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.