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In fact, Dan, I got the impression reading the book that some editing had been done to make the collection "more readable as a book." Perhaps I shouldn't say this since I don't have the book to hand and haven't traced the essays back to the source to confirm it, but in some cases (the Henry Green essay, for example) you know it was written as a review, but it's hard to identify which of the books he discusses is under review. Certainly they all lack the heading the identifies the books being reviewed (as, for example, you see in Amis' "War Against Cliche," James's "As of This Writing," Penelope Fitzgerald's "Afterlife," and most other collections of literary essays). Nothing wrong with it; it just made me wonder what other changes may have been made.

Dan Green

I assume that some relatively minor changes were made. But the essays still bear the mark of their original publication, and I don't think they've been integrated well enough for them to bear the persuasive burden Wood wants them to bear.


Of course. Your comment just reminded me of the changes noticed, and wondered about.

On second reading here, your comment about "a state in which the reader may or may not know why a character does something, or may not know how to read a passage, and feels that in order to find these things out he must try to merge with characters in their uncertainty" makes me wonder whether you think unreliable narration became less common, more common, or about as common in the last half of the 20thC as in the first.


Dan, as always, this is a thoughtful post. I'd like to mull over a fuller response which, with an imminent departure, might have to wait, but I have a question: What do you make of his review of Brick Lane (admittedly, a rather old-fashioned novel), and how would you place it in relation to your comment about Wood's relevance to the cause of contemporary fiction?

(Nice to see you back, Sam.)

Dan Green

Honestly, I don't think there's that much truly "unreliable narration" in modern fiction. Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier is often given as an example, but even there it only goes so far--not so far as to make us really doubt the essential truth of the narrative. Usually, an "unreliable narrator" is someone about whom information is gradually divulged that makes us reconsider our responses. This is a perfectly acceptable literary trick. I really think Wood has something more like "stream of consciousness" in mind.

I haven't read Brick Lane, so didn't feel informed enough to discuss that essay. My impression was that he praised it as a "immigrant" narrative that precisely restored some of the "old-fashioned" assumptions about novels. Many people no doubt find this to be their cup of tea. It really isn't mine.


Yes, that more or less confirms my impressions. (I also think he's influenced by its resemblance to Naipaul's House for Mr. Biswas, which he's on the record as loving.)

I wonder about the question of narrators, though. I did find his notion of the division between reliably unreliable and unreliably unreliable narrators to be illuminating, and certainly can think of several 20th century narrators firmly placed in the latter camp. Wouldn't you put Humbert Humbert in that club?

You know of my admiration for Wood but I will certainly agree that it's a shortcoming of his - perhaps his greatest one - to be prone to these sort of sweeping generalizations; I'm always left wondering to what extent this almost Manichean approach to literary criticism is a vestige of his religious background.

Still, I must say that I agreed with a good deal of what's said in the hysterical realism essay, and I do think he defines it quite neatly, in the essay's second paragraph:

"The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence ... these novels continuall flourish their glamorous congestion ... the pursuit of vitality at all costs ... Indeed, vitality is storytelling as far as these books are concerned."

And later:

"Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on."

Clearly, Wood is fan of the quieter moments (as, I suppose am I), and as you point out, it is a personal preference, nothing wrong with it. Wood's vulnerability as a critic, I suppose, comes from the absolutism of his stances.

Dan Green

I think Humbert Humbert is reliably unreliable. He interprets everything through the filter of his own needs and self-preoccupations. We know that and take it into account--or should. A novel really narrated by an unreliably unreliable narrator would simply be incoherent.

I'd be more comfortable with Wood's critique of "big contemporary novels" if he were more exact in identifying them. Does he mean only Rushdie, DeLillo, and Pynchon? (No doubt he would include David Mitchell.) DeLillo writes lots of small contemporary novels. Is The Plot Against America a big contemporary novel? The Time of Our Singing? The Corrections is probably one of these, but Wood likes it because it is more "quiet."

Think of all the great novels that could be accused of being "perpetual motion machines" and pursuing "vitality": the works of Fielding, Sterne, Dickens; Ulysses (how else to draw dramatic interest out of a 24-hour period?), The Master and Margarita; much of Faulkner, Malamud, the later Roth; Lolita itself.

What's wrong with storytelling as a kind of grammar--for some writers? Some kinds of fiction simply depend more on plot than others.



What exactly would you classify as "hysterical realism"? I can see how someone like Pynchon would fit, both because of of the energy and comic tone of his novels. But someone like DeLillo strikes me as an ill-fit. Perhaps Underworld is atypical for DeLillo, but that book struck me as very sober in tone. Certainly there were many fantastic elements that took the book beyond what was strictly realistic, but energy and comedy did not permeate that book in nearly the same way as it did in something like Gravity's Rainbow.

