Grown-Up Stories: James Wood’s New Essay Collection Provides Unique and Insightful Criticism

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“So luminous are this book’s final scenes, so affecting,” writes the literary critic James Wood of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, “that it is all the critic can do not to catch from it, as in this review, the contagion of ceaseless quotation, a fond mumbling.”

The same could be said of Wood’s own new book of essays, The Fun Stuff, from which I took that quotation. His writing is pleasingly rhythmic and acutely honed—“a fond mumbling” is a typically excellent phrase—and the skill with which he bridges the worlds of academic literary theory and magazine book reviewing (most of his essays were originally published in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The London Review of Books) is frankly wondrous. Indeed, it’s hard not to sound like a rabid fanboy when writing about Wood—for his criticism truly exhausts positive superlatives—so I’ll return to quoting, with this, which gives some good background on Wood (it’s from an old essay of his, a 2001 review of Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections):

It is easy to imagine that the press of modernity makes authentic encounter uniquely difficult, that we are all belated exceptionalists; but this is postmodern provincialism, surely, and Franzen, in his heart, seems not to buy it either. We are not uniquely doomed by modern conditions. And if we are doomed, then we are doomed in rather old-fashioned ways, as Cervantes and Sterne and Svevo knew. We are doomed because humans always flow over their targets; their souls are gratuitous and busy, congested with aspiration and desire. This is the dark theme of Franzen’s novel, this is its truest touch. All the rest is “social news” and may be turned off, as it deserves.

The gorgeous writing is obvious (note the rhythm of the sentences and the phrases “congested with aspiration and desire” and “humans always flow over their targets,” which are somehow perfect in their vagueness), but the content probably requires some explaining. Wood is responding to an idea that seems to underlie much of Franzen’s novel and the tradition from which it springs, that the novel somehow ought to tackle the whole of American culture because that culture is somehow uniquely potent and threatening to our consciousness, you know, like the evils of commercialism and all that. What’s so wonderful is how Wood is able to combine a pleasingly commonsensical philosophical argument about what fiction should be with an acute reading and appreciation of the “truest touch” of the novel, its affectingly human portrait of a flailing Midwestern family.

For a while Wood was best known as the brilliant challenger of that tradition, the critic who dared to dislike many of the works of Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Franzen, Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, Salman Rushdie and David Foster Wallace. You get the feeling that Wood was so hated by that tradition’s proponents because of just how right he was, how capable he was, with his close readings and complex arguments, of making a powerful—and respectful—case against novels that fail to illuminate human truths.

It may have been those arguments, or 9/11, or the success of The Corrections, which is more on Wood’s side than he seems to realize—in any case, for whatever reason the triumphalist culture novel is now on the decline. Wood won, and now he holds perhaps the most important position in the literary world, that of chief book critic for The New Yorker. This is an immeasurably good thing, in no small part because in responding to the times, Wood has taken a new, more positive tack: The Fun Stuff, unlike his previous collections The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, is dedicated in large part to bringing forward the work of little-known but excellent contemporary writers. Wood is helpfully building a new vision for contemporary fiction to replace the one he rightfully tore apart.

Which is not to say that The Fun Stuff isn’t also full of the great pieces on classic writers (Leo Tolstoy, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, Thomas Hardy, Richard Yates, V.S. Naipaul, Mikhail Lermontov), for which Wood is well known. But the collection is a nice reply to those critics who’ve unfairly asserted that Wood only likes the fiction of bygone eras. Here we learn of Wood’s passion for the stories of Lydia Davis and the novels of Marilynne Robinson, Alan Hollinghurst, Geoff Dyer, Ian McEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro, among many others.

Wood often returns to a few core philosophical issues: belief in God, the big focus of The Broken Estate and his underappreciated 2002 novel The Book Against God; and the real ‘realness’ of realism, which he also touches on in his excellent primer How Fiction Works. He’s great writing about them, never too repetitive or unwilling to advance his thinking, and he rarely if ever lets his predetermined ideas dictate his readings. Beneath all Wood’s essays is a true love of writing, a true desire to find great fiction.

Though most of Wood’s critics are unfortunately hysterical and not really worth listening to, there are, of course, legitimate criticisms of him. The problem’s not that I disagree with Wood, because I do, in several places in this book, but that’s fine, even good; no, Wood’s real nagging problem is an occasional smugness of tone. At one point he huffily informs us that “works of fantasy or science fiction that also succeed in literary terms are hard to find.” He seems allergic to the idea that fiction can be purely entertaining—a relentlessly negative appraisal of the novelist Paul Auster is one of the few essays here about which I have reservations—and he has a bad habit of offhandedly remarking about how all the other critics misread some book or how the literary world doesn’t properly understand or appreciate someone wonderful or else idiotically likes someone awful (Paul Auster). This might have fit Wood’s former outsider role, but now it seems gratuitous.

But this is easily forgivable; it’s the small price we pay for Wood’s moral seriousness. And his prose fits that seriousness. It’s formal in a way, but also very figurative and very personal. Wood’s fond of the pronoun “one” and frequently makes use of endearing exclamations like “What a piece of writing this is!” And he’s frequently quite funny: some of Lydia Davis’s shortest stories “resemble the captions you might find in a contemporary art installation (i.e. the rare kind that is enchanting and doesn’t drive you insane).” His writing is, in the way of all great writers, decidedly recognizable, brimming with personality and feeling.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the incredibly moving personal essays that open and close this collection, that serve as its bookends of sorts: “The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon” and “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library.” Together they tell a story of an erudite critic who has grown a great deal and who is coming to terms with aging: Wood looks fondly back and stoically forward. In the latter essay, Wood writes of going through and trying to figure out what to do with his late father-in-law’s massive library and ends up questioning the true meaning of one’s library: “After all, can I really contend that my own collection of almost unkillable, inert books, ranged on shelves like some bogus declaration of achievement (for surely the philistine is right to ask the man of culture, “Have you really read all these?”), tells my children anything more about me than my much smaller collection of postcards and photographs?” This also gets at Wood’s discomfort with his own future legacy as an intellectual; and, indeed, a similar if differently expressed worry courses through the Keith Moon (famed drummer for The Who) essay:

Nowadays I see schoolkids bustling along the sidewalk, their large instrument cases strapped to them like diligent coffins, and I know their weight of obedience. Happy obedience, too: that cello or French horn brings lasting joy, and a repertoire more demanding and subtle than rock music’s. But fuck the laudable ideologies, as Roth’s Mickey Sabbath puts it: subtlety is not rebellion, and subtlety is not freedom, and sometimes it is rebellious freedom that one wants, and only rock music can deliver it. And sometimes one despises oneself, in near middle age, for being such a merely good student.

How moving! That inversion of the tension of the pronoun “one,” which we know is usually a silly stand-in for the less flashy “I”: here Wood turns his own formal tone on its head and knowingly uses it both to examine himself and give us distance from such a personal confession. And that wild verb “despise,” around such controlled language (even the “fuck” is placed precisely, though it also nicely foreshadows “despise”). And “diligent coffins”: perfect; we know that weight. The aspiring writer, reading Wood, can only be moved, and stunned, and finally daunted, for this is great literature.

The Fun Stuff is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is listed at $27. 

Photo by Izzy Kornblatt-Stier/the Daily Gazette. 

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