"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.

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.