James Wood’s Criticism Is Like Tectonic Plates Under Pressure, Forming Mountain Ridges

Few critics piss off readers with the consistency of James Wood. He is at once a consort to and unabashedly critical of Harold Bloom’s theories of interpretation, aesthetics, and influence. He embraces contrast and contradiction and digs deep into the schism of cultural pathos. He brings the heat like few other literary critics, but with subtlety and grace; his is a slow, corrosive criticism— lucid but not blunt, predatory but not vile; a serpentine wordsmith, nimble with passive antagonism. He sometimes feels like the personification of Chinese water torture.

Wood, like so many of his like-minded peers, is a descendant of contrarian par excellence Pauline Kael: he writes with fervid, candid authority and often takes unpredictable routes with his clean prose. He doesn’t pull punches—his blows bruise. His brand of contrarianism isn’t slack or indulgent, though. He backs up his criticisms, like an onslaught of so many word-warriors from his unfettered mind, with numerous quotes and passages and excerpts. Here’s Wood on Tom Wolfe (with whom he has feuded, much to the joy of long-time readers, since Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987) from an October 2012 issue of the New Yorker:

“Tom Wolfe writes Big and Tall Prose—big subjects, big people, and yards of flapping exaggeration. No one of average size emerges from his shop; in fact, no real human variety can be found in his fiction, because everyone has the same enormous excitability. So his new novel, “Back to Blood” (Little, Brown), is supposedly about Miami. But it is about Miami not as, say, “Dead Souls” is about Russia or “Seize the Day” is about New York but more as heavy metal is about noise: not a description of the property but a condition of its excess. If it is about Miami, then “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full” were also about Miami, not about New York and Atlanta, respectively. The content and the style haven’t changed much since “The Bonfire of the Vanities” was published, in 1987: select your city; presume it to be a site of simmering racial and ethnic civil war, always a headline away from a riot; throw a sensational news story into the fire; and watch the various interest groups immolate themselves.”

Wood supplies eight large block quotes of Wolfe’s writing throughout the long review, allowing Wolfe’s hyper-kinetic freight-train exclamations speak for themselves; it’s as if Wood is cocksure that readers will see what he sees—it shows a confidence in his assertions. A critic who doesn’t show you what he’s criticizing doesn’t allow room for discussion. And Wood is consistent; almost a decade earlier, he said something strikingly similar about Wolfe, in a review of A Man in Full:

“Tom Wolfe’s novels are placards of simplicity. His characters are capable of experiencing only one feeling at a time; they are advertisements for the self: Greed! Fear! Hate! Misery! The people who phosphoresce thus are nothing like real people. They are instead big, vivid blots of typology: The Overweening Property Developer! His Divorced First Wife! His Sexy Young Trophy Wife! The Well-Dressed Black Lawyer Who Speaks Too White! The Oafish Football Player! They race through huge, twisted plots, their adventures hammered out in a banging and brassy prose.”

James, tell us how you really feel.

Though the two reviews overlap at several points and feel almost like siblings, one a bit older and more mature, maybe, Wood doesn’t really get caught in the slipstream of redundancy. If anything, his point is made doubly dramatic—the same exact criticisms hold up ten years later. Has Wolfe learned nothing?

The two reviews also serve as a rebuff of the oft-made accusation that Wood is so pro-literary realism that he dismisses all other styles of fiction. In his review of Back to Blood, he berates Wolfe for being too pro-realism: “Wolfe’s claims about American fiction since 1960 seem manifestly untrue, and more untrue by the day. American fiction is dominated by realism; there is, if anything, too much of it, and not enough careful artifice, not enough pressure at the level of form and sentence.” How so many readers failed to understand Wood’s point—he goes into detail for several paragraphs!—is sadly representative of the slow death of close reading. (And Wood would absolutely make an inflammatory, incisive claim like that.) Maybe that’s why Wood, Close Reader extraordinaire, has his legion of detractors. Maybe his is a dying breed of criticism, with no one shedding a tear for its demise. Maybe he’s a relic of a long gone era, like tube televisions and ice boxes.

