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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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04/05/2004

Comments

Steve of InWriting

I think you're right about Wood in general, though I am less tolerant of his sub-Martin Amis style than I am his conservatism (though I can't forgive his uncomprehending review of Thomas Bernhard's "The Loser" twelve years ago!).

One has to say that he has written one or two brilliantly perceptive essays: those on WG Sebald and Zadie Smith stand out. For this he can be forgiven working for TNR.

Perhaps if he was more interested in European Modernism than Anglo-American realism he might start to write more such essays. There isn't much going on in the latter field, certainly for one with theological concerns. And I think the fate of art follows the fate of the latter.

One last point, I wonder if one should make the distinction between bad writer and bad artist. I'm with many people who think Martin Amis (for example) is a brilliant writer but, unlike many people, think he is a bad artist. Le Carre seem to be similar, though I have never read him, nor will.

Ken Chen

Well, I'm an admirer of Wood's, so naturally, I disagree with many of your statements. I think that Wood is less similar to Leavis and more like Eliot--and like Eliot, he is a very polarizing critic. It's possible to either applaud his accuracy and analytical precision or to allow that specifically analytical (and, thus, apparently unsympathetic) character of his criticism to fend you off. Thus, Borges said that Eliot was a masterful prose stylist (as, I think, Wood is) but Eliot and Wood are both probably read in much smaller proportion than their accuracy would demand--they have an alienating accuracy.

Also, I think that many of your characterizations are inaccurate--and like the assertions of Wood's that disturb his detractors, they seem to rely a lot on just ad hoc pronouncements. First, I agree that Wood obviously values psychological realism and thinks that the novel is a tool for making selves, but I don't think that this is quite the fault or mania that way you make it out to be. First of all, some of his best reviews are not about psychological novels at all: he praises Hamsun (revealing his appreciation for Kafkaesque non-realism), Momus/Erasmus (a pre-novelistic farce), and W.G. Sebald (what author has less self than Sebald?). Secondly, I think that, although he's very harsh on writers who aren't Chekhov, Wood seems to me to be often harsh but never partisan. What is especially scathing about his critiques is how they are immanent: he often presents an artist's aesthetic as an "argument" and suggests how the author is being aesthetically incoherent. His point isn't that his subject isn't being a good enough Henry James--he isn't being a good enough version of himself. Thirdly, this isn't really a snark-related argument, but it seems odd to dislike an author because one doesn't share their interpretive discourse. I mean it seems like a more appropriate response would be to want to read Wood when we act as participants in the "novel-as-exploration-of-consciousness" discourse and then read with his bracketted -away assumptions in mind when we become participants in other discourses. I don't see any reason why Wood has to like my favorite author; what's more useful is that reading him read his authors is, overall, more beneficial than not reading him. In any case, I'm not sure how you can disagree with Wood without falling into a solipsistic loop--like being intolerant of someone for being intolerant?

Finally, some of your characterizations of Wood seem rather absolute, in the way that you criticize Wood of being absolute. First of all, I think his aims *are* moral but they are not moralistic: his aesthetic is not exclusively judgmental--and its moralism is based on empathy rather than on a pedantic impulse to flog everyone with his own ethical guidelines. Also, his response to writing is almost always explicitly "aesthetic"--take a look at his great Moby Dick review; it's almost entirely about adjectives. Secondly, I think Wood isn't really gushy but he does seem to make efforts to point out when he likes something and what he likes about books he dislikes. I think he's a much better writer when he praises than when he negates: half of THE BROKEN ESTATE are very loving and (intellectually) intimate reviews of Chekhov, Woolf, Mann, Sebald, Hamsun, Melville, and so on.

Anyways, I'm sorry if any of this seems belligerent. Though I have to say, you seem a lot harder on Wood than Wood usually is on authors he dislikes: Wood's pans are at least rational discourse (in the sense that he brings you through his thought process) and he tends to avoid (I could be wrong about this) rhetoric about the fate of the British criticism and snippy asides. Also, it seems sort of funny to end a polemic against a reviewer who likes psychological realism, by psychoanalyzing him!

Daniel Green

Ken,

I would make four points about your comment:
1) You speak of Wood's "analytic" skills. I don't think there is much analysis in Wood's criticism. There's a bias--either the book at hand provides a window into consciousness or it doesn't. Then he finds reasons to praise or disparage the book based on this conclusion. If by analysis you mean something like "close reading," I don't see it.

2) Wood is nothing like Eliot. Eliot was the forerunner of New Critical formalism, and as a "moral critic," Wood is very far away from this.

3 It's incoherent to identify an "argument" and then discuss its "aesthetic" qualities. A novel might be aesthetically unsuccessful because it fails aesthetically, but this has nothing to do with its "argument," or vice versa. I would maintain the two things are mutually exclusive.

4)More often than not, Wood doesn't read "his" authors. His more typical mode is to dismiss those who aren't his.

Please feel free to criticize me all you want. I appreciate your response. (Also, in calling Wood an intolerant critic, I deliberately did not say he was personally intolerant. I"m sticking to what I see in his texts.)

doug

I know very little about Wood, but I did read the essay you discuss, as I'm interested in Le Carre and genre fiction more generally. You're obviously eager to rebut Wood, but I don't know if this is the best springboard.

Point #1: Wood is obviously unsympathetic to genre fiction. That said, he's right that Le Carre's vision of the spy world is as fantastic as Fleming's. I don't see that as a bad thing; I think along with you that Wood does. But Wood's substantive point is accurate.

