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The Disappointment Author: Lethem v. Wood

By posted at 6:01 am on November 11, 2011 103

1.

It is sometimes hard to remember — in our enlightened Internet era — that the line between writer and critic was once very sharp, and that there was no love lost between the camps. “There are hardly five critics in America,” Herman Melville once wrote, “and several of them are asleep.”

Not that you can blame the man, considering the drubbing he took at the hands of the critical establishment, but the quote gives a good sense of the bad blood brewing between writer and commentator all the way back in the 1850s. We don’t lack for contemporary examples, either; in 1991 Norman Mailer called critic John Simon “a man whose brain is being demented by the bile rising from his bowels,” after Simon panned Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost.

But surely it’s not all bile and bellowing; there have to be other, more civilized examples of the writer playing nice in the critical sphere. Henry James, for example, had a prolific side gig as a writer of judicious criticism, and his essay “The Art of Fiction” is one of the most well-considered and fair-minded examinations of novelistic purpose you could ever hope to read. But even James, in the middle of his reasonable defense of novelistic art, couldn’t help giving a swift kick to an unnamed “writer in the Pall Mall” who opposes “certain tales in which ‘Bostonian nymphs’ appear to have ‘rejected English dukes for psychological reasons’” – Portrait of a Lady, I presume? It seems that, no matter their composure, writers look to draw a little blood when they enter the critical ring. Maybe it has something to do with accepting blows in silence all those years.

covercoverWhich brings us to the latest example of a writer stepping into the ring to defend his work against a rapacious critic: award-winning author Jonathan Lethem v. award-winning critic James Wood, literary heavyweight bout par excellence. The first round of this fight happened recently, when the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by Lethem entitled “My Disappointment Critic,” in which Lethem discussed his anger at Wood for panning his novel The Fortress of Solitude eight years ago.

Lethem is not some cranky author we can write off lightly and go about our business. He is himself a thoughtful critic, and, as if to remind us of this fact, the title of “My Disappointment Critic” (and some of its content) alludes to his book The Disappointment Artist, a series of excellent essays about growing up in Brooklyn, the pleasures and perils of being an autodidact, and Westerns – among other things. His essay on the way to escape a subway train when you fear being pursued by other passengers is one of the best evocations of frightened childhood and how it shapes (urban) consciousness I have ever read.

All this is to say that Lethem is more than familiar with a critic’s responsibilities. Even when you’re an author/critic with fame hanging heavy on your shoulders  — especially when you’re stepping into the ring to defend your own work — you’re held to the sort of standard all criticism is held to: you have to marshal evidence and portray your viewpoint convincingly. One might even argue that writer/critic dealing with his own work has a higher bar to vault, because if he fails at any of these aims he looks worse than a reviewer writing a poorly-argued review. He looks like a whiner.

So what are we to make of Lethem’s new essay, in which he steps into the ring to defend his eight-year-old novel The Fortress of Solitude from James Wood, critical heavyweight of the age? Is he merely grousing? Or is he making serious critical claims?

Lethem understands our concerns. He wants us to know right away that he knows what he’s doing.

“Why,” Lethem writes, “violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review? Conversely, why not, if I’d wished to flog Wood’s shortcomings, pick a review of someone else, make respectable defense of a fallen comrade? The answer is simple: In no other instance could I grasp so completely what Wood was doing.”

And later: “Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?”

This is Lethem’s stated purpose: instead of taking the opportunity to complain about his own disappointment, Lethem is going to give his own disappointment greater cultural relevance. He is going to use his own experience to show us what James Wood looks like without the armor. He is going to accomplish something far more serious than simple griping: a true critical takedown.

2.

The critical takedown is well-known cultural corrective with a long and glorious history. Renata Adler attempted something similar in her New York Review of Books article on Pauline Kael 31 years ago. James Wood himself performed similar treatment on Harold Bloom; it’s no surprise that Lethem quotes both of these projects above his essay.

The fellow critic providing cultural corrective to someone who has gotten too big for his or her britches — it’s practically a public service, if you do it right. In our current literary discourse critics can easily become unimpeachable. Wood gets the lofty heights of The New Yorker‘s book section whenever he feels like it, and if he’s fudging his responsibilities, chances are a lot of people won’t notice. It’s more or less exactly the argument Adler makes in her takedown of Kael: most critics get sloppy on their soapbox. Their ingrained prejudices take over.

So there’s a precedent for the fellow critic accomplishing such a takedown, but rarely does the author being criticized make the attempt. Maybe this is because the burden of proof is uncommonly high when personal interest is involved. And Lethem’s criticisms, for all of their higher purpose, do spring from personal concerns: Wood failed to see what Lethem was getting at in The Fortress of Solitude.

“James Wood,” he writes, “in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility. This, the sole distinguishing feature that put the book aside from those you’d otherwise compare it to (Henry Roth, say). The brute component of audacity, whether you felt it sank the book or exalted it or only made it odd.”

This comment is, at its heart, disingenuous. Is the magic ring really the “sole distinguishing feature” that separates the Fortress of Solitude from Henry Roth? Wood would never make such a simplistic statement, nor would any other critic with a professional reputation to uphold. The act of criticism, in large part, is to figure out what distinguishes books from each other, and such distinctions never come down to one detail, whether it be a magic ring or a madeleine.

But let’s set this aside for now, and continue to Lethem’s critical conclusion about Wood’s review.