Wood’s new collection of essays, The Fun Stuff, offers the most diverse and affable collation of his work yet. His 2008 book, How Fiction Works, is enveloped in a certain air of pretension; though undeniably brilliant in its theorizing discourse, it put off a lot of readers whose brows are not so loftily elevated. In his dissection and decimation of hysterical realism (a term that he coined, just to slay it within the same essay), Wood takes his piercing-prose to Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie. Like John Cleese slaughtering wedding guests in Swamp Castle, Wood takes down writers with swiftness and ease, each sentence like another deft swing of his sword. This is the Wood New Yorker readers have come to know and love—or loathe. But The Fun Stuff unveils another side of Wood. From the first page, the title essay disarms readers, beginning with, “I had a traditional music education, in a provincial English cathedral town.”

Wait… what? Where’s the insult? The satire? The sass? Is this James Wood?

“The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon” both sets the tone of the book and establishes the viaduct theme of the collection: Since his childhood, Wood has dealt with the clash of high-art and low-art. His parents dismissed rock n’ roll as noise, but Wood was drawn to The Who’s Keith Moon, and his frantic, manic skin-beating—his drug-and-alcohol-fueled drum-bash binges, as messy as they were controlled, as if the afflictions of British adolescence was collected in his core, forced down his arms, and exercised through his hands, beaten to death in 6/8 hysteria. Comparing Moon’s drumming to the prose of David Foster Wallace, another pop-culture connoisseur, Wood describes the music as, “a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interpreted, attired but disheveled…”

Wood dissects the role of his elitist persona; this is a man who loves The Who, who desperately wanted to be Keith Moon, the wildest (and most passionate) of British rock n’ roll drummers. Not John Bonham—he’s too calculated, too technically clear; a skilled drummer can replicate Bonham’s playing. But not Moon. No one can emulate Moon’s mania. “Fuck the laudable ideologies,” Wood says, quoting Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Who else would interpret Philip Roth and David Foster Wallace as consorts of Keith Moon? And with such grace? Fuck the laudable ideologies, indeed.

The life-long clash of high and low art has forged the mythos of James Wood, like tectonic plates pushing up against each other and forming mountain ridges. But until The Fun Stuff, Wood has always favored his high-browed side. The title essay immediately throws the initiated reader for a loop and displays that wider yearning of cultural confliction— Wood stripped of excessive pretension. With The Fun Stuff, Wood conflates the intellectualist lecture-prose of How Fiction Works—which focuses on theories and ways in which we “should” read literature— with the fun, funny, subversive slap of The Irresponsible Self.

In the latter, essentially a book-length exploration of humor’s role in literature, Wood dedicates over 30 pages to berating Jonathan Franzen and his post-Corrections infamy—his anti-Oprah abrasion, his being “snubbed of a Pulitzer,” his bastardization of the “realistic” and “social” novel. Wood can do this because Wood knows as much about Franzen as Franzen does. He’s read Franzen’s influences, dissected them, consumed them; he’s read and dissected and consumed Franzen, and Franzen’s peers and contemporaries and enemies. (One may wonder how he has all this time, but one doth wonder too much.) When Wood makes a definitive, absolutist claim, you better believe his knows what’s what, even if you don’t agree with him. He can drop an insult on you that you won’t understand until years later, like he’s planting a vicious seedling in the soil of your cranium.

Consequent of his authoritative musings and clenched-fist-tight jokes and insults, Wood has earned his reputation for being elitist and snide—which he never denies, but rather defends with evidence of why he’s entitled to such monikers, as in his lacerating review of Paul Auster’sInvisible:

“There are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, but his prose is never one of them, though he is routinely praised for the elegance of his sentences. (A review of Invisible in The New York Times, likening Auster to Freud, Husserl, and Goethe, called it “contemporary American writing at its best: crisp, elegant, brisk.”) The most secondhand sentences in my opening parody [Wood began his review with a one-page satire of Auster’s cliché-laced writing, to great effect], the ones most thickly lacquered with laziness (about being beaten to within an inch of his life, drinking to drown his sorrows, and the prostitute’s eyes being too hard and having seen too much) are taken verbatim from Auster’s previous work.” [Brackets mine.

In one paragraph, Wood takes shots at Auster and everyone who’s ever spoken kindly of him, including the New York Times. Most writers would have to duck for fear of being sniped with a paralyzing rebut from the Times, but Wood stands tall and proud; it’s the Times that’s been sniped, Wood coolly blowing the smoke from his gun and walking off into the horizon. Wood the rebel, the lone gunman, the critic without a name.

