"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.

  • November 7, 2011


    "I’d have taken a much worse evaluation from Wood than I got, if it had seemed precise and upstanding. I wanted to learn something about my work. Instead I learned about Wood."

    - Jonathan Lethem's essay on being reviewed by James Wood

    TM: So did you read the James Wood review up to the very end?

    AH: I did. But actually, when he got to the bit when he was imagining how I might write something, it just seemed so pathetic that I stopped taking it seriously.

    TM: When he did the parody of you?

    AH: Yes, it’s very ill-advised to do something like that, I think. It exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    - Allan Hollinghurst answers his reviewers

    August 26, 2010

    Dept of Filthy Neocon Litcritter Lies

    I'm taking the liberty of reposting in its entirety this concise exposé of kultur-kaiser Adam Kirsch by Steven Augustine from The Endless Thread. Kirsch belongs to the same sub-genre of "critic" as James Wood -- smarmy-smart, facile propagandists of the empire's cultural bureau for "higher-toned" readers from the professional-managerial class (Jed Perl's another one). Kirsch recently wrote a couple of know-nothing take-downs of Slavoj Zizek in which he condemned the Slovenian philosopher/provocateur for being "fatally attracted to violence." These were published in the New Republic, a magazine psychopathically attracted to violence.

    Here's comrade Augustine's piece:

    Like all his fellow Neocons, Adam Kirsch scores his points by lying; the techniques he prefers are creepy sleight-of-hand, or the 20th-Century propagandist’s sadistic favorite, which is to assert, with a wink, that Blue is Red or a Cow is a Butterfly or that a Fundamentalist Guerrilla and a Secular Dictatorship are chummy together (for example). It only works if you aren’t paying attention… or if you really want to believe.

    In his eulogy to Frank Kermode, the mendacious Adam quotes a review Kermode wrote about a collection of essays by Martin Amis. Kirsch would have the reader believe that Kermode’s introduction to his review of “The War Against Cliché” is a quietly devastating put-down:


    “The last book he published before he died was Bury Place Papers, a collection of his LRB essays, which shows that he was a tough and witty critic as well as a learned one. His review of Martin Amis’s essay collection The War Against Cliché is a master class in quiet devastation: “The main title of this collection may at first seem wantonly non-descriptive, but it turns out to be exact,” Kermode begins. “The first thing to see to if you want to write well is to avoid doing bad writing, used thinking. The more positive requirements can be left till later, if only a little later.” It takes a minute to realize that Kermode’s verdict on Amis has just been delivered and that there will be no appeal.”

    From the review, by Kermode, Kirsch quotes:


    “That said, or, as Amis allows himself to say, ‘simply put’, we have here a literary critic of startling power, a post-literary-critical critic who, incorrigibly satirical, goes directly to work on the book. Often, being right and being funny are, in this book, aspects of the same sentence. Often, as one reads on, one finds oneself quietly giggling, or gigglingly quiet. The precision of the attack is astounding, and is matched by the bluntness of the condemnation.”

    or this:

    “The long central New Yorker essay on Larkin is probably the most considered and the most permanently valuable part of the book. It recycles some earlier remarks to great defensive effect. More than any other piece it confirms one’s opinion that Amis is the best practitioner-critic of our day – just what Pritchett was in his prime, though without the bad punctuation and the jangling train-wrecks.”

    Seems, strangely, like very strong praise, doesn’t it? Well I’m afraid you’ll have to keep reading it, again and again, until it doesn’t.

    Neil Bush 2012.

    August 9, 2010

    Fiction Ain't All The New Yorker Domesticates

    From the blog "Have a Good Time," an insightful post entitled "What the New Yorker doesn't publish":

    For starters, this letter:

    To the Editor,

    While I was glad to see praising reviews of poets Rae Armantrout and Anne Carson in recent issues, I was somewhat disturbed by their contents. Dan Chiasson says that Armantrout is the “best poet of the [Language] group” because she “takes the basic premises of Language writing somewhere they were never intended to go.” This ideological attack on experimental writing is repeated in Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Carson’s “Nox,” when O’Rourke says that Carson’s “singular gift” is complicated by “a postmodern habit of pastiche and fragmentation,” which O’Rourke calls “so much formal detritus.” Not all critics have to be behind Language poetry or formal experimentation, but to praise a Language poet and a formal experimenter for all they do that isn’t subsumed by those categories is a shockingly brazen party-line statement of what is and is not acceptable in poetry.

    It’s no surprise that a reviewer unsympathetic to Language poetry would only find praiseworthy the least Language-like elements in Armantrout’s work, nor is it surprising that a reviewer unsympathetic to formal experimentation would only care for Carson as a traditional lyric poet. What is surprising, and troubling, is that the New Yorker would print what amount to polemics against Language poetry and experimental writing in the form of reviews that pick out their outliers for praise. And in drawing the line where they do, excluding most Language poetry and experimental writing, the New Yorker obviously also excludes (for example) explicitly political poetry or poetry by people of color, which receive even less critical attention.

    This is obviously not as important as the New Yorker failing to cover, say, Gaza* (nothing in the print edition since a shocking Lawrence Wright article in November 2009–which might be worse than not covering it at all–and very little before then); and that in turn is obviously less important than the actual situation in Gaza. But the very rare and selective eye towards poetry reflects the same deep ideological biases as the Gaza coverage. Similarly, the New Yorker‘s poetry predilections are mere instances of the broader biases of Official Verse Culture, which themselves only reflect more pernicious forces of reaction and white supremacy. Perhaps I am overstating, but for me at least, the New Yorker has a profound role as an arbiter and definer of culture and politics. Presenting the ideological as neutral, even as it is of course ideology’s oldest trick, must be resisted!

    * Nothing on Oscar Grant. Nothing on SB 1070. Two brief stories on Sean Bell, one making fun of how black people speak, and one round-up of musicians’ responses. These kinds of stories on Sean Bell are emblematic: the New Yorker casts attention away from police violence making language and political music the real story.

    August 2, 2010


    from an interview with Steven Moore, author of The Novel: An Alternative History, at 3 Quarks Daily:

    What about the earliest fictions you include in the book fascinate you the most?

    The daring of them. This goes back to your first question about alternative fiction. These early fictions, especially Egyptian and Assyrian stuff, they're almost like avant-garde magical realist novels. They're more like García Marquez than John Updike, say. The freedom I saw there really interests me. This is the same freedom avant-garde writers adopt. As soon as literature started becoming written, critics came up with rules for poetry and drama. Anyone who was writing tales or longer fictions were pretty much free to do whatever they wanted. There was this real spirit of experimentalism, to use a modern term, in that early fiction, that fit in perfectly with my whole thesis: the avant-garde novel is not a modern aberration, but goes all the way back to the beginning. If anything, the conventional novel is the aberration. That's a very late development.

    Could you say that we have it backwards, that what we see as normal is one current of many in terms of the way the novel has gone? We've focused so much on one subset, that has seemed to us to be the only thing?

    Exactly. Without question, it's the most popular form of fiction, the conventional novel, the beginning, middle, end, and all that. It's the easiest to read, has the largest appeal, blah, blah, blah. But when you step back and look at the whole stream from ancient Egypt to what's being written now, it's just a tributary that goes off to the side. I wouldn't push it too hard, but the experimental novel is actually the main river. The conventional novel is a popular sidetrack.

    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.