“Perhaps Wood’s agenda edged him into bad faith on the particulars of the pages before him. A critic ostensibly concerned with formal matters, Wood failed to register the formal discontinuity I’d presented him, that of a book which wrenches its own “realism”– mimeticism is the word I prefer– into crisis by insisting on uncanny events. The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive. I doubt Wood’s ever glanced back at the piece. But I’d like to think that if he did, he’d be embarrassed.”

I read Fortress of Solitude several years ago. I remember that magic ring. I remember it having the shaky status of a symbol, and that the boys who used it were themselves unsure of whether it represented real invisibility or some sort of wish fulfillment: imagination grounded firmly in realism (or whatever less offensive word Lethem wants to use). I certainly don’t remember it ever “wrenching” the book’s realism out of whack — it was one thread in the greater fabric of a mimetic narrative.

But let’s set that aside too — maybe Wood was wrong about the magic ring, and its singular symbolism within Fortress of Solitude. What we’re really dealing with here is a takedown of Wood, after all, not a defense of Lethem’s novel. That’s why Lethem proclaims his larger purpose early in the essay. That’s why he includes the paragraphs from Adler and from Wood himself, that’s why he tells us Wood is “armorless” as a critic. What we’re concerned with here is Lethem’s critical judgment of Wood as a critic: “The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive.”

Read that line again, substituting the word “book” for the word “review.” Now imagine that this sentence appeared in a book review. I assume your critical alarm bells are ringing.

Are we as readers expected to believe Lethem when he says that Wood was “erudite” and “descriptively meticulous,” (not to mention “jive”) without evidence?

Lethem obliges us. He drops a Wood quote at the start of the next paragraph.

“Wood complained of the book’s protagonist: “We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book … or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman.” …My huffy, bruised, two-page letter to Wood detailed the fifteen or twenty most obvious, most unmissable instances of my primary character’s reading: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Mad magazine, as well as endless scenes of looking at comic books. Never mind the obsessive parsing of LP liner notes, or first-person narration which included moments like: “I read Peter Guralnick and Charlie Gillett and Greg Shaw…” That my novel took as one of its key subjects the seduction, and risk, of reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated, I couldn’t demand Wood observe. But not reading? This enraged me.”

This is the only quote from Wood that Lethem uses in his essay, and he buries it within a full paragraph of editorialization. This on its own would give the average critical reader pause for thought. But when you look closer, when you read Wood in the original, you notice that there is a more fundamental disconnect at work. Lethem has fundamentally misunderstood what Wood was saying.

Here is the Wood quote in the original, concerning the main character from Fortress of Solitude:

“We never see [Dylan] thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book (there is a canonical mention of Steppenwolf, which is just more cultural anthropology, and just about it for literature in Dylan’s life), or encountering music that is not the street’s music, (italics mine) or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman. There is no need for Lethem to be conventional, of course; but there is a need for Dylan to have outline, to have mental personality.”

Wood’s point in his review of Fortress is that Lethem is a fabulous cultural chronicler of childhood, but that he fails when it comes to describing adulthood’s particular individual consciousness. There is something beautiful in Wood’s phrase “music that is not the street’s music” — maybe this is why Lethem chose to elide it in his quote. It reinforces how much Dylan Ebdus’s character is informed by group consciousness.

But all Lethem can see is Wood’s snobbery. “Wood is too committed a reader,” Lethem writes, “not to have registered what he (apparently) can’t bear to credit: the growth of a sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children’s lit, in graffiti and street lore.”

But this is precisely what Wood is talking about. He is pointing out that Dylan, for all his theoretical interest in Sendak and Heinlein, is not very interesting as an individual; far from ignoring street culture, Wood points out that street culture is what makes Dylan who he is. When Dylan grows up and loses sight of the street, Dylan becomes boring. Wood’s snobbery is beside the point here; the critic admits that Dylan doesn’t need conventional interiority, a world of high-brow books or high-brow music — he just needs interiority, period. We’re reminded once again of Henry James, the snobby fussbudget who occasionally got it right — “the only obligation to which we may hold a novel is that it be interesting.” Dylan, in Lethem’s later pages, is no longer interesting, and Wood, as a critic, wants to try and explain why.

3.

Maybe a close examination of Lethem’s article will shed light on the reasons why so many authors attack their critics, and why literary fights can seem so personal. Because authors, at heart, are much more interested in the verdict a critic renders than the evidence they display. And why wouldn’t they be? Authors understand that good reviews sell books and that bad reviews don’t — they are the most consumer-minded of all cultural observers, because they know as well as anyone how hard the literary marketplace can be. This isn’t even considering the personal aspect of having one’s work attacked in public, the feeling, as Edith Wharton put it, that “one knows one’s weak points so well… it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”

Lethem, despite his own critical experience, isn’t immune to this view. “The review,” he writes, “wasn’t the worst I’d had. Wasn’t horrible. (As my uncle Fred would have said, ‘I know from horrible.’)”

Lethem looks at Wood’s review in a familiar cultural context — is it good, or is it bad? Will it sell my book or will it turn people away? Does it make me look foolish or paint me as a genius? What’s the judgment here?

But what if the purpose of a review is not just to render judgment, but to explicate the way literature works? One can’t fault Lethem for disliking having his own work on the operating table, but certainly he’s been on the cutting end before.

The pain of the writer is that he has to sit still while the critic pokes through the vitals of his work and shows them to the audience. When the critical work is at its finest, the audience is like a crew of medical students standing around a doctor at work — even when we disagree with the way things are being handled, we can still see the body of evidence and draw our own conclusions. The process itself helps us learn; it adds to our understanding of literature as a whole. That is, if the body on the table would only stop complaining.

