"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

November 19, 2011

Christmas Comes Early

James Wood tries to staunch the hemorrhaging of his critical reputation by making an ill-advised appearance in a comments thread at The Millions. I can just imagine the scene: pacing in his study in frantic, narrowing circles -- he's snapped at the housekeeper, Consuela, three times already today! If only Claire weren't off on that reading tour, she'd be there to stroke his forehead and hum him a lullaby. Let it go, Jim, just let it go . . .

But no. Here are some highlights.


JAMES WOOD (1:07 pm on November 16, 2011):

. . . Contemporary writers Wood has written about and praised, in detail, since arriving at The New Yorker in 2007, are: J.M. Coetzee, Jose Saramago, John Wray, Hari Kunzru, Peter Carey, Joseph O’Neill, Rivka Galchen, Jean-Christophe Valtat, Ismail Kadare, Teju Cole, Rana Dasgupta, Lydia Davis, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Geoff Dyer, Ben Lerner. Some of these writers are “realists,” I guess, and others (Lerner, Davis, Krasznahorkai) are not, exactly. Outside The New Yorker, Wood has also written in praise of David Means, Edward St.Aubyn, David Bezmozgis. Writers written about negatively: Paul Auster, Richard Powers, Chang-Rae Lee, A.S. Byatt. I guess, by your logic, the writers written about appreciatively must be “classics,” and the ones written about negatively “more adventurous,” since Wood can only write appreciatively about Flaubert?


EDMOND CALDWELL (1:07 pm on Nov. 17, 2011):

As those Harvard lads at n+1 once wrote, “Poor James Wood”! Getting publicly dissed by 2 authors he’s reviewed has got to be the best thing that’s happened to Jiminy Critic in quite a while — people are actually talking about him again! Sure, we all knew that a review signed with his name would still appear at infrequent intervals in the pages of the New Yorker, but we’d assumed they were from among his posthumous papers… But now everyone dusts off their pros and contras and joins the fray . . . and then Jiminy himself hops in! Yet the peevish epistle to his “lazy” detractors carries a plaintive subtext — please, somebody, read me!

And speaking of lazy, how many times has Jiminy (or one of his back-channeled seconds) produced a list of author names to demonstrate the ostensibly ecumenical range of his sensibility! Of course, he does so because it works — on lazy readers. All you have to do is study the reviews with a critical eye and you’ll see that what comrade Steven Augustine has written above is eminently the case, that these are “neoconservative attempt[s] to reduce the wild infinities of Literary Imagination to a prim, dull park in front of a luxury high-rise…”

The question, as always, is not which authors JW approves, but how, in what manner, he reads them in order to arrive at his approval. Take a look for example at his recent essay on Krasznahorkai. Behind the baffled, size-queen admiration for the Hungarian’s long sentences, the review comes down to three key assertions about Krasznahorkai’s novels: they’re basically realist, they’re basically novels of consciousness (of War & War he makes the deeply banal point that the novel ‘gets us into the head of a madman,’ etc.), and they basically address metaphysical concerns.

Of course the novels do almost exactly the opposite — their baroque sentences explode the spurious metaphysic of “individual consciousness” in the materialist excess of language itself, deeply unsettling any notion of “reality” by dramatizing so-called reality’s always-ideological constructedness (rather than, say, its “quiddity” or “lifeness”). But we can’t have that now, can we? It’s simply too demoralizing for the professional-managerial class. So in comes Jiminy in his Hazmat suit (otherwise known as his “style”) to house-train those unruly sentences.

You can see the same kind of revanchist domestication at work in his reviews of Bolaño and Saramago. Yes, by all means, read his reviews!


JAMES WOOD (10:24 pm on Nov. 17, 2011):

It might be useful to quote some passages from my review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai, so that readers can decide for themselves whether Edmund Coldwell’s description of it as some kind of sinister neo-con recuperation seems accurate. Remember, Coldwell claims that I characterize Krasznahorkai as 1)basically a realist; 2) basically interested in what he calls the spurious metaphysic of individual consciousness; and 3) basically metaphysical. Here, then, are a few passages, chosen from the beginning, middle, and end of my piece (which appeared in May in The New Yorker):

  • “It is often hard to know exactly what Krasznahorkai’s characters are thinking, because this author’s fictional world hangs on the edge of a revelation that never quite comes.”