Wood’s negative reviews are, of course, how he made his name with book lovers, and the pissers remain his signature style. A negative review will always catch the gaze of more wondering eyes—ask Guy Fieri—and Wood writes scathing reviews that would knock Michiko Kakutani right off her horse. When Wood gets hot, writers get burned. His 4,200-word review of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude became notorious with bookworms after Lethem wrote a heated, in-depth rebuttal to Wood—eight years later. Lethem’s essay “My Disappointment Critic” goes to great lengths to debase and debunk Wood’s criticisms. It appeared in the LA Review of Books in 2011 and generated responses—criticism on a critical response to a piece of criticism on a novel—in The Awl, The Millions, The Vulture, Flavorwire, and others. (Kinda funny that Lethem’s didn’t appear in a New York-based publication, as both the novelist and the critic are New York-centric.)

Lethem begins his rebuttal with an extended quote from Renata Adler’s infamously venomous assault on Pauline Kael in “The Perils of Pauline”; right below that quote is a similarly caustic one from Wood’s essay against Harold Bloom, “The Misreader.” You can see right away that Lethem has something clever percolating just behind his thick-framed glasses—some seething but not quite cynical gut-punch on the horizon, his fist cocked back Mike Hammer-style. Next comes another long quote, this time from Morris Dickstein’s letter to the New Yorker Times decrying Wood. Then one last quote, from Randall Jarrell:

“Everyone speaks of the “negative capability” of the artist, of his ability to lose what self he has in the many selves, the great self of the world. Such a quality is, surely, the first that a critic should have; yet who speaks of the negative capability of the critic? How often are we able to observe it?”

Lethem, the trendiest of pop-culture connoisseurs, gets right into the thick of it: He offers a sort of apologetic explanation as to why Wood’s review continues to disconcert him, like a bullet in his brain he can’t dislodge. He thinks/thought Wood is/was the “most apparently gifted close reader of our time,” and says he would have loved a negative review from Wood had Wood taught him anything in the process. Lethem wanted to learn about his writing, use Wood’s review as a sort of critique letter. Instead, he thinks Wood was off-base and nasty (the latter being occasionally accurate); thinks Wood missed the point of the novel.

Now, The Fortress of Solitude is great fun, wonderfully messy and gloriously gaudy (as if Lethem’s prerogative) and affably chaotic as the front row of an early-’90s Pearl Jam concert; but it’s messy and gaudy and chaotic, not the tightly-controlled prose Wood usually favors. Lethem’s style is rooted in the sprawl of pulp fiction and urban-decay-voyeurism, science-fiction speculation and social subversion, so of course it embraces escapism, albeit with highly literature articulation. The fragments of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler gleam like broken glass under close inspection. As Wood says:

“Jonathan Lethem’s new novel is a bohemian rhapsody about an unwilling bohemian — a delicate little white pioneer named Dylan Ebdus, whose right-thinking parents decide, in the early 1970s, that a ragged street in swinish Brooklyn is the place before which to cast their only jewel. Dylan’s mother Rachel, a pot-smoking hysteric, proudly tells her friends that her son is one of three white children in his local school: “Not his class, not his grade — the whole school.” His father Abraham, once a promising painter, spends his days at the top of their faded brownstone, at work on an animated film: an entire morning of exquisite brushwork might represent a few frames, a few seconds of finished achievement.”

This is why Wood is the sharpest literary critic currently penning poison: he doesn’t stream a constant deluge of malice, but rather gets the novel’s best aspects right out in the open. And this is why his criticisms stab deeper, like a shiv suavely slipped between the ribs. Wood says, “The first part of this book, almost three hundred pages, represents a remarkable, often ravishing conjuration of the perpetual summer of childhood, quite different in tone and depth from any of Lethem’s earlier, lighter work. (His last book, the smoothly entertaining Motherless Brooklyn, might better have been called Depthless Brooklyn.)” As much as I love Lethem, and I really love Lethem—I nerdgasm every time I reread his pieces on Philip K. Dick, or his personal reflection on his artistic upbringing, “The Beards”—he’s the one who’s off-base here. Wood champions the novel’s first 300 pages, however back-handed the praise may be.