4.

This is extreme, I know. The body of work on the operating table has its own concerns. Staying alive, for example. An irresponsible critic, like an irresponsible doctor, runs the risk of killing the work — we don’t call it a “hit piece” for nothing. And if Lethem is right, and Wood is not doing high-level criticism anymore — if, like Adler’s vision of Pauline Kael, he has gone “shrill,” “stale,” has fallen prey to the tendency “to inflate” — then we have legitimate cause to worry for other books, other authors.

Where do we go to find if a critic — or an author — is being irresponsible, is failing at their literary mission? We go to the text, naturally — we render the evidence as best we can. This is the burden of proof, the burden the critic takes on when making judgments. This is the burden Lethem must assume if he is to be a critic of Wood’s own critical project.

“When Wood praises,” says Lethem, “he mentions a writer’s higher education, and their overt high-literary influences, a lot. He likes things with certain provenances; I suppose that liking, which makes some people uneasy, is exactly what made me enraged. When he pans, his tone is often passive-aggressive, couched in weariness, even woundedness. Just beneath lies a ferocity which seems to wish to restore order to a disordered world.”

Leaving aside the question of whether or not all critics (and readers) like things of certain provenances, we find ourselves again with the verdict but no facts. If Wood is passive-aggressive, why not show it? And what are we to make of Wood’s supposed ferocity, his drive to correct the world? Are we supposed to take Lethem’s word on Wood’s intellectual makeup?

Lethem gives Wood some credit: he points out that Wood wrote “4,200 painstaking words” about Fortress of Solitude. I would highlight another salient point: of these words, eight hundred (or nearly a fifth of the article) are direct quotations. Say what you will about the subjectivity inherent in what a critic chooses to quote, Wood uses ample evidence from Lethem’s own text to make his points — and nearly 600 quoted words come in blocks, without any editorializing from Wood at all; the critical equivalent of a primary source.

This is not just a feature of Wood’s review of Fortress — it is a feature of his critical style. Wood may be blinkered, he may be a high-culture pedant, but he quotes with vicious abandon: great block quotes of prose that give the reader a decent sense of how the writers he picks use language, so that no matter what verdict Wood renders the reader is capable of viewing the evidence on its own merits.

coverTake Wood’s review of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, for example. As readers, we are quite justified in our anger when Wood attempts to parody Hollinghurst’s style with his own prose; critics, whether they are also writers or not, are supposed to keep their own prose out of the critical game, lest we realize just how disingenuous they are. Or, as Hollinghurst himself put it, “it exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

But we can’t fault the rest of the review of Stranger’s Child for anything other than having an extremely intense, well-considered, and well-supported opinion, because we have the tools to respectfully disagree with the opinion if we like — Wood gives us reams of quotation on which to draw our own conclusions. I happen to disagree with Wood’s conclusions about Hollinghurst, as I do with many of Wood’s conclusions, but I do not make the mistake of thinking that my disagreement with Wood’s verdict means his article is a failure. I am interested in his ideas, I am interested in his evidence. Then again, it’s not my book under the scalpel — if I were Hollinghurst, I imagine I would be furious. Not being Hollinghurst, however — a fact I share with the vast majority of the readership of The New Yorker — I am free to enjoy the article on the merits.

Quibble how you will with the verdict Wood renders on The Stranger’s Child, just as Lethem does with the verdict he renders on Fortress of Solitude in 4,200 painstaking words, but it’s difficult to fault his methods — considerable quotation, much of it in blocks, and statements based on these quotations. This is why Wood remains a sometimes inspiring, sometimes infuriating, consistently debatable literary critic.

(A critic, mind you, who saw fit to send Lethem a postcard in return to the angry letter Lethem sent him when this review was published — and here, perhaps, we can allow ourselves a little incredulity — eight years ago. A postcard pointing out that he had actually liked a lot about Fortress of Solitude — maybe it’s Lethem, not Wood, who ought to be embarrassed upon re-reading the review, so many years later.)

Lethem has now written 1,700 words attacking, not just Wood’s article, but his entire approach to book reviewing, his “bad faith” — and he supports his argument with 47 of Wood’s own words. Whether or not you would like to see Wood exiled from his favored perch atop The New Yorker‘s book section — and many do — this is not a ratio to inspire particular confidence.

It is very difficult to analyze anyone’s bad faith. Lethem himself points this out at the end of his essay; that he goes ahead and attacks Wood’s bad faith despite his own assertions is evidence of his critical perspective. Lethem has every right to be angry at Wood, for criticizing a work which he held dearly, for rendering a verdict that might hurt the work in the marketplace. But those of us who care about criticism are more interested in the evidence than the verdict, and in the case of Lethem v. Wood, the evidence is skimpy indeed.

Image: Generationbass.com/Flickr





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103 Responses to “The Disappointment Author: Lethem v. Wood”

  1. Gary
    at 8:23 am on November 11, 2011

    Extremely well written and, even more, well thought out critical examination of a critic criticizing a critic criticizing a critic. Yours is the most convincing case of all; perhaps in being the last word (for now?).

  2. Arturo Ulises
    at 8:31 am on November 11, 2011

    The problem here is Lethem’s; he fails to realize that The Fortress of Solitude is a mediocre novel.