    “The prose has about it a kind of self-correcting shuffle, as if something were genuinely being worked out, and yet, painfully and humorously, the self-corrections never result in the correct answer… Krasznahorkai pushes the long sentence to its furthest extreme, miring it in a thick, recalcitrant atmosphere, a kind of dynamic paralysis in which the mind turns over and over to no obvious effect.”

    “But the abysses in Krasznahorkai are bottomless and not logical. Krasznahorkai often deliberately obscures the referent, so that we have no idea what is motivating the fictions: reading him is a little like seeing a group of people standing in a circle in a town square, apparently warming their hands at a fire, only to discover, as one gets closer, that there is no fire, and that they are gathered around nothing at all.”

    “The ‘said Korin’ tag inevitably slips into the implied ‘wrote Korin.’ Reading, saying, writing, thinking and inventing are all mixed up in Korin’s mind, and inevitably get mixed up in the reader’s mind, too.”

    “Resembling, in form, Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, Krasznahorkai’s words often seem like a kind of commentary on late Beckett – there is a steady emphasis on nothingness, entrapment, going on and being unable to go on. In the fifth text, which accompanies the picture of the dog leaping at the man contentedly reading a newspaper, the beast seems to have become the Other, everything that threatens that bourgeois contentment – an immigrant perhaps, a terrorist, a revolutionary, or just the feared stranger.”

    “Krasznahorkai is clearly fascinated by apocalypse, by broken revelation, indecipherable messages. To be always “on the threshold of some decisive perception” is as natural to a Krasznahorkai character as thinking about God is to a Dostoevsky character; the Krasznahorkai world is a Dostoevskian one from which God has been removed.”

    “But this kind of summary does no justice to the unfathomable strangeness of this novel.”

    “It is unclear whether the whale really had anything to do with the irrruption of violence; Krasznahorkai mischievously dangles the possibility that the circus is a difficult artwork, that it was simply misread by everyone as an agent of apocalypse, in the way that all revolutionary and obscure artworks are misread (by implication, this novel included). Obviously, the whale is some kind of funny, gloomy allusion to Melville, and perhaps Hobbes: like the leviathan, like Moby-Dick, it is vast, inscrutable, terrifying, capable of generating multiple readings. But it is static, dead, immobile, and the Puritan God who makes Melville’s theology comprehensible (however incomprehensible Melville’s white whale is) has long vanished from this nightmarish town in the shadow of the Carpathians. Meaning scrambles for traction, and the sinister doorless truck which sits silently in the middle of the town square is also a joke about the Trojan horse: naturally, in Krasznahorkai’s world, the Trojan horse is empty. No one gets out of it.”

    I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound an awful lot like, say Robert Stone or John Updike or Richard Ford; it doesn’t sound much like the spurious metaphysic of individual consciousness (sounds to me like almost the opposite — all those bottomless abysses and obscured referents!); and though broken revelations and unfulfilled apocalypses and a vast Melvillean whale that is like an empty Trojan Horse could of course be seen as a metaphysics of sorts, it’s certainly a negative metaphysics, “signifying nothing.”

    Oh well, read the review for yourself and make your own mind up. But not, of course, if you belong to the “professional-managerial class.” If that’s your unhappy fate, get your Hazmat suit on, and hold fast to the spurious metaphysic of your individuality…


    EDMOND CALDWELL (2:24 on Nov. 18, 2011):

    Jiminy Critic has two definitions of realism, one for the kind he doesn’t like, and a broader one (“lifeness,” “truthiness,” etc.) for the kind he likes. The kind he doesn’t like is the narrow adherence to conventional narrative techniques such as one finds in the works of Robert Stone, Richard Ford, or John Updike (although, oddly, he’ll often approve some perfectly pedestrian authors who practice the same thing, such as Jonathan Dee or Richard Price, but we’ll leave that for another time). The kind he likes, the higher or deeper realism of “lifeness,” communicates what Jiminy sees as the core of “real” human experience (individual consciousness) without any narrow fidelity to a particular style. Whenever Jiminy likes a writer’s work, he assigns it to this higher or deeper realism-of-consciousness (even if he has to ignore or misrepresent the work to do so). He wrote a whole book – or at least a collection of fragments published as a book – outlining his understanding of this mode of realism as “lifeness.” Yet whenever anyone charges Jiminy with advocating realism, he has this trick of immediately confining his understanding to the narrow kind, so that he can disavow it, just as he does in this comments thread.

