In Defense of Wood
Though I read with interest your livid comment on the professional reception of literature, I have found little, on reflection, to hang on to. The centerpiece of the sizing-up, your review of the New Republic, is a return to sender of the lively distemper for which that magazine is known. But James Wood, it seems to me, has always felt himself obligated to dig a basement for his strong opinions. Yours, by contrast, seem to roll around, rootless and itinerant.
TNR, you suggest, is no republic. Somewhere in a desert, an elite stands guard over reservoirs of intellect. Here is the Qatar of criticism. But is it true that these writers have been kept from developing “positive individuality,” as you call it? Though the tone is austere, the voices are distinct. The first thing you hear about Wood, after all, is: Well, here is something different. If it is the critic’s aim to outline and outfit a way of reading and thinking about books, a sensibility in which, as in a furnished room, the reader may take a month’s residence, then I cannot see that he has failed. The failure, you argue, is his want of “positivity”—that is, the refusal of his criticism to “cultivate something new.” This is the second thing one tends to hear. The New York Review of Books has recently chaffed Wood for his habit of walking backwards up the street: “You can’t write 19th-century social novels,” warns Daniel Mendelsohn, “about 21st-century global culture.”
It is true that Wood reserves his higher regard for the mastodons of another age. And such reservations, especially when so well put, are a natural disappointment to those who like to read. To those, like you, who’d also like to write, they seem openly aggressive. And so for a reluctance to boost new work, you have charged Wood with a perversion of the natural order: he “seems to want to be his own grandfather.” The order that you have in mind here is roughly this: that each new gang of critics will fall for each new group of writers the way the boys of the seventh grade will eventually get around to the girls. But isn’t it possible, always, and in general, for things to be going wrong?
We aren’t ever told. Though you slang the messenger, you offer no rejoinder to his news. Which books did he overlook? Which principles did he abuse? The back of the magazine, you complain, is lousy with aesthetes—those bent on “sniffing out the tasteless.” But Wood’s claim against, say, The Corrections rests not upon his palate, but upon an observation regarding literary genre. Franzen, following DeLillo, had advertised a theory of the novel. It was to “compete,” he said, with “reality.” In pointing to the peculiarity, perhaps the hubris, of this claim, Wood is not affecting a pose. You don’t have to wear a watch and fob to think that formal choices constrain the possibilities of expression.
Even where his concerns are aesthetic, Wood is neither petty nor mean. “How exact that phrase ‘hard diagonal’ is,” he writes of The Line of Beauty. “Hollinghurst, unlike some of his American coevals, knows when to end a sentence.” Would you deny publication to this one? The New Republic’s praise of restraint is surely out of step with the exuberant movements of pluralism. And if Mendelsohn’s instincts are correct, “21st-century global culture” may simply demand pleonasm of its writers. That, to some of us, would be cause for disappointment.
But there is no cause yet for your senses of urgency or aggrievement. The rooms of the century into which we are moving are not vacant, nor are they booked. There is time for you to catch your breath and call your audience. There will be readers for whom despair is most effectively checked by a sense of membership in a great tradition. Mr. Wood awaits them in the penthouse. For blissful types, there is the sunny bibliophilia of the Believer. (Meet in the pool at noon). And then, for those who will combat despair with moxie, with kicking displays of life, there is your venture. Best of luck. While you are waiting for your rooms to be made up, allow me to recommend the excellent bar.