  3. A piece of mine at the Millions – “The Disappointment Author” | Sam Allingham Was Born Innocent
    at 8:37 am on November 11, 2011

    [...] In which I attempt to reason with unreason, critique the critical process, and render a verdict in the case of Lethem v. Wood. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  4. Lewis
    at 9:55 am on November 11, 2011

    I think you do readers of your blog a disservice not mentioning Wood’s connection to David Foster Wallace. His savage critique of Wallace angered many in the literary community, perhaps even Lethem himself. I think Woods enforces the status quo and is a literary snob. The distinction between high and low art hasn’t really existed since Joyce and Beckett and yet he insists on maintaining a literary standard in which only Flaubert is the high priest and everyone else a heathen. That is a sure recipe for mediocrity and a lack of experimentation in art. Criticism succeeds in my view when it explicates a difficult text and in that it is invaluable. It fails when it takes down an author or props him up. The only value of the put down or the uplift is a commercial one, which seems to have little to do with the realm of serious art. From the critic’s perspective and his or her supporters what such hit jobs really have to do with is class and power. Enforcing the status quo, saying this and this alone is good art, has no place in a post-modern world accept to reassure the convictions of a certain class of people. Who that class is depends on the critic. In Wood’s case it seems to be the upwardly mobile moderately educated white readers of the New Yorker.

  5. L.
    at 10:58 am on November 11, 2011

    I agree with your attacks on Lethem here. Nevertheless, Woods is indeed a silly critic in many ways. Or perhaps one huge way that colors everything else: He only seems to understand a very narrow range of literature. If it isn’t a certain type of literary realism, he seems completely unable to even grasp the work, much less write about it critically.

  6. Steven Augustine
    at 11:28 am on November 11, 2011

    The core problem being that you can no longer trust what writers or critics have to say: this is a venal era, ethics are dead, everyone’s scrambling for that little scrap of connected advantage… ambition makes liars of us all.

    The simple calculation for your average unknown published author and/or blogger is who, or what, it’s safer to align oneself with: Literature itself (which, as we know, is not inclined to do anyone favors) or a “powerful” critic. Anyone who’d hoped to see the inspiring spectacle of masses of word-mad Litbloggers battling Wood’s neoconservative attempt to reduce the wild infinities of Literary Imagination to a prim, dull park in front of a luxury high-rise full of Bellows’s , James’s and Norman-Bloody-Rushes… will have, by now, been bitterly disappointed.

    Because there’s always that chance that Wood will touch the mediocre light of his dreary wand to the blurb-stickers on your epic, right? Why make a “powerful” enemy? Why bother with the Truth? That’s generously presuming that the cheerleaders in question are sharp enough to know the Truth when they read it, with or without the ethical fortitude to then tell it like it is.

    But, no, I’m not disappointed at all because I know human nature too well.

    And, no: agreeing with much of Lethem’s extreme staircase-wit-type “take down” doesn’t mean I care for Lethem’s twee, post-yuppie bunk. Still, even Lethem’s bunk required a Literary Imagination, and Lethem’s free access to its (easiest) trillion acres, and I’m on the side of any effort that can claim that pedigree… as ill-advised a “career move” as that allegiance may be.

  7. R.
    at 12:08 pm on November 11, 2011

    You seem to be arguing that a review can’t be in bad faith if it includes “considerable quotation” from the work under review. I’d argue that one could easily quote 2K, 3K, hell, 10K words from a book of more than 100K words, frame them however one likes, and make any argument at all.

    Using your numbers, Lethem quoted 47 words from Woods’ review of 4,200 words. That is a ratio of better than 1:100. Woods quoted 600 words from Lethem’s book. Let’s say Fortress contains 120K words. (I suspect it’s longer than that.) That’s a ratio of 1:200. Does that mean Lethem’s critique of Woods’ review is, to those “more interested in the evidence than the verdict,” more justified and substantiated than Woods’ critique of Lethem’s book?

    Also, I’m confused by your reasoning in part 2 of your piece. Here is Lethem’s argument with Woods’ review:

    “That my novel took as one of its key subjects the seduction, and risk, of reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated, I couldn’t demand Wood observe. But not reading? This enraged me.”

    Here is Woods as quoted by Lethem:

    “We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book…”

    And here is Woods as quoted by you:

    “We never see [Dylan] thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book (there is a canonical mention of Steppenwolf, which is just more cultural anthropology, and just about it for literature in Dylan’s life)…”

    The rest of the quote, which you provide, does not go on to say anything more about the character’s reading. You contend that Lethem is misquoting Woods’ review, or at least wilfully misrepresenting it, in order to make his argument. But Lethem’s argument is very specific, and has nothing to do with whether or not his character “is informed by group consciousness.”

  8. m
    at 2:32 pm on November 11, 2011

    I like what Arturo Ulises said.

  9. Jim
    at 4:44 pm on November 11, 2011

    This doesn’t pertain to the topic, but I’ll add it anyway: I’ve always wanted to like Lethem’s work, but the two novels of his I’ve read, Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City, just aren’t very good. I may give Motherless Brooklyn a try–another reader has told me it is his best novel.

  10. paula
    at 5:07 pm on November 11, 2011

    As thoughtful and thorough and enjoyable as this essay is, R makes some good points.

  11. elle
    at 5:49 pm on November 11, 2011

    Props to Lewis and L for making their excellent points.

  12. EC
    at 8:57 pm on November 11, 2011

    Anyone can quote copiously; it’s a matter of what you do with it. Wood quotes liberally and, often, mendaciously or wrong-headedly. He provided lots of quotes in a review of Lydia Davis that, with a grotesquely misplaced sort of gallantry, subtly made her out to be what used to be called a “lady writer.” He gave lots of quotes of Saramago in order to (mis)construe him as an advocate of Original Sin; he amply quoted Bolano in order to make him out as a figure of fatuous middle-class complacency and quietism after a radical-bohemian youth etc etc etc. It’s all in the framing.

