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.

4 thoughts on “James Wood’s The Fun Stuff Reviewed”

  1. “I hate that I love to hate reading James Wood—and when I love what he writes I hate that I love it.”
    –Precisely! Wow, that’s such a great line…

    Wood often infuriates me too, and although there are many admirable traits about his work the sheer narrowness in terms of the kinds of writers he deems acceptable is not one of those (& I wonder if he is the illegitimate grandson of FR Leavis or something, cos he makes
    The Great Tradition look particularly broad-minded by comparison. Take, for example:

    Part of my anxiety and unease about novels by Foster Wallace, Franzen, and others [what he calls “Frankfurt School jesters” cos they’re not writing REAL novels but merely disguised sociology or something] is that they have swallowed a great deal of journalism, sociology, and cultural studies, which means they are no longer doing something that’s not replaceable that another medium can’t do as well or better. (‘The Morals of the Story’ 2004)

    Yet, if one must ask of Wood just what that one thing “that’s not replaceable” is, he is bound to respond, that it is ‘Life’. But of course, ‘Life’ includes social life, and social life is not cut off from but is to a great extent conditioned by, made possible by, the economic, among other factors he just does not want in his novels– since, as Biblioklept noted above, the only acceptable thing a novel can do is isolate the psychology of the individual via free indirect style… Milan Kundera has an interesting take to this, bu the way, in the second essay in his book The Art of the Novel, where he maintains that the novel’s quest for the self, which perhaps reached its apogee with Proust’s and Joyce’s microscope of the ephemeral subjective moment, that microscope smashes the self into atoms, as it were, and the novel, faced with this cul de sac, turned elsewhere, much to Wood’s evident chagrin…But I digress].

    Yes, “Life” is Woods great, unexamined, axiomatic signifier, and woe to any novelist who does not worship at its altar (especially the aforementioned, sociological heretics, who merely pen what he terms “hysterical realism” rather than living breathing works of life-fulfilling Art) . A few years ago I gathered, for another purpose, just a handful of his many gems that castigate contemporary writers for not composing humble prayers to “Life”, and I thought they might prove useful to readers here– enjoy? Or, at least love to hate hating the hater for the following?

    Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness. After all, hell is other people, actually: real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. (TNR 2000-07-24)

    Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle? (TNR 2000-07-24)

    We have too much socially and politically obsessed fiction, not too little. Mimesis deserves a holiday. The bright book of life need not include all of life. (The Broken Estate)

    I was having an experience not unlike the experience of reading a number of other contemporary novels, large contemporary novels [by Pynchon, Delillo, Foster Wallace, etc.] And that’s to say, I had been completely unmoved. There had been no transformation of feeling. And it sent me thinking about why that might be, what the central lack might be. And it seemed to me that it had something to do with character and the human . . . There were lots of different characters; none of them had any real life with each other. (Kenyon Review)

    Yet once again Eugenides’s charm, his life-jammed comedy, rescues the novel from its occasional didacticism. (TNR 2002-10-17)

    Lethem has the greatest difficulty in notching any life out of this dusky silhouette. But it allows Lethem to write up the sci-fi conference much as Franzen wrote up the Scandinavian cruise ship in The Corrections: it reads like easy journalism. (TNR 2003-10-13)

    There is, one could argue, not just a “grammar” of narrative convention, but also a grammar of life – those elements without which human activity no longer looks recognizable, and without which fiction no longer seems human. (TNR 2005-08-01)

    The realist writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional. (TNR 2005-08-01)

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