James Wood’s The Fun Stuff Reviewed

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I hate that I love to hate reading James Wood—and when I love what he writes I hate that I love it. His take on Blood Meridian absolutely infuriated me, but a stray line from an essay he wrote on Virginia Woolf has informed pretty much every real review I’ve tried to write since I read it. Anyone who reads deeply and earnestly and cares about literary criticism is likely to find themselves shouting at Wood, and then maybe agreeing with him—with reserved qualifications, and then shouting again. (There is an entire blog devoted to pointing out the failures of Wood’s often deeply conservative aesthetic criticism, by the way).

The Fun Stuff, collecting many of Wood’s pieces from The New Yorker (but also elsewhere), is less pretentious than How Fiction Works, Wood’s last book, a polemic hiding behind the guise of literary criticism that faulted pretty much any prose stylist who deviated from a certain mode of 19th-century free indirect style.

I’ve already read a number of the pieces collected in The Fun Stuff, which is finally out in the U.S. in trade paperback thanks to Picador. You might have read them too. His essays championing Lydia Davis and László Krasznahorkai are fine fun stuff, as is his take on the late W.G. Sebald (first published as an introduction to Austerlitz). His appreciative review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road though is in many ways a retake on his review of Blood Meridian—Wood can only view McCarthy’s existential questions through the lens of theodicy.

James Wood is maybe most fun—or most infuriating—when he’s at his harshest. The case file here is his pointed take-down “Paul Auster’s Shallowness.” Here, Wood goes through an Auster plot “checklist”:

 A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading—a woman drawn and quartered in a German concentration camp, a man beheaded in Iraq, a woman severely beaten by a man with whom she is about to have sex, a boy kept in a darkened room for nine years and periodically beaten, a woman accidentally shot in the eye, and so on. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere. People say things like “You’re one tough cookie, kid,” or “My pussy’s not for sale,” or “It’s an old story, pal. You let your dick do your thinking for you, and that’s what happens.” A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book. There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster. At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist. Hey, Roger Phaedo invented Charlie Dark! It was all in his head.

I’m not a particular fan of Paul Auster, but I imagine those who deeply enjoy his work could feel personally insulted by Wood’s take-down. We get close to the books and authors we love. I think what manifests most in Wood’s criticism here—and elsewhere—is the weariness of someone who once deeply loved literature but who is now perhaps oppressed by it—who has become too aware of its mechanics, its forms, its stale formulations and bad parlor tricks.

Wood telegraphs far more passion and generosity in the collection’s title essay, which is about Keith Moon, the legendary drummer of The Who. He compares Moon’s rhythmic chops to D.H. Lawrence’s sentences:

For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong. (You can encounter such sentences in Lawrence’s prose, in Bellow’s, sometimes in David Foster Wallace’s.) Such a sentence would be a breaking out, an escape. And drumming has always represented for me that dream of escape, when the body forgets itself, surrenders its awful self-consciousness.

I like how personal he gets here. This essay opens the collection, and the one that closes it, “Packing My Father-In-Law’s Library” also communicates personally with the reader. Unconstrained by the pretense of a book review, Wood waxes on families and libraries and the meaning of life. When he writes of his father-in-law, whose books he’s sorting through, that “The books somehow made him smaller, not larger,” it’s hard not to hear a strong undertone of autobiography in the note.

Wood’s lyric essays are an unusual standout here (unusual in the sense that if someone had strung together the words James Wood’s lyric essays, I’d probably roll my eyes). They reveal a love of reading that goes missing in his attacks and his quibbling pieces. The serious literary critic is not, of course, beholden to being merely a cheerleader for literature (or worse, a cheerleader for publishing)—but I do think that the serious literary critic should offer something beyond condemnation or unenthusiastic grumbling. The risk the professional critic runs is to see the machinations of art too plainly, to become jaded to the point that experiencing the sublime is no longer possible (Tobias Wolff’s fantastic story “Bullet in the Brain” deals handily with this theme). Wood guides us here to several writers who disrupt, estrange, and resynthesize the tired tropes of literary fiction—and it’s in that strangeness where we can find the real fun stuff.