    Wood once wrote a review of a biography of Edmund Wilson in which he criticized his predecessor at the New Republic (long before it was the neocon cesspool that Wood was writing for) for not quoting enough, yet Wilson managed to be an infinitely superior critic than Wood will ever be.

  13. Tom Beshear
    at 11:02 pm on November 11, 2011

    I wish there was a link to Wood’s original review. However, boiling it down to the essence, and all other issues brought up by commenters aside, if Wood wrote a review of The Fortress of Solitude and didn’t mention the magic ring and then attempt to grapple with that element, his review would be a lot of bunk. It would be like writing a piece describing a room but not mentioning the elephant residing there.

  14. Lethem/Wood does the rounds « Other People's Ideas
    at 2:50 am on November 12, 2011

    [...] then, two smart other people have written about the same thing: Maria Bustillos at The Awl and Sam Allingham at The Millions. Both of them treat the subject with suitable charm and gravity, and agree, essentially, that [...]

  15. Will
    at 5:26 pm on November 12, 2011

    Yeah… Lethem’s being kind of a baby.

  16. ian
    at 7:03 pm on November 12, 2011

    Oh, Lewis.
    “The distinction between high and low art hasn’t really existed since Joyce and Beckett ”
    I’ll query why you would use Joyce (d. 1939) and Beckett (d. 1989) as some kind of supposed fixed point in your comment, and leave the larger question (“What the fuck are you talking about?”) unasked.

    If anyone is really worried about Wood’s supposed malign position atop the mountain, then Lethem coming back for a whine (never mind one so anaemic) eight years after the event must surely be a cause for concern.

  17. Lewis
    at 11:26 pm on November 12, 2011

    Oh Ian, Beckett may have died in 1989, but most of his major works preceded 1960, and what the “fuck” I’m talking about is his close personal relationship with Joyce, whose disciple he was. The two exploded the notion of literature being some rarefied field of study and the line between high art–of a canon to be studied–and low art–everything else evaporated. Consider how Joyce mixed Irish show tunes into the thoughts of Leopold Bloom right alongside lines from Hamlet, had Daedulus contemplating the ineluctable modality of the visible not long before he picks his nose and wipes it on a rock. Beckett takes this mockery of the high seriousness of art even further with all sorts of scatological references and nonsensical language and with a real obsession with the body itself. Beckett’s characters often seem to not even know they’re alive and aren’t even sure what happened yesterday let alone have a neat and tidy “arc” with a rising action, climax and denouement in the conventional bildungsroman. So it seems patently absurd that Wood would take the finely wrought sentence and well developed interiority of character as some sort of high water mark of fiction in this day and age. We live in a relativistic, some would say nihilistic world, in which standards of literature are maintained by gatekeepers who seek to maintain the status quo. And Lethem’s mixing of well-wrought mimetic high art literature with low-art comics and rock music is exactly the kind of high art low art combination that would’ve made Joyce if not proud at least smile knowingly. Thank for the patronizing “flame.” I’d expect it on a political chat board, not on a literary one.

  18. ian
    at 6:42 am on November 13, 2011

    Lewis, you’re right, it was rude of me to comment in that nasty (political!) tone. It’s just that that’s the effect people talking bollocks has on me.

    Speaking of patronizing, thanks so much for your join-the-dots primer on Joyce and Beckett. What I find “patently absurd” is the attempt to shoe-horn writers like Lethem into some kind of lineage descended from them. It really does him no favours, but I suppose it’s a handy platform to air your wider grievances about gatekeepers, the status quo etc etc.

  19. Lewis
    at 3:23 pm on November 13, 2011

    Thanks for the passive aggressive non-apology, Ian. The “primer” was there because you claimed not to understand what “the fuck” I was talking about. My point primarily to simplify without a primer for you is that Wood is an elitist prig who seeks to impose his vision of what high art should be on humanity when the notion of high art and low art seems absurd in a post modern , post-Becket world. He wishes to maintain “the canon” like his conservative forebears Saul Bellow whom he actually taught with at Boston University and Harold Bloom. You can employ your working class shtick all you want with words like “fuck” and “bullocks,” if you’re siding with that gang, you’re a conservative goon little better than a Thatcherite in my view . Art is subjective in the 21st century as it should be. Universal standard of goodness and badness no longer exist. I’m not claiming any great love for Lethem or that he is the next James Joyce. But he has every right to criticize a critic who when he’s not usefully explicating a text seems only seems capable of performing hit jobs on writers that don’t resemble his beloved Saul Bellow and Flaubert enough.

  20. Tom B.
    at 8:09 pm on November 13, 2011

    I found Wood’s How Fiction Works to be an interesting and useful read, but his credo is definitely conservative (artistically; I know nothing of his politics). He champions psychological realism as developed and practiced by Flaubert and Henry James (I have trouble with idolizing someone who wrote as many bad sentences as James) and their progeny over fiction that uses non-realist strategies, such as fabulation. It’s why Wood swoons over a novel like Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, but dismisses the work of Pynchon, DFW, DeLillo, etc., with that puerile term “hysterical realism.”

