A balding man in his early-to-mid 40s sits at a kitchen table, wearing a blue cardigan and a look of placid expectancy. A number of items are arranged in front of him on the tabletop—a paperback book, a large souvenir coffee mug, a plastic container. A child’s voice, off camera, can be heard giddily shouting “Go, Daddy, Go!” The man then begins a dextrous finger-drum solo; he starts out tamely enough, laying down a stolid 4/4 with the heel and fingers of his right hand, but gradually builds toward a sustained run of jazzy showboatery, using the various items as improvised kick drums, snares and cymbals. By the end of the two-minute video, he’s tearing it up like a Gene Krupa of kitchenalia, maintaining his benignly cocksure facial expression all the while, but clearly getting a kick out of how much of a kick his children are getting out of him. You could enjoy watching this YouTube video without knowing anything about this man—it’s entertaining enough just seeing a father thrilling his kids with an interlude of incidental virtuosity—but it adds an extra layer of counterintuitive delight to know that he is in fact James Wood, New Yorker staff writer and, arguably, one of the most influential cultural critics of his generation.
You don’t expect Wood to be the table-drumming type. In fact, you somehow don’t expect him to even have a kitchen table, or a novelty coffee mug, or, for that matter, children. This is partly to do with the persona he effects in his literary criticism, which, although given to occasional aesthetic elations, is stylishly and unfailingly decorous. But it has, I think, much more to do with the way in which he has been successfully caricatured by his detractors, many of who tend to view themselves as literary progressives to his neo-Leavisite reactionary-in-chief. You may have an image of James Wood as a guy who sleeps with a first edition of The Portrait of a Lady under his pillow, and who delicately presses a monogrammed handkerchief to his face whenever anyone mentions Don Delillo or Colson Whitehead. It’s easy, and sort of fun, to see him in this way, but it’s always struck me as willfully reductive. It certainly doesn’t square, for instance, with the guy at the kitchen table in the YouTube video.
And it is, clearly, the guy at the kitchen table who wrote the title essay of Wood’s new collection, The Fun Stuff (boy, is he ever looking for trouble with that name). That essay, which opens the collection, is a hybrid of at least three non-fiction modes—the biographical, the autobiographical, and the critical. It’s about Keith Moon, the Who’s wildly exuberant drummer, but it’s also just as compellingly about the adolescent James Wood. More specifically, it’s about the never-fully-resolved internal conflict between the product of a “fairly sheltered, austerely Christian upbringing” in a cathedral town in the north of England, who “got off on classical or churchy things like the brassy last bars of William Walton’s First Symphony,” and the kid who finds himself stirred by the confrontational energy and subversive lyrics of the Who. Here’s an affecting passage in which he begins by saying that Moon’s playing is “like an ideal sentence of prose” that he himself has never had the confidence to write:
Such a sentence would be a breaking out, an escape … when the body forgets itself, surrenders its awful self-consciousness. I taught myself the drums, but for years I was so busy being a good boy that I lacked the courage to own any drums [...] 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 still being such a merely good student.
This is superb for the way in which it starts out being about Moon’s drumming, then quickly becomes about literature, before winding up being about Wood himself and his own conflicted yearnings and complex misgivings (while still, somehow, being about Moon’s drumming). It’s also very touching, not least in how the defiant eruption—“fuck the laudable ideologies”—is immediately disowned and distanced as a Roth quotation, thereby revealing an apparent bit of bad-assery as a good boy double-bluff. The rueful insinuation that his critics might be right to see him as a sort of head prefect of literary fiction is unexpected, and uncharacteristically self-revealing. All of this makes you wish he would wander more frequently outside the enclosure of straightforward criticism.
