James Wood on Why Fiction and Criticism Matter

James Wood is exactly the sort of champion of belles lettres we need, and this collection is proof of it.

“What do writers do when they seriously notice the world? Perhaps they do nothing less than rescue the life of things from their death”

— James Wood

New Yorker critic James Wood begins The Nearest Thing to Life with an ending; that is, with a funeral. The death of a friend’s younger brother sets the tone and finds Wood exploring existential questions already in the very first pages of this uneven but rich and inspiring collection of lectures published by Brandeis University Press.

“Death gives birth to the first question — Why? — and kills all the answers. And how remarkable that this first question, the word we utter as small children when we first realize that life will be taken away from us, does not change, really, in depth or tone or mode, throughout our lives. It is our first and last question, uttered with the same incomprehension, grief, rage and fear at sixty as at six. Why do people die? Since people die, why do they live? What is the point of a life? Why are we here?”

Despite the philosophical questions, Wood’s book is not really a metaphysical inquiry so much as a reflection on inquiry in writing. “The Why? question is a refusal to accept death,” he argues, and storytelling itself is almost a satanic act of rebellion given that the “ability to see the whole of a life is godlike.” By playing God, he argues, “we also work against God, hurl down the script, refuse the terms of the drama, appalled by the meaninglessness and ephemerality of existence.”

The tension between the religious and the secular is a leitmotif in all of these lectures, whether Wood is reminiscing upon his nascent atheism in contrast to his parents’ religious devotion, or discussing great works of literature (usually novels). As readers, he says, “there is sometimes the vertiginous sensation of possessing Jesus’s power, the power of religious monitoring — the power to turn inside out the pocket of someone else’s private thoughts, and watch the loose change of error fall incriminatingly to the ground.” Yet, when reading fiction, “our scrutiny is always edging away from judgment (of the moralistic kind), toward proximity, fellow-feeling, compassion, communion.”

This is not fiction’s only merit, of course. Good writing, like good reading, is “serious noticing”. “In ordinary life, we don’t spend very long looking at things or at the natural world or at people, but writers do. It is what literature has in common with painting, drawing, photography. You could say, following John Berger, that civilians merely see, while artists look.” Here, the redemptive qualities of fiction are revealed.

While it’s true that fiction can be a memento mori (“not just because people often die in novels and stories, but more importantly because, even if they do not die, they have already happened“), fiction may also be an index to salvation, resuscitating what we had allowed to pass away before our eyes: “the memories of our childhood, the almost-forgotten pungency of the flavors, smells, textures: the slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention.”

It’s worth noting that the inherent value (I would prefer to say beauty) of fiction cannot be empirically verified, and that to reduce fiction to a series of right or wrong multiple-choice questions on standardized tests, such as the New York State Common Core exam, is to willfully and demonstrably misunderstand it. Wood fails to weigh in on the radical changes taking place in American classrooms because of high-stakes testing (despite the fact that he and his family live and work in the US), and this is unfortunate, because those changes would appear to be antithetical to everything he believes about fiction. This may be most easily inferred in Wood’s chapter on literary criticism.

Wood prefers what he calls “writer’s criticism” to the sort of academic criticism taught in schools. “Such criticism,” he says, “is situated in the world, not behind scholarly walls, and is unafraid of making use of anything that comes to mind or hand.” It doesn’t reduce texts to literary techniques and devices; it is more intuitive, it feels its way through the work. “A lot of the criticism I most admire is not especially analytical,” he says, “but is really a kind of passionate redescription.” By way of an example, Wood wonderfully recounts Thomas De Quincey’s essay on Macbeth.

“The good critic has an awareness that criticism means, in part, telling a story about the story you are reading.” In the margin, I couldn’t help but to name some of my own favorite critics such as Alberto Manguel, Camille Paglia, and the late Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens. Like De Quincey, they are neither indifferent nor invisible, but rather, omnipresent and passionate in their criticism. So, why do we train students to apply formulaic methodologies and to adopt apathetic tones in their analyses of fiction?

Perhaps the greatest compliment we might pay Wood is to say that The Nearest Thing to Life would make for an excellent choice in any Literature, Language Arts or Journalism classroom. Wood does not merely outline the merits and qualities of good writing, he models it — especially in the final chapter of the book, “Secular Homelessness”.

Whereas in the preceding chapters Wood practices what he preaches by “writing through books, not just about them”, in this final chapter the story of his exile, or what he calls his “homelooseness”, takes precedence. It’s more personal memoir than philosophical rumination on fiction and the craft of writing, and for this reason it feels a bit out of place, even though it exemplifies the sort of excellence in writing he has been discussing: it’s observant, nuanced and intimate. And Wood does not jettison the topic of fiction entirely; as a native Briton residing in the US for 18 years, he cannot help but liken his new setting to a fictional world.

“I watch my children grow up as Americans in the same way that I might read about, or create, fictional characters. They are not fictional, of course, but their Americanism can sometimes seem unreal to me.”

Still, as the war against the Liberal Arts continues to take place under the dulled eyes of an American public that believes that the Humanities in general, and fiction in particular, are luxuries that should be culled from public school classrooms, part of me could not help but wish that Wood had said more in these lectures, that he had been able to see not as an exile peering into a fictional world (or, dare I say, from the heights of an ivory tower), but as a global citizen who is undoubtedly one of the most important critics of his age, a participant in a very real world where his greatest passion is being concretely threatened by living individuals and their political and economical interests.

This is not so much a criticism as it is a plea, because Wood is exactly the sort of champion of belles lettres we need, and this collection is proof of it.

Splash image: Used wooden flute by vvoe from Shutterstock.com.

RATING 7 / 10