D.T. Max and James Wood Talk About David Foster Wallace

“Half Horse Half Alligator” — I Review Charles Olson’s Inimitable Melville Study, Call Me Ishmael

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The classical Greeks understood that literature is a form of competition. The eminent literary critic Harold Bloom folded a bit of Freudian psychology into this insight, describing the “anxiety of influence” that lurks beneath the impetus to write, the motivation to enter into an agon with the history of letters, to Oedipally assassinate—or at least assimilate—one’s literary forebears. To put this another way: What does it take to write after, say, The Odyssey? How does one answer to The Book of Job? The gall to write after Don Quixote, after Shakespeare, after Dostoevsky, after George Eliot . . .

What about Moby-Dick? What are the possibilities of even writing about Moby-Dick? (One thinks here of Ishmael’s own futile attempts to measure whales). How could Melville write after Job? After Lear? After Moby-Dick? How did Melville assimilate the texts that presented the strongest anxieties of influence in his opus? Could Melville survive the wreckage of The Pequod? These are the questions that poet-critic Charles Olson tackles—sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, and always with brisk, sharp language—in Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville and Moby-Dick.

Here’s one answer to my list of questions. It comes early in Olson’s book:

The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up in Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to go fast, like an American, or he was all torpor. Half horse half alligator.

Melville took an awful licking. He was bound to. He was an original, aboriginal. A beginner. It happens that way to the dreaming men it takes to discover America . . . Melville had a way of reaching back through time until he got history pushed back so far he turned time into space. He was like a migrant backtrailing to Asia, some Inca trying to find a lost home.

We are the last “first” people. We forget that. We act big, misuse our land, ourselves. We lose our own primary.

Melville went back, to discover us, to come forward. He got as far as Moby-Dick.

This passage illustrates Olson’s forceful, often blunt prose, the kind of language that cracks directly at Melville’s own impossible prose in Moby-Dick. I think here of the critic James Wood’s notation in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” that

The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.

Olson may generalize as he shows a little plumage to master Melville, cutting through huge swaths of history and making poetic leaps into strange similes, but Call Me Ishmael is ultimately keenly attenuated to detail, to the processes of Melville’s constructions at the historical, economic, psychological, religious, and, yes, literary level. Although a slim 119 pages in my 1947 City Lights edition, Call Me Ishmael nevertheless vividly conveys the sources Melville synthesized to create Moby-Dick.

The book begins with an unsourced account of the whaleship Essex, attacked and destroyed by a sperm whale in the Pacific in 1820, a year after Melville’s birth. Olson trusts his readers to connect The Essex to The Pequod. Unlike so much literary scholarship, Olson’s Ishmael doesn’t torture every element of the text into overwrought explications. He provides an overview of the importance of whaling-industry-as-world’s-fuel source in a chapter that reads more like a prose poem than a stuffy history book, and then, in a chapter appropriately titled “Usufruct,” offers up entries from Melville’s own journals as primary evidence of the material that led to Moby-Dick. Olson rarely sticks his nose in here, letting the reader synthesize the selections.

Olson then plumbs Moby-Dick’s literary roots, delving into Shakespeare, particularly Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. He attends to Melville’s own annotations to Shakespeare, and then points out Melville’s literary/political condensation:

As the strongest force Shakespeare caused Melville to approach tragedy in terms of the drama. As the strongest social force America caused him to approach tragedy in terms of democracy.

It was not difficult for Melville to reconcile the two. Because of his perception of America: Ahab . . .

Ahab is the FACT, the Crew the IDEA. The Crew is where what America stands for got into Moby-Dick. They’re what we imagine democracy to be. They’re Melville’s addition to tragedy as he took it from Shakespeare. He had to do more with the people than offstage shouts in a Julius Caesar. This was the difference a Declaration of Independence made.

