That Old-Time Religion

New Critical Essay Collections

That Old-Time Religion

New Critical Essay Collections

That Old-Time Religion
New books dissected over email.
May 6 1999 2:17 PM

New Critical Essay Collections

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Dear Tony,

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No, we don't need to get religion, or at least we don't need to get the white-knuckle version advertised by Preacher Wood. His hectoring on this subject strikes me as naive, and secretly self-aggrandizing. He wants everyone to arrive, like he did, at a harsh, fundamentalist, and in the end still suspiciously Christian-sounding atheism; he's as inclined as the worst ethnic nationalist to place his own biographical circumstance at the center of the world. I respect Wood's response to his own experience growing up evangelical. But he's wrong to think that only people who wear his particular cut of hairshirt are serious, or (to borrow a word he uses often and messily) "real." What about non-Christian faiths subscribed to by the majority of people on the planet? (Doesn't matter, I suppose Wood would say, because these people have never really been involved in the Western tradition of the novel.) What about people who view spirituality as the pursuit of balance rather than howling apocalypse? (Wishy-washy accommodators, he'd say.) And what about mixed bags like me: on one side of the family Filipino and Mexican Catholic (and, legend has it, some Jewish) ancestors I never knew well enough; on the other side humdrum protestants, lapsed Christian Scientists, and wacky California spiritualists, including a great great aunt who founded her own First Patriotic Church of America in what is now South Central Los Angeles?

Finally, what does any of this have to do with writing? Does Wood really want books that confirm feelings and experiences he's already had, instead of pushing him to consider new ones, real or imaginary? That's not a very inspiring definition of literature. On every third page, Wood tells us that he's writing against tyranny, that the worst thing writers can do is force opinions on their characters, or for that matter their readers. But forcing opinions, or attempting to, is exactly what Wood does too often. In a way, though, this kind of self-contradiction comes as a relief. It shows that Wood is inwardly arguing, that he's far more torn than he lets on. I see a similar ambivalence in the tension you were getting at yesterday--the fact that this is a collection of leisurely, occasional pieces uncomfortably boxed in by an Authoritative Argument. I wish Wood had dumped Authority and gone more in the leisurely direction. There are moments in his prose when you sense a really creative, out-there person itching to run free; he writes so marvelously about D.H. Lawrence, and at his best he seems capable of something like Lawrence's bizarro, unforgettable pieces on American literature. Insane but incisive, and--sure, if that's the way he wants to play it--mystical.

The question is what kind of subject Wood, or any ambitious contemporary critic, should really be writing about. Somehow I don't think the usual roster of canonical superstars is the answer (from remarks you made earlier this week, it sounds like we might agree here, once again). And in a final word of sympathy and fellowship and defense of Wood, I should add that I'm not so sure what the answer is myself. Not at all sure, in fact. One thing I do strongly feel is that Herman and Virginia and Ralph and Jane and Anton need a day off. I'd like to read someone who went down a more marginal path, reviving an ignored writer or discredited genre, or going outside Europe and America to open up literatures we've been impervious to.

But what else, Tony? What's a contemporary critic to do? Thus, tossing you the hot-potato question I've avoided all week, I take my leave. I urge you to duck if you want; I suspect that even your evasion would be lively and erudite and wise.

It's been a pleasure, Tony--or do you mind if I call you Brother Pea? Let's meet again soon to compare notes on our relationship to the universe.

All best,
Sarah

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A.O. Scott is Sunday book critic for Newsday and a regular contributor to Slate. Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. This week they discuss a selection of new critical essay collections.