Is James Wood Really That Good?
With the publication of his newest book, How Fiction Works, James Woods has found himself the recipient of praise that struggles to contain itself. Frank Kermode in TNR compared it favorably ("a much more substantial study") to E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the L.A. Times panted through a Best in Show allegory about whether it was proper or paltry to call Wood our finest literary critic before deciding, at the end of his review, that that's just what he is. And today Judith Shulevitz in Slate sort of likens Wood to Dr. Spock because his treatment of literature reminds her of the advice given by a nurturing but authoritative parenting mentor (Emily Bazelon must have edited that piece). Yes, James Wood is very good indeed, but isn't this collective gush somewhat unexpected for a critic so long and notoriously associated with the New Republic school of moralizing discouragement? Either it's a testament to his unignorable genius or to the fear with which most other reviewers regard him that he's been pan-fellated in the press.
One possible explanation: Wood's latest anatomy of the good novel deals mainly with dead authors and the entire work is more of an affirmation than a negation. Here he is hauling out all of his old favorites — Chekhov, Tolstoy, James, Nabokov, Bellow — as evidence of the best way to pull of a particular artistic trick. A lot of the discussion of How Fiction Works has fallen to Wood's argument about "free indirect style," whereby an author narrates subtly from the perspective of one of his characters ("Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears," with "stupid" being really how Ted thinks of his own tears). So it must be fun and joyful to watch him explain why What Maisie Knew pulls off the irony of this style better than other examples. The conveniently dead Henry James might have even agreed with him.
Martin Amis, who should really consider returning to the critical form himself, once said that what made Wood so expert was his ability to quote; he's a "good quoter," and he clearly loves doing it. He writes whole paragraphs around the best physical metaphors in Bellow ("his baldness was total, like a purge," a wooden leg was "bending and straightening gracefully like a gondolier"). And his attention is keenest when paid to an author's attention to detail. It's why he loves Flaubert, who always thought there were different ways of looking at even the most mundane objects.
Wood is sometimes mistakenly cited as a critic's critic. He's not; he's a writer's critic. That's why even in dispraise, he has a rare capacity to humble and transfix his subjects — well, some of them, anyway. When he wrote his famous essay on "hysterical realism," for which he used a review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth as an excuse to balloon and then pop a whole genre, he was severe, sure (his parody about a character called Toby Awknotuby was actually more entertaining than most of Infinite Jest). But was it really going to devastate someone to be taken for a disciple of Dickens, albeit a half-formed and over-ambitious one? Smith took her lumps well; she even worked her way through her stupid tears to say that hysterical realism was a "painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth…"
Maybe that's the self-pity of being schooled, who knows. But it's not an everyday accomplishment to have people sit down at their keyboards and worry how you'll react to what's produced there. Can I be uncynical for a minute and say that Wood deserves his current round of plaudits?