  21. Ed
    at 8:22 pm on November 13, 2011

    Lewis, your conception of the role of the critic seems at odds with your ‘relativist’ credo. If all art is subjective in the 21st century, as you claim (thanks to the efforts of those highly-educated literary types Joyce and Beckett), then all Wood is doing is making his own subjective judgement about the success or otherwise of a piece of writing. If he doesn’t like Lethem’s book and says as much in an organ read by ‘conservative goons’, all the copies of ‘The Fortress of Solitude’ don’t go straight to the pulp mill. Anyone who wants to buy it is still free to do so, and free to disagree with Wood’s assessment. They are free, in other words, to make their own subjective judgement about Wood’s success or failure, on the same terms that Wood made his assessment of Lethem; and the same applies to Lethem’s response to Wood. To label anyone who thinks Wood is a fine (if necessarily imperfect) critic as a ‘Thatcherite’ is more than silly, and sounds suspiciously like the kind of ‘gatekeeper’ mentality you are railing against.

  22. Lewis
    at 10:51 pm on November 13, 2011

    Ed,
    First, I’ll let you be the judge of what some others have thought of Wood’s hit job type of criticism:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/books/review/Kirn-t.html
    http://nplusonemag.com/designated-haters
    And yes Wood is entitled to his opinion, but the difference between someone like Wood as a gatekeeper and someone like me who you accuse of behaving in the same way is that Wood has an immense amount of power and influence and I do not. This is why I say what Wood is really doing is all about class and power–because he has been anointed as some sort of arbiter of taste and intends to uphold the old standards of classicism in literature–the canon. And this reaffirms the values of a certain segment of society.

    But when a critic enters the public sphere you could argue he has a certain responsibility in the 21st century not to project his own classicist Eurocentric view on what great literature should be. And you are not really considering the economics of literature today when you make statements as if Wood’s influence doesn’t matter. Literature in many respects is dying because people aren’t reading seriously anymore. It’s not like Wood is doing a hit job on Rowling’s Harry Potter and Rowling can just laugh it off with her millions. He was attacking a relatively new emerging author like Lethem who may still have very interesting things to say. Wood’s words can have a financial impact on a new writer and for what–to aggrandize himself mainly. Nor was I saying that Wood can’t say what he wants. But then why attack Lethem for responding in kind. That is essentially what this article we just read is doing and essentially what posters are attacking Lethem for. You say it’s fine for Lethem to respond. Read the posts above and clearly many others do not think as you do.

  23. Edward Champion
    at 11:24 pm on November 13, 2011

    I am neither EC nor E. But I do feel compelled to point out that Lethem quotes from a postcard that he LOST. Is that entirely fair to Wood? Is it possible that Lethem’s reading comprehension and his memory were colored by his own ire?

  24. Ed
    at 12:30 am on November 14, 2011

    Lewis, I’m aware that Wood is not everyone’s ideal critic, and I support the right of his opponents and his targets to criticise him. There’s no doubt he has influence, but I don’t think that’s the evil you make it out to be. Kirn’s criticism of Wood, which you cite, appeared in that fledgling journal the ‘New York Times’, so it’s hardly the case that Wood has the keys to Parnassus in his exclusive keeping. Lethem’s productivity and sales don’t seem to have been impeded by Wood’s criticisms: ‘Fortress’ was a besteller, and he’s managed to have his response to Wood printed in a prominent daily.

    I think you are being unfair, however, in portraying Wood as some kind of ivory tower aristocrat who wants all books to tacitly defend the status quo. I’ve been reading Wood for a good while, and while he’s a great admirer of Bellow it’s not Bellow’s cultural conservatism that he has held up for praise, but his mixing of registers, the demotic and the literary, precisely the sort of techniques or, better still, the ways of seeing, that you praise in Beckett and Joyce (two writers who are about as canonical as you can be, by the way).

    More generally, surely it is Wood’s (or any other critic’s) duty to take the books he reads as he finds them and respond as he feels moved to do so; if he gets everything wrong then people will stop paying any attention to him. I don’t think our literary culture is going to be enriched by doing away with critics who have strong opinions about literature; in fact, quite the reverse is likely to be true.

  25. Steven Augustine
    at 5:26 am on November 14, 2011

    “…if he gets everything wrong then people will stop paying any attention to him. ”

    I think you’re overestimating the vigilance of the target demo.

    For too many people (overworked, under pressure, married to Television), critics like Wood are the designated reader; people read Wood’s little sermons in lieu of the hard work of reading actual books. Skimming Wood’s product, they feel smart, improved, confirmed in their prejudices. To the frazzled, lingeringly-literate consumer of the early 21st century, imagine what a relief it must have been to be told that there’s no need to bother with “difficult” books from radical-ish types like Pynchon, DeLillo, DFW. His “hysterical realism” sermon must have been a weight off so many shoulders.

    (And I can’t help noticing that most of Wood’s fans in Litbloglandia fall in the “critic”, as opposed to able-writer, camp. Telling, no? A thousand little Salieris, clamoring at the feet of the biggest Salieri in bookchat. Don DeLillo being the Mozart here.)

    Wood’s appeal is the genteel, middlebrow version of the fun in any demagog on a flatbed with a megaphone, exhorting the crowd to throw complexity (and commies) out the window. Obviously, the NYer’s aspirational readers prefer it in a British accent.

    Too many people who still bother to read don’t trouble themselves to close-read at all (my favorite recent example was the mind-boggling number of professional critics who couldn’t get the plot straight in a novel short as “Indignation”). If people read more books and read them well, more of them would have their own informed opinions that Wood’s opinions would be forced to compete with. As it is, Wood is merely exploiting the conditions of a cultural vacuum. And who can really blame him?