I can see many similarities in Pynchon and DeLillo's writing, but I'm not sure that those similarities necessarily make both "hysterical realists".

Dan Green

Scott: I agree with you completely. Clearly Wood means "hysterical realism" to be a disparaging term, but as I said in my post, the only writer it seems to me to fit is Tom Wolfe.

Paul Feldman

As a faithful and admiring reader of your blog (I check it constantly during the day hoping for new entries), which I value for its seriousness and its clarity, I'm prompted to make my first comment. I'm out of my league here, I usually just glean what I can, but I find myself wishing I understood your objections to Wood's work better. If I didn't feel certain that you are serious critic, I would wonder what drives your criticism of Wood's work, which is full of beautifully close readings of the kind that I've been led to assume you valued. I can see and agree with the point that Wood doesn't quite follow through on his initial premise about comedy, and that the book is clearly a collection that has been forced together, in terms of suppporting an overall theme. But is that it? Is that your main objection? I have a feeling that I'm not alone among fans of both your work and Wood's, who are trying to reconcile your differences. Of course it's not at all imperative that you agree. I just wish there had been some appreciation for Wood's acumen and passion on a piece-by-piece basis. Or else some sense of why you don't see or value those qualities.

You ask of the collected essays "what justification is there for them to be reprinted as a book if no real effort is made to make them readable as a book?". This is such a strange question, and one you can only ask if you feel that the pieces individually have no merit at all. Perhaps the book would have been better titled simply "Essays and Reviews by James Wood," but because it doesn't follow through on its interesting premise doesn't mean the pieces weren't worth collecting, does it?

Finally, while I'm here: please, post more often.

Dan Green

I surely thank you for your nice words about the blog.

I'd probably be more accepting of The Irresponsible Self if it were titled "Essays and Reviews by James Wood" and didn't pretend instead to be about "laughter and the novel."

I don't really think of Wood as a "close reader" in the formalist sense of the concept--and it is essentially a formalist concept. He's a moral critic concerned ultimately about literature's ethical implications. He can certainly have his political biases--see his relatively recent review of Le Carre's Absolute Friends.

I really am posting as fast as I can. Really.

Leonard Bast

Very nice post here. I've read some of Wood's essays, as well as his novel The Book Against God, but I didn't realize that the phrase "hysterical realism"--which I encountered via Isaac Butler--could be traced back to him. I'll have to look up that particular essay.

I think I'd say that the difference between Wood's favorite fiction and the more broadly comic kind that you describe here is, in part, the difference between most contemporary English fiction and most contemporary American fiction--for instance, Alice Thomas Ellis vs. Flannery O'Connor. Many of the writers of "hysterical realism" would be unthinkable if modernism (and later postmodernism) had never happened. But so much post-1945 fiction coming out of England seems to be in revolt against modernism. I like a great deal of this fiction myself, but I agree with you that to make this kind of fiction THE ideal, as Wood seems to do, is to distort literary history and to risk falling into mere nostalgia.


I don't share Wood's tastes but his broad distinction between comedy and satire is reasonable and not unprecedented: Nathaniel West, Heller, Barthelme, Pynchon, DeLillo and Tom Wolfe are all satirists first and foremost and there are strong satirical elements in most of the other writers you mention. Many of Wood's problems with contemporary fiction can be traced to his lack of sympathy with satire as a mode -- see the review of Martin Amis' The Information in his first collection, which holds the book to the standards of a realistic novel, and complains that the characters are two-dimensional. I wonder what he thinks of Gulliver's Travels? There's not much unknowability to the Lilliputians...

Dan Green

I don't agree that West, Heller, Barthelme, Pynchon, and DeLillo "are all satirists first and foremost." Wolfe yes, and a poor one, but the others are not. There's very little in their work that's designed to evoke satirical "correction." It's a different kind of "carnivalesque" comedy altogether. If Wood thinks they are satirists, he's misreading them completely.


You didn't publish my last post, did you? Well and good, as it was a little embarassing to me, and fairly hysterical if I say so myself. Plus, I hadn't really read what you had to say, and just used the forum as an opportunity to bash James Wood, whom I sometimes disagree with.

As for your point, which I'm only now beginning to get, because I've only now read what you had to say, I'll say that I didn't really understand everything. Partly because I don't like "theories of comedy" or "Theories of Sorrow" or "Theories of Tragedies", and am therefore rather badly informed on the subject. To me, the question is essentially a simple one, and these "Theories" merely an attempt to analyze that which will not be analyzed. In that regard, I liked your point about comedy being essentially unrealistic. Thats the case with most things that human beings respond to, I think. Analysis, of the type Wood conducts, is an admirable thing at times, especially if it serves to separate the good from the bad, and his punching of Tom Wolfe and putting that pompous pretender in his place was very justified, but otherwise, I don't really see the need for people like him. And this while agreeing that he offers astute analysis. Its not the astuteness that I have a problem with, its the very analysis. When Wood, for instance attacks the author of "Gravity's Rainbow" for being too vivid, he's essentially telling him that there are too many things in his book and that those are causing him to lose his way, the way James believes was meant to be travelled. And yet the same criticism can be levelled on him, that his analysis is too vivid, as when, for instance he attacks Don Delillo in "Underworld" for saying that a baseball is the size of a nuclear reactor, and somehow linking this with Delillo's infamous penchant for paranoia,a link that Delillo himself never makes in the book. What's the point of such an absurd linkage, Mr. Wood?