The Shakespeare section of Call Me Ishmael marvels: Olson’s perceptive powers simultaneously enlighten and make seemingly-familiar territory dark, strange. He then moves into a discussion of post-Moby Melville, a man perhaps crushed by his own achievement—not by any financial success, no, definitely no, but the metaphysical success. Like a Moses, Melville had found the god he so desperately needed:

Melville wanted a god. Space was the First, before time, earth, man. Melville sought it: “Polar eternities” behind “Saturn’s gray chaos.” Christ, a Holy Ghost, Jehovah never satisfied him. When he knew peaces it was with a god of Prime. His dream was Daniel’s: the Ancient of Days, garment white as snow, hair like the pure wool. Space was the paradise Melville was exile of.

When made his whale he made his god. Ishmael once comes to the bones a Sperm whale pitched up on land. They are massive, and his struck with horror at the “antemosaic unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale.”

When Moby-Dick is first seen he swims a snow-hill on the sea. To Ishmael he is the white bull Jupiter swimming to Crete with ravished Europa on his horns: a prime, lovely, malignant white.

Olson agrees with an 1856 journal entry by Nathaniel Hawthorne that he cites at length: Melville “can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” In Olson’s analysis, after having found god-in-the-whale, Melville plummets into an existential crisis. He gives over to his inner-alligator, torpid, enervated, numb, but still fierce and potent and monstrous. “He denied himself in Christianity,” writes Olson, linking the downward spiral of Melville’s career and family life to this religion.

To this end, Olson is too dismissive of Melville’s later work; when he can find nothing of the “old Melville” to praise in Benito Cereno, Bartleby, or Billy Budd, it’s almost as if he’s willfully ignoring evidence that contradicts his thesis. These are marvelous books, and if they can’t win a contest against Moby-Dick, it’s worth pointing out that little of what’s been written after that book can.

And yet we can write after Melville; we can even write on Melville. The will and vitality of Olson’s forceful, intelligent prose opens a way, or at least exemplifies a way. At the same time, paradoxically, a reading of Call Me Ishmael seems to foreclose the need, if not the possibility, of reading another study of Moby-Dick. This statement is not meant to be a knock against Melville scholarship. Here’s the thing though: life is short, time is limited, and if one plans to read a book about Moby-Dick, it should be Olson’s Call Me Ishmael. It’s great, grand stuff.

I Review Patience (After Sebald), an Oppressively Overstylized Documentary

Let’s get this out of the way first:

I love W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

I think it’s an important book—but more than that I think it’s an engrossing, good, excellent book, an enlarging book, a bewildering book, a depressing book, an intelligent book, an extraordinarily affecting book.

reviewed The Rings of Saturn  and you can read that review if you feel the urge for me to support those claims in greater detail.

Better yet, read Sebald’s book.

Whatever you do, please don’t use Grant Gee’s new documentary Patience (After Sebald) as a substitution for actually reading Sebald. It’s not that Gee’s film doesn’t lovingly attempt to approximate the spirit of Saturn. No, Gee and his cast of writers, architects, historians, and other Sebaldians clearly attempt to match the rhythms and moods and content of Saturn—and herein lies the film’s failure.

In an essay on Virginia Woolf—a writer who shows up in both Sebald and in Patience—literary critic (and Sebald champion) James Wood notes the anxiety of influence always at work between the artistic subject and the would-be critic:  “The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Wood here is specifically calling attention to Woolf’s own critical powers—of her ability to transcend merely reviewing a work, of her status as a poet-critic—but I think he gives us a simple little rubric for evaluating critical work in general: the truly excellent stuff goes its own route. Gee’s film so dutifully commits to visually and aurally replicating the melancholy and erudite mood of Saturn that it often seems cartoonish or clumsy—or, even worse, dreadfully boring.

It’s not fair to put down one filmmaker for not being more like another, but I wish Gee had taken a page out of, say Errol Morris’s book. Morris’s style is, in a sense, to remove style, to eliminate the aesthetic shield between the subject and the camera/audience. In contrast, Patience is overstylized to an almost embarrassing degree. The film veers between lethargic, numbing black and white shots of the places that Sebald visited on his walking tour in Saturn, occasional archival footage, and slippery impositions of text, maps, documents, and talking heads—sometimes delivered in a bizarre, agitated pace. Perhaps the tone I’ve just described may seem appropriate to any critical measurement of Saturn; in my review of Sebald’s novel, I noted that one element of saturnine melancholy is “sluggishness and moroseness, paradoxically paired with an eagerness for action” — but Gee’s lack of restraint here is bad art school stuff. It’s as if he doesn’t trust the viewer to simply listen to (let alone watch) a talking head for a minute.