Although The Fun Stuff is bookended by more personal, essayistic pieces—it closes with a beautiful meditation on going through the “uselessly posthumous” private library of his recently deceased father-in law—the rest of the collection is basically all business, reflecting its author’s stock-in-trade as a purveyor of high-end book reviews and review essays (and echoing his 2008 book, How Fiction Works). Wood is at his best, and his most entertaining, when he’s parsing his own pleasures, and a good two-thirds of the book is him doing just this. In pieces on W.G. Sebald, Kazuo Ishiguro, Norman Rush, Marilynne Robinson, Aleksandar Hemon, and Lydia Davis, he gets in close to the source of these pleasures, and gives convincing and compelling accounts of how they operate. When Wood block-quotes, you pay attention—as you would to a doctor who has just flipped an X-ray onto an illuminator screen—because you know something new and possibly crucial is going to get revealed. Nabokov famously recommended that “as a reader, one should notice and fondle details,” and Wood is something like the critical embodiment of this ideal. He notices the living hell out of a text, and to read him in this mode is to be compelled to repeated resolutions to step your own reading game up. Take this minutely perceptive examination of a single sentence in Norman Rush’s Mortals:
Later, when Ray again returns to the question of women, and to the idea that women never forget anything, he thinks to himself: “But here it was again, the past that lives forever, in detail, with women, like the women in Joyce, The Dead, ruining everything.” The jerky rhythm is there again, with that repetition of “women,” but there is also something delicate about the way Rush has Ray think not “in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’" or “in Joyce’s story,” but “in Joyce, The Dead,” which reproduces the crawling movement of identification by which thought moves.
He favors the kind of fiction that allows him to do this kind of reading (Rush ticks an awful lot of the Woodian boxes) and he frequently commends characters for the exactitude of their observations. Ray there, for instance, is a “first-class noticer,” and the narrator of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is a “brilliant noticer”: Wood, in other words, is not just a talented noticer, but also a pro-league noticer of noticers. He knows, too, when to let a beautiful piece of prose speak for itself, though when he’s especially enthusiastic about a writer, he can err on the side of excess. (The essays on Marilynne Robinson and Lydia Davis, in particular, seem in danger of devolving into exercises in devotional transcription.)
The collection is fairly light on hit pieces, but when Wood does decide to take someone down, he doesn’t fool around. There’s a trial and execution of Paul Auster that is, in its pitiless exactitude, both wincingly unpleasant to witness and utterly gratifying to read: I felt terrible for Auster (of whom I was a massive fan in my early 20s), but the guy has obviously been getting away with murder for a very long time. “The pleasing, slightly facile books,” writes Wood, “come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager collectors to get the latest issue.”
Wood’s intentions are, always and everywhere, utterly serious—he rarely cracks a joke for the hell of it—and this, of course, is connected to his great strength as a critic: He reads and writes with the certainty that fiction, as the last redoubt of “truth,” is the most important thing in the world. But this leads to a hawkishly interventionist literary policy. When he criticizes a book, or an aspect of a book, it’s often obvious that he has a clear sense of how he feels the writer should have gone about it. (He once described himself in an interview as the kind of critic who wants “to take a piece of writing and actually change it.”) When he plays Hunt the Stylistic Infelicity with The Stranger’s Child, it’s because he wants Alan Hollinghurst to write a little better than he does; and when he plays Shoot the Cliché in the Barrel with the entire Auster bibliography, it’s because he seems to want Auster to stop writing books altogether (or, failing that, for people to stop reading them). There’s an arrogance to this, of course, but it’s arguably just an intensification of the arrogance that’s in-built into the whole project of criticism.
Wood is at his most hawkish in an essay on Ian McEwan’s use of genre techniques of suspense and reversal. He quotes McEwan as saying that he wants to “incite a naked hunger in readers,” and then, in a parenthetical aside, offers a revealing insight into the extent of his interventionism: “Tastes differ, no doubt (I dislike strong narrative manipulation, and try deliberately to ‘spoil’ plot surprises in my reviews).” Oh, tastes differ all right! (Ian McEwan says “tomato”; James Wood says “your chosen pronunciation is utterly indefensible, and I will do everything in my power to undercut your wishes.”) This seems to me to be unforgivably arrogant, in that it amounts to an active intervention against the reading pleasure of others, on the basis that it’s the wrong sort of pleasure.
And yet would you have Wood any other way? It’s precisely this intractability about what he wants from literature that makes him such an excellent and necessary critic. He’s not nearly as narrowly focused on the conventional, nicely-wrought realist novel as his critics seem to want him to be; the drummer at the kitchen table is damn near giddy over Lydia Davis, for instance, and Thomas Bernhard is a perennial touchstone. But he has a tightly held cluster of ideas about what literature should do, and how it should go about doing it. Even if you don’t agree with these ideas or their various implications—and there’s a fair amount not to agree with—Wood’s criticism provokes you into taking up some sort of stand against them. This might be one way of thinking about what a good critic should be: not someone who is always right, but someone who compels you to think seriously about exactly how and why he is wrong.
The Fun Stuff and Other Essays by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.