It really is strange what James Wood finds funny. There are many things to be said about V.S Naipaul, but he is not known to be especially funny. What is James Wood trying to prove when he supposedly sees the laughter in a situation that I can't? Or is it precisely that, that he is being of a higher order, which can understand what the rest of us can't. Is this what his "Theory of Comedy" ultimately leads to? And while the idea of restraint is a good one, can that seriously be applied to comedy? It can't. Because then the whole purpose is ruined. If you try seriously to keep your humor in check, then what comes out is not humor but seriousness.

That sort of comedy might appeal to His Dour Highness, but I daresay that the rest of us prefer, if we are given a choice, the other, even the hysterical kind, something that's not constrained by an almost unnatural urge to be prim and proper, but which lets our emotions come out fully, and if he doesn't approve, then that's to his, not our, disadvantage.


Validity of opinion aside, the following sentence is unintelligibly ungrammatical: "It is a very peculiar definition of "comedy" in literature that values such comedy for the way in which it manages to restrain itself from actually producing laughter, and that identifies as among the greatest comic writers in modern fiction the likes of J.F. Powers, Henry Green, and V.S. Pritchett." Syntactically, the first "that" corresponds to "literature," not "a very peculiar defenition of 'comedy' in literature." Do you mean "literary comedy"? And how could a definition of comedy "value" a kind of comedy? Certainly it could represent a kind of comedy, but for only a person or sensibility can "value" something as you have suggested. And this is just the first sentence of your critique. I write this comment now because I think much of what you seem to intend to say is interesting and even demonstrative of Wood's oversights and cloying tendencies, such as his fondness for the word "gentle." (Keep in mind, however, that Wood himself objects to John Updike's own overuse of that word, which Updike uses to describe physical traits; whereas Wood uses it to describe, more appropriately, prose style.) I am particularly interested in Wood, and routinely search the internet for discussions about his work. Yours is not glibly dismissive, as so many tend to be. But it is significantly uneven and deserving of more of your attention than it got.


That "but for only" is a typo. It should read "but only."

Dan Green

"Syntactically, the first "that" corresponds to "literature," not "a very peculiar defenition of 'comedy' in literature."

No it doesn't. You're wrong. The sentence is perfectly intelligible.


Coming VERY late to the party.... I must say, I rather like James Wood, priggishness and all. And I even agree with his thesis about "hysterical realism" so far as it goes.

My problem with Wood's thesis, however, is that the "hysteria" he finds in DeLillo and Pynchon is only intermittent. Much of their prose is not "hysterical" at all, and it isn't even comedic. I actually don't find Pynchon's jokes funny at all: Pynchon the comedian is lame indeed. But Pynchon the prose-poet of landscapes, cityscapes, and technology is non-pareil.

And this is what Wood fails to see. Wood seems bewildered as to why Pynchon and DeLillo are so popular despite the fact they don't create three-dimensional characters and don't tell traditional A to B stories. But the reason, to me, is obvious. The reason is that they tackle "the way we live now," they analyze and interpret the technological utopia/dystopia we truly inhabit. The late Saul Bellow (Wood's idol) didn't do that. He never addressed what crucially distinguishes our time from George Eliot's time: the omnipresence of science and technology in our lives - high tech gadgets, the world wide web, transnational corps, patented genes, advanced weaponry, etc., etc. which most of us don't truly understand, not in the way any reasonably well educated 19th century person could grasp all the essentials of the science of their day. We live in a world not of our making, and we don't sufficiently comprehend the advanced maths and sciences that have created this world for better or worse. But Pynchon grasps it. Pynchon is one of the few writers around who is enough of a math whiz to truly understand all this stuff, while also being enough of a prose stylist that his writing isn't perfunctory, like say, Arthur C. Clarke's. He has the science background of a Clarke combined with the powerful prose of a Joseph Conrad.

My ideal writer would also be able to create complex, vivid characters in addition to all this. But I can't think of anyone right now who can do all three (rich characterization, scientific/technical knowledge, stylish prose). Pynchon can do two out of three, and that's pretty damn good. Wood thinks otherwise, but that's only because he doesn't take the interest Pynchon does in the impact of advanced technology on all our lives. He doesn't see Saul Bellow's lack of interest in this topic as a blind spot or shortcoming, but I do.

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