A few notes on those talking heads:

There are some very smart people here saying some really cool things about Sebald—writers like Rick Moody and Iain Sinclair, lit critic Barbara Hui (if you’re a Sebald fan you might’ve already seen her maps of his walks), some historians and architects and so on. There are also excerpts of Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm interview with Sebald woven into the film, sometimes to great effect. Especially interesting are remarks from Christopher MacLehose, Sebald’s publisher, who recounts the time he asked the author which genre his book belonged to. Sebald replied, “Oh, I like all of the categories.”

Gee’s technique with his band of experts is to mostly cast their voices over cold landscape shots, occasionally superimposing a head for a few seconds in a ghostly mishmash that dissolves—along with the voice—into another shot or another voice. Sometimes this is really frustrating because, hey, maybe we’re missing some enlightening remarks, but more often than not it’s frustrating in its sloppiness. Film editing that constantly calls attention to itself is tiresome. The film is at its best when it it stops trying to honor/compete with Saturn and instead imparts some meaningful information about the man and his work. When Patience relaxes enough to simply show archival footage of RAF training flights, it’s a welcome moment from the film’s earnest, torpid buzz.

I realize “torpid buzz” is an oxymoron, but I think it fits Patience. In fact, it might be exactly what Gee was going for. There’s an oppressiveness about the film that belies the often gorgeous and expansive and empty shots of Suffolk, and yes, to be clear, there’s often a similar oppressiveness in Sebald’s book—an oppression of history, of self, of other—but this paradox does not translate well into film.

Sebald makes ample room for his reader; we get to go on this excursion with him. He lets us puzzle out his themes, connect all his strange dots (or not, if we so choose, or, perhaps just as likely, find ourselves unable). The gaps in clear meaning make Saturn such a strange, engrossing book, the kind of book that you return to again and again, the kind of book you press on others (I’ve given away two copies to date). In contrast to the breathing room that Sebald allows his readers, Patience feels somehow stifling and simultaneously small.  There’s a brickishness to it, a forceful inclination to fill in all those marvelous Sebaldian gaps. And while yes, some of these people have some really keen insights about Sebald and Saturn, over the film’s interminable 80 minutes these opinions and insights and back stories start to torture meaning out of the text. Any potential reader has had much of her intellectual work removed at this point.

But perhaps I’ve been harsh without illustrating enough. Here’s psychoanalytic critic Adam Phillips who probably gets more voice time than anyone else in Patience; throughout the film he repeatedly over-explains Sebald’s project. I’ll shut up and let him talk (these are a few clips strung together, if my memory is sussing this out right):

Did you watch it? I watched it too—and it seems pretty cool at under four minutes, I’ll admit. But over the course of the film the heavy, “arty” edits, the overexplaining, well . . .  it’s too much.

Admittedly, only ten minutes into the film I asked myself who the film was for. As a fan of the book I’d much prefer to just spend 80 minutes of my time rereading parts of it. Or, alternately, a straightforwardish biography would be nice too. And I suppose there are many, many people who will love what Gee’s done (the film has gotten plenty of rave reviews, including one by A.O. Scott at the Times). I also suppose many folks will commend Gee for trying out his own hybrid, for showing a little plumage. This is another way of saying that I think that Gee has turned in the film he intended to make—it just wasn’t for me.

James Wood (Is Wrong) on Blood Meridian

Critic James Wood wrote extensively about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in his 2005 essay for The New Yorker, “Red Planet.” Here’s his lede–

To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one. McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer, certainly one of the greatest observers of landscape. He is also one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.

Wood later details McCarthy’s gift as “one of the greatest observers of landscape”–

“Blood Meridian” is a vast and complex sensorium, at times magnificent and at times melodramatic, but nature is almost always precisely caught and weighed: in the desert, the stars “fall all night in bitter arcs,” and the wolves trot “neat of foot” alongside the horsemen, and the lizards, “their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks,” fend off the world “with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates,” and the grains of sand creep past all night “like armies of lice on the move,” and “the blue cordilleras stood footed in their paler image on the sand like reflections in a lake.”

