There are not many reviewers nowadays whose work would warrant being collected in book form.
The Fun Stuff
By James Wood
Jonathan Cape, 340pp., £18.99
The belle-lettristic days of Francis Jeffrey, Cyril Connolly and Dorothy Parker are long gone, and those reviewers who do publish collections – Peter Ackroyd, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, the late Lorna Sage and the late Frank Kermode – usually have parallel novelistic or academic careers. Moreover, there are very few reviewers whose work benefits from or even deserves the pseudo-immortality of hard covers; one conspicuous low point being the philistine tantrums of Dale Peck, collected as Hatchet Job: Writings on Contemporary Fiction. All of which makes James Wood a very rare feature of the literary landscape. He is without doubt one of the most perceptive and ingenious of critics currently writing, and The Fun Stuff – along with his previous collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self – should be mandatory reading for anyone thinking about fiction.
It is a book which ought to confound the stereotype of Wood as a critic. As the caricature would have it, Wood is the proud possessor of a stick which is exactly “literature” long (depending on the teller it was once owned by Flaubert, or Henry James) and his method in reviewing is to measure a text against said stick and then wallop the author with it in direct proportion to how far short their work has fallen. He is, to be sure, an exacting critic, and often mordantly funny (The Fun Stuff contains a glimmering parody of a Paul Auster novel, for example). As someone who genuinely loves literature (and knows why he loves it), he is frequently disappointed when confronted with the wersh and smirking coils of sentences that are often published as “novels” these days. But reading The Fun Stuff, it becomes immediately apparent that the novels he discusses are not judged against some abstract and external set of values, but on their internal and intrinsic properties. More than any other critic I regularly read, Wood is concerned with the specific timbres of an author’s sentences, the unique cadence of language and the idiosyncratic camber of grammar. There is a fine-grained quality to his observations, often resting on a single word; and it does not seem coincidental that his highest praise is for noticing.
As a collection, it is judiciously assembled. It moves between analyses of the canonical greats (Tolstoy, Hardy, Lermontov), and modern writers both recognised (Ian McEwan, Ismail Kadare, Richard Yates) and under-appreciated (Lydia Davis, Norman Rush, László Krasznahorkai). There are longer pieces on two journalistic predecessors, in the form of George Orwell and Edmund Wilson, and the whole book is framed by two rather more personal essays. The conclusion, “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library” is an exquisite elegy, made especially moving by the unexpected epiphany: “the books somehow made him smaller, not larger, as if they were whispering: ‘What a little thing a human life is, with all its busy, ephemeral, pointless projects’. All ruins say this, yet we strangely persist in pretending that books are not ruins, not broken columns”. But it is the opening essay that will wrong-foot those who see Wood as contemporary literature’s let-down headmaster. The book takes its title from this autobiographical piece, devoted to the drumming genius of The Who’s Keith Moon (with asides on his queer similarities to Glenn Gould). There is a degree of winking wit in how Wood parallels drumming techniques to literary techniques: and yet, for a critic who has so often upbraided certain high-profile authors for self-indulgence there is the shock of seeing his unalloyed delight in Moon who “ripped... this up. There is no time-out in his drumming, because there is no time-in. It is all fun stuff.” I would invite those who may think Wood is being sly or satirical here to Google “James Wood Finger Drums Youtube”.
Certain thematic concerns bind the reviews. In a tightly argued piece on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road Wood asks, a propos of the extent to which McCarthy has fully realised his future dystopia “What would this world without people look like, feel like? From this, everything else flows. What would be the depth of one’s loneliness? What kind of tattered theology would remain? What would hour-to-hour, day-to-day experience be like?” That third question – “what tattered theology would remain?” haunts the whole book. If the metaphysical dimension of religion has been eroded, where does that leave the ethical philosophies erected on that foundation? Time and again Wood returns to the concept of theodicy (the conundrum of the existence of evil in a divinely created universe): if theodicy was a problem for the Church, it seems an even greater problem for materialism, liberalism and scientific understandings of what it means to be human. This approach informs many of the finest essays – his work, for example, on Marilynne Robinson and, surprisingly, Geoff Dyer.
Wood’s most notorious essays of late, “Human, All Too Inhuman” and “Tell Me, How Does It Feel?” diagnosed “hysterical realism” in the work of, among others, Zadie Smith, who retorted with “This Is How It Feels To Me” and a more substantial essay “Two Directions For The Novel” (collected in her Changing My Mind) which set Tom McCarthy’s Remainder against Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which was found wanting. Now we have Round Four, with Wood defending O’Neill on postcolonial grounds. Smith’s broad argument, I think, stands; but Wood’s precise defence of that particular novel is elegantly done and subtly undermines some of Smith’s more sweeping statements. I look forward to Round Five with eager anticipation To have two such writers engaged in a proper disagreement about how literature might develop is far healthier than everyone agreeing about how sublime Hilary Mantel is.
Wood has his blind spots – he can be mildly dismissive of genre writing and yet when he does quote examples, it does not convince me he is as well read in them as he is in the canon. The list of post-apocalyptic dystopias in his piece on McCarthy is strikingly weighted (he cites P D James, Walter Miller, Jim Crace, Nevil Shute, Kazuo Ishiguro and Doris Lessing, but not J G Ballard, John Christopher, Alice Sheldon, Pat Frank, Robert Heinlein or even Richard Jeffries). But, as he says of Norman Rush (a novelist I hadn’t read but certainly will after reading his essay) “big books flick away their own failings”. In the same essay, he produces the kind of witty, insightful sentence the book offers so many examples of: “And the novel has the air at times of a once fatter man whose thinner frame is now making his skin sag a bit”.
As the leading critic of your generation, one benefit in creating a book like this is to write mostly about what you admire (with caveats, and with the exception of Paul Auster who gets a very well deserved vivisection). I do, however, rather miss his snarl as well as his smile.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 5 C to 11 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west