But there’s something deeper at work, here—something Lethem should have picked up, something most readers should have picked up: Every time Wood discusses the contradictions and conflictions of Lethem’s prose, “Lethem’s writing is at once vivid and unobtrusive, and captures the amoral curiosity of little boys,” a small, violently flashing red beacon appears in the mind’s eye. Wood never dismisses Lethem’s geekdom, never maligns the use of “low art,” the comics and graffiti and punk and avant-garde jazz.

Because Wood is like Lethem—his writing is steeped in confliction, his writing tries so hard to mingle low art (Keith Moon’s noisy, narcotic-laced skin beating) with the high (Dostoevsky, classical music, close, calloused vivisections on organized religion). He berates Paul Auster because he knows good pulpy crime fiction and Auster is not good pulpy crime fiction. He included Doris Lessing’s pseudo-sci-fi novel The Golden Notebook on his list of the Best Books since 1945 (Bloom was obnoxiously angry when Lessing received the Nobel Prize in 2007). He has offered immense praise for Pynchon and DeLillo and Barthelme. He should be Lethem’s ideal reader—someone who appreciates the conflation of post-modern musings and pop-culture penetration. You can feel his disappointment when he chronicles of Lethem’s faults and misfires. Lethem was almost right: Wood is a Disappointed Critic.

Never a fan of New Criticism, Wood always brings outside information about the author and book to his reviews. He uses Tom Wolfe’s essays to critique Tom Wolfe; mentions New York Times reviews to show how people misread Paul Auster; delves into his own childhood when discussing Keith Moon. The Fun Stuff may be best appreciated by the already initiated, since a lot of the fun comes from tracing the progression of Wood’s criticism over the last decade. His Auster reviews get better each time a new book comes out because Wood has more material to work with, like a veteran filmmaker who can reference his prior films while still creating something new (think Fellini, or beard-era Orson Welles). Once you’re initiated into the Wood world, as was the case with Pauline Kael’s legionary Paulettes, you get sucked in. Deeper and deeper, Alice and her proverbial hole. You can almost feel the monocle forming under your eye.

And yet it’s Wood’s positive reviews that warm a bibliophile’s heart and solidify his standing as a great critic. Wood undoubtedly, unquestionably, irrefutably loves words—loves reading, writing, language. His enthusiasm radiates humanity. Discussing Aleksandor Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, Wood says, “Hemon’s writing shares with Joseph Roth’s an interest in the extremities and borderlands of the Hapsburg Empire, and both writers delight in rich, fantastical metaphor (the fezzes like bonfires and flowerpots).” (He also discusses the ways in which Lethem is not like Joseph Roth in his Fortress of Solitude review, and he’s mentioned Roth in other reviews as well—even Wood is prone to hero worship, it seems.)

Wood sprinkles Hemon’s idioms and phrases throughout the review, as if he’s so enamored with the Bosnian writer’s singular control of the English language that he just wants to share it with his readers, like a friend who demands that you must go on YouTube and listen to this new song, right now:

James Wood (publicity photo /
photographer unknown)

“But more often he uses his astonishing talent to notice the world with a sarcastic, wily precision that is then put in tension with his love of surreal metaphor. A horse that is pulling the Archduke’s carriage drops turds that are “like dark, deflated tennis balls.” A shower head looms over a bathtub “like a buzzard head,” and pubic hairs are stuck to the side of a toilet bowl “as if climbing up.” Jozef Pronek, newly arrived in America, is amazed at how smoothly toilets work, and watches, in his Quality Inn, “how the water at the bottom was enthusiastically slurped in, only to rise, with liquid cocksureness, back to the original level.” When he and Andrea have sex, the language captures the erotic ordinariness of the event: “They breathed into each other’s faces and let their abdomens adhere. Then their little sex unit fissioned, and she went to the bathroom.” And there is much beauty on every page—the “sooty tapestry” of a fellow-traveller’s hairy torso, or Pronek’s skin first thing in the morning, “soft, with crease imprints, the fossils of slumber.”

To read that and then jump back to the Auster review (any of them) is jarring, but it makes sense: Wood seems to feel betrayed by bad books, and he has to tell everyone why bad books are so heartbreaking. He gets angry at bad books because he loves books. It’s like your father yelling at the TV when A-Rod strikes out with the bases loaded. Dad will be back on that couch the next night, cheering when the $250 million man steps up to the plate, and Wood will read the next Auster book. He’ll read the hell out of it.