PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Peering Through James Wood's Methodical Lens

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays is bursting with insightful observations, immaculate connections, and thorough examination, illustrating why Wood is considered a master of his craft.

The Fun Stuff

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 352 pages
Author: James Wood
Price: $17.00
Format: paperback
Publication date: 2013-10
Colorful pencil shavings image from Shutterstock.com.

Author James Wood (not to be confused with actor James Woods) is frequently ranked amongst the top literary critics of his era, and for good reason. As The New York Times Book Review claims on the cover of his newest work, The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, “No critic gets closer to the text…” Indeed, Wood’s analyses are incredibly intricate, lengthy, and all-encompassing, as he often picks apart a text paragraph by paragraph (or even sentence by sentence). He also includes plenty of allusions to other writers, which demonstrates his incredible knowledge of the field. Sadly, much of The Fun Stuff also borders on being too scholarly and pedantic, which makes it too inaccessible and self-indulgent to have mass appeal.

Wood includes nearly two dozen essays in this collection, and each one offers a dauntingly meticulous assessment of its subject. He focuses on a fairly wide array of topics, including writers Thomas Hardy, Lydia Davis, Ian McEwan, and George Orwell, as well as texts like Netherland (Joseph O'Neill), War and Peace, and even The King James Bible. Of course, your interest in his investigations depends on your knowledge of these choices, and in that respect the average reader may not find many familiar titles here. Furthermore, his prose consists entirely of formal rhetoric (which definitely helps his ethos), meaning that it’s without noticeable personality. In other words, you probably won’t want to read his entries purely for the appeal of his language.

Interestingly, he begins the book on a decidedly non-literary note: the manic genius of drummer Keith Moon. In fact, The Fun Stuff takes its name from this opening homage. Wood begins by describing his childhood musical education, assuring us that he was very skilled as a boy (and in doing so, he infers a need to be admired by the reader. This is far from the only instance of such a desire). In terms of discussing Moon, though, he does an excellent job of analyzing his eccentricities, poor choices, and utterly idiosyncratic approach to performance. In fact, Wood calls him “the drummer who wasthe drums,” implying (as many other fans have) that Moon was destined to do what he did.

Among his dissections is the notion that Moon defied conventional rules about timing, phrasing, and the like, choosing instead to play in a constant frenzy that soundedquite unorganized. As he puts it, Moon “did keep the beat… but he did it by every method except the traditional one.” From there, Wood asserts that while modern drummers, like modern novelists, are probably better than their predecessors in terms of technical ability, Moon’s frantic energy and unique vision put him in a class all his own (even Led Zeppelin’s marvelous John Bonham couldn’t compare). Overall it’s a fascinating—if, like most of The Fun Stuff, overly showy and particular—account of The Who’s lost legend.

Elsewhere, he goes into painstaking detail about what makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a quintessential dystopic novel. The appraisal initially does exactly what it needs to: set up a narrowing context. Wood explains how the events of 9/11 jumpstarted the fear of annihilation and abandonment that works such as A Canticle for Leibowitz, On the Beach, The Children of Men, and Failsafe tackled. He says that The Road captures “a kind of ultimate triumph of an American minimalism that became well known in the 1980s under the banner of ‘dirty realism.’” Essentially, The Road succeeds because it describes a void (the world) by focusing on seemingly insignificant instances of domestic life, such as eating beans and taking a shower.

According to Wood, what truly separates The Road from its thematic siblings is the way it modifies a clichéd tactic. Whereas most apocalyptic tales “merely describe the life that we know but with a twist…” this novel is not necessarily a commentary or cautionary tale. Instead, it simply asks what the world would be like without people. As usual, Wood chooses several wonderful excerpts to exemplify his argument, and he compares McCarthy’s style to that of Carver, Lawrence, Conrad, Hardy, and Melville, all of whom are “American Masters.” His dedication to accounting for every minute detail of McCarthy’s novel is remarkable, and if you’re a fan of it, you’ll no doubt adore this complex reaction.

As a teacher and writer, I love reading and talking in-depth about cultural issues such as these, so it might be ironic to fault someone for sounding excessively knowledgeable and academic; however, that’s exactly what makes The Fun Stuff anything but fun to read. Wood seems as interested in showcasing his own vernacular and scope as he is in highlighting his subjects, which results in extremely obscure references and tremendously wordy sentences. His pontification can be very tedious, too, and there’s very little character in his tone. Of course, argumentation and description should never be dumbed down, but they should also not be blatantly self-serving and elitist. There is absolutely an audience for his style, but it’s surely a limited one.

By and large, The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays is bursting with insightful observations, immaculate connections, and thorough examination, illustrating why Wood is considered a master of his craft. In fact, these are some of the most in-depth and thoughtful reviews I’ve ever read. On the other hand, though, this level of specificity makes the essays feel too dull and elaborate, so while similar works may not be as scrupulous, they’re easily more welcoming and enticing. If you’re a fan of the kind of methodical lens Wood uses, by all means check out this collection; if not, you’ll find The Fun Stuff to be all function and no flare.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.