Point #2: The passage you quote is poorly written, but it's general intent seems clear, and again accurate. Le Carre did see the Cold War as a morally gray battleground where no true victory was possible. (Consider the end of SMILEY'S PEOPLE, for example.) Again, you seem to see this statement as a criticism, while I see it as a statement of fact.

Point #3: Your point about Wood's charge against Le Carre's writing was well-taken. It is indeed ridiculous to implicitly criticize a man for writing elaborate fantasies, then criticize him again for writing them in a realistic style meant to persuade the reader of their plausibility. It might be possible to build a bridge between these two points, but I suspect doing so would take Wood in directions he didn't want to go (genre conventions).

Point #4: You are right that Wood's criticism of Le Carre's characterizations seems unfair. The quote you excerpt about masculine reticience does seem very wrong-headed, especially in it's rather odd grouping together of Greene and Hemingway, two writers who don't have a lot in common, in my opinion.

Again, I'm more interested in Le Carre than Wood, and as a reader of Le Carre's it seems pretty obvious that a lot of his characterizations are thin. Smiley is an Oxford don trapped in the spy world; the incongruity is the interest. Other stock players in Le Carre's troupe are The Arrogant American, The Bluff and Not Too Bright Bureaucrat, The Heroic Betrayer, and The Guy Who's Apart From The Whole Sordid Business. Le Carre doesn't have the uniqueness of Hemingway or the depth of Greene, by Wood's yardstick.

I'm just not sure that's much of a criticism. Granting all of this, it doesn't say much about why the books are popular, or influential, or if they are still worth reading. I think you could concede all of Wood's points and still draft a case for Le Carre, not as a literary artist of the first rank but still as a "high" genre writer.

Based on this one Wood essay, my beef with him isn't that his philosophy is wrongheaded, but that he's not a very effective or clear writer. His prose is murky and although he stumbles on some good ideas, he's unwilling to follow their course.

I'm not sure if this was the proper springboard to go after Wood because some of your arguments are based on statements that readers of Le Carre or spy fiction more generally would probably concede, even if they didn't spin them the way Wood did.

I enjoy this site, by the way, although I almost always disagree with your postings.

doug

Daniel Green

Doug,

Your points are all well-taken (although I think the quoted passage is poorly written because Wood is struggling to hide what he really means.)
Mostly I chose to look at this review because it just appeared, and blogs do that sort of thing, etc. However, that Le Carre's characterization might be thin is still at the core of my argument about Wood's criticism in general: he is unwilling to consider any other satisfactions one might get from fiction. Character is all.

Manish

I've been reading Wood's criticism for some time now, and to tell the truth, I'm not sure what my exact feelings for him are. Yes, I agree that he can be a tedious and nitpicking, but at the same time, he also offers very astute analysis. Sometimes he can enrage you, as he did me when he attacked Delillo's "Underworld" for being about everything but really nothing. That, I thought, then, and still do now, was a very silly and simplistic analysis. I also did not take very kindly to his analysis of "Cosmopolis", which is a flawed book, but beautifully so.

Anyway,I agree with the notion that Wood is a bit of a puritan who thinks a novel can progress in only one manner, but I daresay the man himself is not very sure what that is. Consider the writers he supposedly admires, Bellow, Flaubert, Lawrence and the like. On the surface, they seem to be similarly inclined, but is that really so? I suspect Wood likes the idea that the kinds of books he likes are the true pathways to literary greatness, and at this late point in his life, it may be too much to hope that he change his outlook.

But James Wood the man is far more interesting than James Wood the critic. I think much could be learned if we subjected his diatribes to psychological analysis; they will reveal far more, I am sure, than merely what he considers great literature is. Its because I think Wood is a complex person who has at this point in his life, realized, to a certain degree, that his acknoledged "honesty" is in reality a sham, but is not really upto the task of really facing it. Sure, he offers penetrating analysis of literature, but I think at this point he's beginning to wonder if that really is what he wanted to do with his life. To address that particular grievance (I'm a bad speller), he's even released a novel, but as to that particular work's literary merits I'm not very sure of, perhaps because I didn't read it.

James Wood excoriated those novelists that showed too much concern for "social reality"; and that was a very valid point; particularly in the immediate days following 9/11, which was when he wrote the piece that carried those accusations. He claimed, with some justification, that those novelists better watch out, that if all they wanted to be were social commentators, reality itself would make them obsolete in a few years.

The problem with this particular argument is that it fails to distinguish between between the truly great "social realists", and those who want to use present trends to illustrate their own prowess. The other problem is that it fails to take into account that while there is much that changes, certain things remain the same. These two problems, are of course, interrelated, in that the great writers can find the unchanging in any situation while leaving the gold-diggers to do what they want to do.

As for Wood's turning to attacking literature because he wants it to be imbued with the sort of purity found in religion, I'm not so sure. For starters, religion has never been pure, which is perhaps the very reason Wood turned away from it, or perhaps not. In any case, while I certainly believe that he is a literary puritan, I don't know if that owes something to his religious background. If it is, and someone can prove that to me, I will make it a point to attack the man on every occassion, because if there's anything I'm convinced of, its that religion has been the great destructive force of all time, while literature has been the very opposite, and that, since the two are obviously at extremes, any one who has even an iota of religiosity in him has no business criticizing art, and should thus get his ass, whatever its physical state, fat, or thin, back to where it belongs, and this for everyone's good, his and ours.

John Malvern

One:
Maybe the critic is actually correct.

Two: Some people ( writers ) write trash.

Three: If you enjoy ephemera, great; just don't pass it off as literary and defend silly writings.

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