  • In the Laszlo Krasznahorkai review Jiminy makes the distinction between the two kinds of realism and assigns LK to the latter kind. LK is among those writers of “experimental fiction” who eschew “a merely grammatical realism, whereby the real is made to fall into approved units and packets.” Jiminy continues, in a passage that he somehow forgot to include above in his selection of self-exculpating quotes: “In fact, these writers could be called realists, of a kind. But the reality that many of them are interested in is ‘reality examined to the point of madness’.” A little earlier, he talks about how these writers deploy the long sentence, emptying it of much of the content of more narrow, conventional realism and instead “concentrat[ing] on filling the sentence, using it to notate and reproduce the tiniest qualifications, hesitations, intermittences, affirmations and negations of being alive.” Ah – being alive! Here is the whole desideratum of Jiminy Critic, his approved units and packets of warmed-over humanism, which have been consistent since the essays in The Broken Estate – realism, lifeness (the idea if not yet the insipid term), consciousness. Does it really need to be said that consciousness is still consciousness, even if it’s a deranged or “mad” consciousness, a consciousness under duress?

    Here’s a phenomenon you’ll often observe in freshman literature classes: whenever a story or a novel offers anything strange, disturbing, or uncanny, many students’ first reaction is to assimilate it back into the familiar. Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis has to be a dream, or proof that he had gone insane. Jonathan Culler, following Barthes, calls this practice the naturalizing or recuperating of “writerly” texts, typically achieved by assigning a controlling consciousness to every utterance. Consciousness, in all cases, must be primary, writing secondary, the effect of a prior cause. You can read an excerpt from Culler which almost reads as an anticipatory critique of How Fiction Works by following this link.

    Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s novels are very much writerly texts, and Jiminy’s whole effort is to make them into readerly texts. Jiminy writes, “It is often hard to know exactly what Krasznahorkai’s characters are thinking, because his fictional world teeters on the edge of a revelation that never quite comes”; instead of such a revelation, we get “a dynamic paralysis in which the mind turns over and over to no obvious effect.” It might be hard to know what the characters are thinking, what the ultimate effect of that thinking should be, but at least there are characters thinking, a mind turning over thoughts. There’s never a sense, in Jiminy’s review, that the “characters” are, say, being “thought” by those lava flows of language; that writing itself might be primary and constitutive. There always must be this stabilizing, prior presence of consciousness – the metaphysic of “the soul” that informs all of Jiminy Critic’s reviewing.

    Of a quote from LK’s novel War & War, Jiminy writes, “the entire passage, even those elements which seem anchored in objective fact, has the quality of hallucination. One senses that Korin spends all his time either manically talking to other people or manically talking to himself, and that there may not be an important difference between the two.” If there’s something contradictory or strange in the text, we can chalk it up to a hallucinating mind, which is still, after all, a mind. Again: “reading, saying, writing, thinking, and inventing are all mixed up in Korin’s mind, and inevitably get mixed up in the reader’s mind, too.” For Jiminy, War & War is what he elsewhere lauds as a “novel of consciousness,” even if consciousness gone mad.

    Thus we reach the thudding bathos of Jiminy’s climax: “By the end of the novel, I felt that I had got as close as literature could possibly take me to the inhabiting of another person, and, in particular, a mind in the grip of ‘war and war’ – a mind not without visions of beauty but also one that is utterly lost in its own boiling, incommunicable fictions…” Actually, by the end of the novel it is made plain that Korin is just an effect of writing, that there is no way out of language’s constitutive power. Jiminy’s trivial reading – that the novel gets you into the head of a madman – is the ultimate recuperation. Jiminy banally speculates that the manuscript in Korin’s possession does not really exist in the world of the novel, that it is Korin’s “mental fiction.” But Korin doesn’t possesses the manuscript because the manuscript (and writing in general) possesses him.