    The culture is too depleted to support critics of the Edmund Wilson type (no meretricious razzle-dazzle merchant) or VS Pritchett (generous critic and able practitioner of fiction himself). Wood is the deprivation we deserve.

  26. Sebastian
    at 7:02 am on November 14, 2011

    Steven,

    I’m not sure where you’re finding the people for whom “critics like Wood are the designated reader.” The majority of what I see about Wood is critique from readers (apparently not the type you describe) who voice some of the complaints found in this comment section — that he’s little more than Flaubert’s rottweiler, that he misreads his books, his vision of literature is excessively narrow, etc. In places where readers gather, Wood is divisive, not worshipped, at least as far as I can tell. Where are you encountering this blind allegiance to James Wood?

    I find the argument that Wood is a critic at the New Yorker, and therefore his opinions will be enshrined in the minds of serious-but-not-serious-enough readers insulting. He’s known as a controversial critic. Give people who care seriously about literature the credit that they will know this about Wood, and will approach his reviews with this in mind.

    That being said, I completely agree with your last point. The English speaking world needs a critic of Wood’s stature (and consistency) who can defend the books that Wood tears to shreds. Our literary culture can only be better for it.

    But I don’t think that critic will be Lethem.

  27. Steven Augustine
    at 8:05 am on November 14, 2011

    “I’m not sure where you’re finding the people for whom “critics like Wood are the designated reader.”

    I’ve been finding them in their copy-and-paste opinions on skimmed books, in comment threads in and around the Litblogsphere, for over a decade, Sebastian. The sheer number of comments indicating that the average “serious-but-not-serious-enough reader” can’t even tell the difference between a short story and a screenplay for Television is striking on its own.

    And Wood is a “controversial” critic in much the same way that Bush2 was a controversial president: the damage is nevertheless done. The landscape is changed.

    As I point out in my first comment in this thread: “Anyone who’d hoped to see the inspiring spectacle of masses of word-mad Litbloggers battling Wood’s neoconservative attempt to reduce the wild infinities of Literary Imagination to a prim, dull park in front of a luxury high-rise full of Bellows’s , James’s and Norman-Bloody-Rushes… will have, by now, been bitterly disappointed.”

    There have been a few strong, consistent voices contra-Wood’s reductive project but they are outnumbered. That problem of certain ratios is one of the constants of human life (just look at the number of Ayn Rand fans).

  28. Holly LeCraw
    at 1:11 pm on November 14, 2011

    Agree with Will. Lethem is being a baby.

    James Wood has a certain taste. He argues for it, eloquently. His “power” as a “gatekeeper,” however, is a straw man that’s been set up so some commenters here and elsewhere can rave about elitism. Plenty of other critics, with just as much power (as much as a literary critic can have in 2011) disagree with him.

  29. Steven Augustine
    at 4:05 pm on November 14, 2011

    Reviewing DeLillo’s new collection, in the NYer (make of that what you will), Martin Amis has either just fired two sly shots across Cap’n Woody’s bow, or he never bothered to read Wood’s essay, from 2001, which inaugurated these Imaginational Turf Wars (a skirmish from which we are participating in, in this very thread) while coining the awkward (not terribly evocative) term “hysterical realism”:

    1. “DeLillo said long ago that the mood of the future would be determined not by writers but by terrorists; and those who mocked him for this forecast must have felt even worse than the rest of us did on September 12, 2001.”

    As most of us know, Wood wrote (Oct 2001): “Is it possible to imagine Don DeLillo today writing his novel Mao II – a novel that proposed the foolish notion that the terrorist now does what the novelist used to do, that is, ‘alter the inner life of the culture’?”

    2. “In the end, ‘Hammer and Sickle’ errs on the side of overexcitement (at about the point where the girls’ duologues start to rhyme); but overexcitement is something that the DeLillo faithful will be exhilarated to see.”

    (for “overexcitement” read “hysterical realism”)

    Further:

    “Literature seeks to give ‘instruction and delight’ : Dryden’s tag, formulated three and a half centuries ago, has worn pretty well. We reflect, all the same, that whereas instruction doesn’t always delight, delight always instructs. Very broadly, we read fiction to have a good time—though this is not to deny that the gods have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary.”

    Firing these shots from Wood’s own bully-pulpit is what makes this especially fiendish. If these are unconscious pokes, Amis should let his subconscious write more often.

  30. Lewis Braham
    at 7:35 pm on November 14, 2011

    In my view the best refutation of the kind criticism Wood stands for and why he deserves to be refuted in the first place came from Zadie Smith in this essay:
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/nov/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/?pagination=false
    Smith never mentions Wood by name. (In a way she is much classier than Lethem because Wood has also attacked her and yet her responses to his hysterical realism charges have always been gracious.) But she discusses the differences between two different kinds of novels, one of which Wood loved, the aforementioned Netherland by Joesph O’Neill, and another post-modern one Wood would surely hate called Remainder. Netherland represents the high modern psychological realism that receives Wood’s stamp of approval. And yet the hallmarks of psychological realism–the idea of achieving any sort of personal authenticity, of realizing some deep spiritual epiphany even if it’s a cynical one–seem false today. The finely wrought lyrical line, the well drawn character whose heart you suddenly see in all of its–“ah the humanity” dimensions is an idea Smith rightly questions. Are the inner lives of human beings even definable when every day life and our feelings and even our memory of the previous day shift in so many different directions? Is the inner self the likes of James, Woolf, Chekhov, Bellow etc. celebrate somehow more authentic than the outer one? There is something retrograde about celebrating the individual self and its interior. The character who becomes larger than life, heroic at least in his/her interior, is, dare I say, a Romantic, even capitalistic invention. But Smith expresses these ideas far better than I can. If you read the linked essay, you will see why the Woods of the world need to be opposed.

