer to hat one. Most of us, that is.

Edmond Caldwell said...

I heartily agree, comrade Augustine. But I want to thank Nigel nevertheless, because he's performed us an unwitting service -- whose exact nature I'll save for an update of the current post!

Steven Augustine said...

May I purchase a "t" for my last comment...?

Edmond Caldwell said...

Do you want to solve the puzzle now?

(anyone who gets these references should be ashamed of themselves. Us included.)

Steven Augustine said...

(I was speaking in drug code... not sure what *you're* talking about, Comrade EC!)

Edmond Caldwell said...

Uh . . . I thought we were doing porn-biz patter. Yeah, that's it.

NigelBeale said...

Porn biz patter sounds about right for this site.

Edmond Caldwell said...

That's right, fluffer. Stay away if you're just going to be a troll.

NigelBeale said...

"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!'"

Dare I suggest that Wood's deployment of ellipsis might, just might, indicate that he gave some thought to use of the word that follows it?

The 'criticism' you put up of Wood's work strikes me as funny...funny in the same way that amateur book collectors strike me as funny when they excitedly herald their new 'finds' without checking, or knowing to check, for the fairly obvious book club edition markings that appear on back covers and dust jackets.

And, incidentally Edmond, I'm intrigued. Why do you think Parker would choose to air his differences in such rarefied Amazonian company, instead of a place that might be taken a tad more seriously?

Edmond Caldwell said...

The venue (in this case Amazon.com -- not classy enough for you, I know) has nothing to do with the empirical accuracy, or otherwise, of what Parker says. No doubt if Parker remarked that the standard boiling point of water was 99.61 degrees Celsius on Amazon you would regard it as highly suspicious (not to mention the fact that Parker was burned by boiling water once, which gives him a personal gripe).

But the lowly venue might make a difference to people whose notions of reality itself are established by publications like the New Republic, where your hero spent the greater part of his career so far. There's a magazine that has that glossy "official" imprimatur that you need, I guess, even though it is filled (as it was during the entire time of Wood's tenure there) with squalid and murderous lies.

Chris said...

Dare I suggest that Wood's deployment of ellipsis might, just might, indicate that he gave some thought to use of the word that follows it?

Dare I suggest Wood simply used an ellipsis here for extra emphasis - to make the reader pay attention to what he says next?

Here's a better question, Nigel. Do you - you personally - believe Melville intended the particular meaning Wood attributes to him here? Do you think Saramago wrote his novels (e.g. Death with Interruptions, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) to convey the sorts of ideas and impressions about the eternal truth of Original Sin Wood attributes to him? Do you think "the you should have heard Mick Lacy sing it" passage in Portrait carries the particular context and freight of meaning Wood avers it does? Do you think Joyce intends us to take away from this passage what Wood draws from it - and if he did intend this, wouldn't that make Joyce guilty of producing sentimental kitsch and bathos? Why would any readers of reasonable intelligence and good faith wish to immerse themselves in Saramago's or Joyce's fictional universes simply to bear away a cargo of ideas and impressions so utterly trite, vacuous, and banal as what Wood articulates in his discussions of their work?

But this is what happens when you believe that "plot" is always "essentially juvenile." You can't understand what a writer might have meant by individual moments if you never place those moments in the larger pattern of the novel as a whole. But if you like the taste of Professor Wood's late coffee and oranges, if you like to read books while wearing your complacent peignoir and sitting in your favorite sunny chair, Wood's definitely the man for you.

Edmond Caldwell said...

"But this is what happens when you believe that 'plot' is always 'essentially juvenile.' You can't understand what a writer might have meant by individual moments if you never place those moments in the larger pattern of the novel as a whole."

This is an excellent point, Chris, and well said. A novel is a sum of interactions between what the structuralists call -- if I can be forgiven a moment of technical jargon -- the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes (or the metaphoric and metonymic dimensions) of a text. Wood -- at the level of story units if not individual sentences --mostly restricts himself to the former (even though he pretends to read and even appreciate Barthes). He evacuates the syntagmatic axis and reduces himself, in effect, to being a critical pointillist. Why?