    Towards the end of the essay Jiminy shifts into talking about the metaphysical, because all really good novels are ultimately “about” metaphysical concerns rather than, say, exemplars of materialist ones (and chiefly, in the case of many practitioners of the baroque sentence, the materiality of writing itself). Of the illustrated novella Animalinside he asserts, “by the end of this relentless text, the dog has passed through the political and become metaphysical or theological” – often, by sheer coincidence, the trajectory of many a Jiminy Critic review. Jiminy pretends in this comments thread that the term “metaphysical” has to entail a belief in God, and since he’s only pointing to what he sees as a God-sized hole in Melancholy of Resistance (“a book about a God that not only failed but didn’t even turn up for the exam”), he can’t be accused of yet again going all metaphysical on us. But here Jiminy is just relying on the ignorance of his preferred brand of reader; privately he knows better (later even conceding that it might be an “negative metaphysics” he’s pointing to).

    The slide from the political to the metaphysical is typical of Jiminy’s reviews, and his reading of Melancholy of Resistance takes place under its sign. In his construal, the novel “takes repeated ironic shots at the possibility of revolution” (always a high recommendation!) and therefore segues perfectly into his (again typical) quietist conclusion: “Mental fictions may enrage us, and may lead to madness, but they may also provide the only ‘resistance’ available. Korin, Valuska, and Mrs. Eszter are, in their different ways, all demented seekers after purity. That they cannot exactly describe or enact their private Edens makes those internal worlds not less but more beautiful. Inevitably, as for all of us but perhaps more acutely for them, ‘heaven is sad’.” Ah yes, yet another novel that ultimately counsels resignation (with a little poignant inner “resistance” in one’s holy consciousness) in the face of a world that cannot be changed.

    Jiminy can point to all the “bottomless abysses and obscure referents” and name-dropping of Beckett and Bernhard that he likes – it’s misdirection, drawing attention to the curtains and wallpaper and the upholstery – never let it be said that Jiminy Critic is not an accomplished upholsterer! – rather than to the foundations of his own review. Those foundations are the same as always: realism, the novel of consciousness, metaphysics, quietism.


    Steven Augustine said...

    Xmas really did come early for the righteous, fleet and word-mad, this year. Don't forget that the season got its glittering kick-off with Nigel Beale (aka Count Woody's Renfield) doing 15 minutes of (by far) the least-inspired, least-well-prepared, least-intelligent, least-convincingly-sane TED Talk I have ever had the luck to cringe at (I downloaded it before Nigel deleted/moved it; will post it one day for fun).

    Along those lines, I'm sorry I forgot to drop this quotation, in that glorious "The Millions" skirmish, as proof of Wood's... erm... critical apparatus? Ethical fortitude? Needy delight in being rimmed?

    “I wanted to thank you for your many generous and intelligent words about my new book How Fiction Works (and other stuff)…I get great pleasure from reading your blog.”

    Critic, James Wood, The New Yorker.”


    It was to Nigel, of course, about whom another critic wrote, soon after (on a Beale-bashing blog):

    "I was reading Nigel Beale’s website, just going through and being more and more stunned by the idiocy that permeated damn near everything he published online. At that point I googled 'NIGEL BEALE IS A FUCKING TWAT.' This is the first thing that came up.

    Thank you so much for this.
    Comment by Kate June 21, 2009 @ 7:39 am"


    In Woody's system, Don DeLillo = bullshit; Nigel Beale = great pleasure.

    Which makes sense, really.

    Anonymous said...

    Apparently James Wood has risen from the dead, briefly, once again:


    "Vanity Fair magazine hosted a memorial in New York City April 20 for the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, who died of cancer in December. According to the Guardian, the event, at Cooper Union, a private college in lower Manhattan, paid tribute to Hitchens’ “wit and warmth.”

    "The memorial brought together a diverse group of personalities, including novelists Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, playwright Tom Stoppard, literary critic James Wood, historian Douglas Brinkley, journalist Carl Bernstein, actors Sean Penn and Stephen Fry, former Nation editor Victor Navasky and numerous others."

    Cynthia Ozick, a decade ago, about Wood: "He is, for the moment, our Hazlitt. He may become something more."

    ..... Or less.