Wood then goes about attempting to explain his problems with McCarthy the “ham” who produces “histrionic rhetoric” —

[McCarthy’s] prose opens its lungs and bellows majestically, in a concatenation of Melville and Faulkner (though McCarthy always sounds more antique, and thus antiquarian, than either of those admired predecessors).  . . .

It is a risky way of writing, and there are times when McCarthy, to my ear, at least, sounds merely theatrical. He has a fondness for what could be called analogical similes, in which the linking phrase “like some” introduces not a visual likeness but a hypothetical and often abstract parallel: “And he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself.” . . .

The danger is not just melodrama but imprecision and, occasionally, something close to nonsense. . . .

The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders.

So, Blood Meridian doesn’t meet the standard of Wood’s cherished “free indirect style,” where an author subtly shifts into a character’s voice. Wood craves these delicate internal borders. He can’t bear the idea that the towering figure of Judge Holden might come to ventriloquize the novel. It is worth noting here that Wood frequently extols the free indirect styles of Marcel Proust and Henry James–two authors McCarthy dismissed in a 1992 interview with The New York Times, saying “I don’t understand them . . . that’s not literature.”  Wood values a mannered precision of realism that McCarthy openly professes little interest in; rather, McCarthy uses a mythic, amplified, and at times grandiose style in Blood Meridian to explore issues of life and death. And Wood is perhaps not wrong here. At times Blood Meridian edges into bombast, although I believe McCarthy controls his language more than Wood allows. In either case, McCarthy’s language is ripe for parody, as exemplified in this clip from Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums

I would be happy to leave Wood’s criticism of Blood Meridian and McCarthy alone at this point. Fine, Wood doesn’t like it when McCarthy goes balls-to-the-wall; whatever. But at the end of “Red Planet” Wood turns to attacking McCarthy’s perceived failure to vindicate God’s goodness in the face of evil. Wood here (and elsewhere, always elsewhere) shows his deep conservatism. Wood necessitates that all literature reveal a platonic center, a stable, beating heart that must also be a platonic good. Here he is, griping about McCarthy’s “metaphysical cheapness”–

Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy. Relentless pain, relentlessly displayed, has a way of provoking metaphysical complaint. . . .

But McCarthy stifles the question of theodicy before it can really speak. His myth of eternal violence—his vision of men “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them”—asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.

If Wood finds only a nihilism in Blood Meridian (and the rest of McCarthy’s oeuvre) that he fundamentally disagrees with, he should simply say so. Instead, Wood demands that Blood Meridian be a theodicy and then condemns it for not being one. He shamefully attempts to hold the work to a radically subjective rubric that cannot be answered. Put another way, the failure that Wood finds in Blood Meridian is a failure to answer to a version of God–and God’s judgment–that Wood would like to believe in (or, more accurately, be comforted by).

Wood is a bully (of both authors and readers) whose criticisms rarely enlarge the works they seek to address. We see his program at work in “Red Planet,” where his aim is to deflate Blood Meridian’s giant language and not appraise it on its own terms. That the book survives–and thrives–despite Wood’s criticism is hardly surprising; that a critical conversation of Blood Meridian should include Wood is depressing.

Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s revisionist retelling of the Tudor saga through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, is new in trade paperback this week from Picador. When the book won the Man Booker Prize last year, chairman James Naughtie credited its success to the “bigness of the book . . . [its] boldness [and] scene setting.” In The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens noted that the book put Mantel “in the very first rank of historical novelists.” In The New York Review of Books, Stephen Greenblatt pointed out that this “is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.” Here’s what Biblioklept had to say:

I’m coming to the end of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant treatment of the Tudor saga,Wolf Hall. Sign of a great book: when it’s finished, I will miss her characters, particularly her hero Thomas Cromwell, presented here as a self-made harbinger of the Renaissance, a complicated protagonist who was loyal to his benefactor Cardinal Wolsey even though he despised the abuses of the Church. Mantel’s Cromwell reminds us that the adjective “Machiavellian” need not be a pejorative, applied only to evil Iago or crooked Richard III. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall presages a more egalitarian–modern–extension of power. Cromwell here is not simply pragmatic (although he is pragmatic), he also has a purpose: he sees the coming changes of Europe, the rise of the mercantile class signaling economic power over monarchial authority. Yet he’s loyal to Henry VIII, and even the scheming Boleyns. “Arrange your face” is one of the book’s constant mantras; another is “Choose your prince.” Mantel’s Cromwell is intelligent and admirable; the sorrows of the loss of his wife and daughter tinge his life but do not dominate it; he can be cruel when the situation merits it but would rather not be. I doubt that many people wanted yet another telling of the Tudor drama–but aren’t we always looking for a great book? Wolf Hall demonstrates that it’s not the subject that matters but the quality of the writing. Highly recommended.

Presenting all these reviews is simply a way of pointing out that if you know anything about contemporary lit, you probably already know that there’s a strong critical consensus that the book is excellent. Which it is. And if you like historical fiction, particularly of the English-monarchy variety, it’s likely you’ve already read it (and if not, why not? Jeez). However, I think it’s important–particularly now, with the current brouhaha over what literary fiction is and how female writers are treated by critics–to point out that what makes Mantel’s novel so excellent–and distinctly literary–is the writing: the narrative craft, the intensity of characterization, the vitality of prose. There’s nothing gimmicky about Wolf Hall even though its hero Cromwell has been traditionally reviled. Furthermore, Mantel resists fetishizing her set pieces, unlike so many writers of historical fiction, who feel the need to bombard their readers with extraneous details, as if the author’s painstaking research were a weapon rather than a tool.

My original review of Wolf Hall overlapped with a reading of James Wood’s essay on Thomas More from his collection The Broken Estate (also, incidentally, available in paperback from Picador). More is the major villain of Wolf Hall, and Wood savages him in “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season.” It was strange then (not too strange, though) to see Mantel and Wood intersect again a few months later, in Wood’s New Yorker review of David Mitchell’s historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Here’s Wood–

Meanwhile, the historical novel, typically the province of genre gardeners and conservative populists, has become an unlikely laboratory for serious writers, some of them distinctly untraditional in emphasis and concern. (I am thinking not just of Mitchell but of Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag, Steven Millhauser, A. S. Byatt, Peter Carey.) What such novelists are looking for in those oldfangled laboratories is sometimes mysterious to me; and how these daring writers differ from a very gifted but frankly traditional and more commercial historical novelist like Hilary Mantel is an anxiously unanswered question.

Wood is typically dismissive of the historical novel even as he admits its attraction–one he doesn’t understand (or pretends not to understand)–to “serious writers,” a collective from which he deems to exclude Mantel. Wood’s rubric seems to be that Mantel is too “commercial” and “traditional” to warrant her inclusion in his club (even as he damns her with faint praise), but I think that his Mitchell review reveals a deep antipathy to anything that seems, y’know, approachable for most readers. That Pynchon leads Wood’s list is telling. Pynchon’s historical fictions range from fantastic and funny (V.Gravity’s Rainbow) to belabored and difficult (Mason & Dixon) to dense and inscrutable (Against the Day). But Pynchon is Pynchon and it’s not fair to exclude Mantel from the “serious writers” club for not being Pynchon (I sometimes think that poor James Wood has just been a book critic too long and hates reading). This is a roundabout way of arguing that, yes, Wolf Hall is serious writing, that it is literary writing, that it transcends its subject matter and comments on the human condition, on soul, on psyche, on spirit. That it happens to entertain at the same time is, of course, why we care. Highly recommended.

James Wood on Virginia Woolf and the Anxiety of Influence

James Wood, writing about Virginia Woolf in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” (collected in The Broken Estate)–

Woolf, I think, became a great critic, not simply a “great reviewer.” The Collected Essays, which are still being edited, is the most substantial body of criticism in English this century. They belong in the tradition of Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and Henry James. This is the tradition of poet-critics, until the modern era, when novelists like Woolf and James join it. That is, her essays and reviews are a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor. The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.

Wood’s description of Woolf is really Wood’s description of Wood.