I think this evacuation is more than just a personal tic or limitation (even though it is certainly that). It is also so that he can substitute his own ideological narrative -- rewriting (and domesticating) the novel with his own "emplotment" of sorts that organizes the individual moments he savors into alien, and backward-facing, frames. (That is, if the novel at hand doesn't already correspond to the lesson of quietism that he wants it to impart).

Or else he just retails some critical truisms that you could just as easily find in a bluffer's guide.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Oh, and Parker probably chose Amazon.com because he wanted to reach people who were thinking of buying Wood's book. Just a hunch, though.

Chris said...

He evacuates the syntagmatic axis and reduces himself, in effect, to being a critical pointillist. Why?

One of the most remarkable instances of this procedure is in his essay on Virginia Woolf, where at times he seems to prefer "the superb descriptions" recorded in her diaries to her published novels. Now, the sentences he quotes from her diaries are indeed lovely, but reading Wood, you don't get any real sense of why her novels are a greater overall achievement than her diaries. You don't get a sense of the novels as artistic wholes, only as beautiful snippets and extracts. You don't get any sense of why an abridged edition of To The Lighthouse couldn't be an adequate substitute for the complete version.

To be fair to Wood, on at least this occasion, the sentences and passages he draws attention to really are, I believe, examples of excellent writing. But once again, we're back to the "quote and dote" school of criticism: if you like the sentences he quotes, you'll nod your head, if you don't, you won't. (With DeLillo or Morrison, Wood's method reverts to "quote and bitch.")

As if to prove your point about his biases, Wood specifically notes the importance of "the language of metaphor" and "the yoking of metaphor." After quoting and doting on some of her sentences, he informs us: "But Woolf disliked being compliment for her sentences.... In truth, her achievement is not measured in sentences, and it is not measured in chapters either. Her break with the Edwardians lies in the way she writes about consciousness." (Here we go again...!)

While his essay on Woolf is far better than his absurd misreadings of Joyce or Saramago, his fixation on only two things - individual sentences and depictions of isolated consciousness - leaves him unable to discuss at all some of the most fascinating dimensions of Woolf's novels. He can even write, without a moment's hesitation, about Woolf's "mental instability," that she broke down "most severely in 1913," and then inform us that "she committed suicide in March, 1941--not because of the war, but because she was certain that she was about to become ill, and she could not bear it."

Wood betrays not the slightest doubt that mental illness and instability is something that occurs apart from the world at large, without external social/political/economic/moral/ethical triggers. Despite the fact that he himself informs us that Virginia Woolf's first incapacitating breakdown happened in 1913 (i.e. on the cusp of the First World War), he insists that the progress of the Second World War had no relevance to Woolf's suicide - is Wood aware that Leonard Woolf was Jewish and that the Woolfs were prepared and ready to take their own lives should Germany win the war?

Absurdly, Wood can drone on about "representations of consciousness" without ever noticing that Woolf expresses some very strong opinions in her novels about the social causes and etiology of severe mental illness. Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway, after all, is a shell-shocked war hero who receives ineffectual treatment from a smug, self-satisfied establishment figure, Dr. Holmes.

Nowhere in Wood's entire essay do you get any sense that Woolf sees something profoundly wrong with the established social order, that Mrs Dalloway is a profoundly unsettling novel, that "consciousness" doesn't exist in some pure Platonic state, that Woolf's heart goes out to "the insulted and injured" like Septimus Smith, that Woolf strongly implicates the social order in the creation of tormented "consciousness" (which are not so unproblematically free) like that which Septimus possesses.

For the kind of pleasure in reading Wood seems to prefer, you could do just as well, or nearly as well, to read Michael Cunningham's The Hours as Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

Woman of science said...

by which standard Malcolm Gladwell is a “man of science” -- great observation for a throw-away one liner. I've was annoyed last year when students in my honors freshman seminar on the history of the cognitive revolution continually referred to Gladwell as if he were the originator of the insights discussed in his various popular science writings. Recent insult: Gladwell blurbed a book by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert conducts experiments and tests theories. Gladwell reports on other people's findings. Alas.