  31. Steven Augustine
    at 7:12 am on November 15, 2011

    “There is something retrograde about celebrating the individual self and its interior.”

    Proscribing the opposite of what Wood proscribes is to fall into the trap of being the other side of the Woodite coin, though, isn’t it? Why not nurture a worldview capacious (and curious and generous) enough to accommodate apparent extremes of the Literary Imagination’s fullest, freest spectrum? There are as many doors as windows in the novel’s mansion… and no roof. The critic’s job should not be the support of any cultural climate which mandates boarding any of these doors and windows up.

    We need broader vistas, not narrower ones; we should be cultivating the capacity of future writers to *surprise* us.

  32. Jane Bookly
    at 10:56 am on November 15, 2011

    But Wood really does miss the point about Dylan’s consciousness: how can you actually say this character has “no mental outline,” as Wood does? What does everyone here make of Lethem’s own acknowledgment that he is chronicling the interior development of a snob? Presenting Dylan as annoying is not affirming it–it’s instead a kind of brave, self-exposing move–and those of you (including Wood) who swallow it as an aesthetic error are losing out on what Lethem is actually trying to accomplish regarding the novelist’s job in a contemporary world. This essay, and many of the comments following, strike me as pedantic and missing the point. Lethem is entirely right to slam Wood for bizarrely trying to return us to an era in which vernacular culture doesn’t matter. This blog post by Sam Allingham seems to want to group all “Critics v artist” debates into one giant collector-guy’s platitude. Sounds a little like the Dylan who makes “Your So-Called Friends” boxed sets–like the Dylan you all, following Wood, purport to find hollow. It’s this superficial way of thinking that Lethem is analyzing with this novel.

  33. nedsmyth
    at 11:31 am on November 15, 2011

    Am I unique in my search for fictional characters I can identify with? As an amateur reader unlike the author of this blog and most of the commentators, I read to satisfy my own needs and fancies and I owe no allegiance to any particular school of criticism nor am I particularly secular in my literary tastes. I do admit to a certain preference for “heroic”, “bigger than life” works rather than the tedious celebration of the mundane and tawdry. So Murikami “hits the spot”, and a pox on those syncophantic celebrants of “reality”.

  34. ian
    at 5:41 pm on November 15, 2011

    Lewis, you’re right, I did wonder what the fuck you were talking about. Your first mistake is to think I need some kind of speak-and-spell recap of Joyce and Beckett. Your second one is to assume that, by disagreeing with you or finding your agruments in support Lethem egregious in some respects, I am a Woodsian zealot. Maybe if you show me where you have derived that from what I’ve written so far I can clarify for you.

    I also find your objection to unparliamentary language, well, touching in one who refers so freely to Joyce to support his pet peeves. It speaks volumes that you interpret my quite genuine dismay at your posts as a “working class shtick”.

  35. Lewis
    at 9:58 pm on November 15, 2011

    Ian, to me it speaks volumes that you’re like a pit bull that refuses to let go. You get the last word, Bill. (See if you can figure out what Bill I’m referring to.) But to me you seem little more than a deeply insecure foul-mouthed bully. Now come on,. say something nasty back so you can win. Lol.

  36. James wood
    at 11:43 pm on November 15, 2011

    Commenters to this thread may be interested to discover that the review by James Wood that Jonathan Lethem complains about — absurdly charged here with being an “attack” on a relatively new and struggling young author — was broadly POSITIVE, and can be found, in its entirety, at the Powells website. (A recent column for The Awl also made this point, and said that the reviewer clearly loved Lethem’s novel.) Nor is the review’s praise merely polite or pro forma; it is full of joyful and exuberant admiration, it takes great pleasure in Lethem’s prose, which it reads with the care it deserves, and compares the novel favorably — favorably! — to Henry Roth’s classic modernist work, “Call It Sleep.”
    Hey, you could read that review before talking about it. What a notion.

  37. Steven Augustine
    at 4:19 am on November 16, 2011

    “absurdly charged here with being an “attack” on a relatively new and struggling young author”

    Why not respond to the more important points in the overall thread, rather than focusing on the one charge, from one commenter, you felt was the easiest to deal with? You’re behaving like your namesake. And why add the imaginary gift of clairvoyance to your namesake’s quiver of dubious abilities? Some of us have already read the whole review (some of us have even been familiar with much of Wood’s output… in the manner of anti-Friedmanites familiar with the work of Milton Friedman… for over a decade). Is it too subtle a point to make (or perceive) that the terms and implications of Wood’s “admiration” are, for some of us, the “problem”? What a notion indeed.

  38. Jane Bookly
    at 9:58 am on November 16, 2011

    I did read the James Wood review, carefully in fact. You, “James wood” above, are right that there is much Wood finds to praise in Lethem’s new novel, a fact the Lethem acknowledges in the first paragraph of “My Disappointment Critics” (did YOU read THAT?). But surely the issue is not one of a “negative” or “positive” review–smart book reviews are not starkly black and white, but textured, nuanced. Wood does in fact criticize Lethem for creating “hollow” characters, and he argues that Dylan has no “mental outline” because he engages with vernacular culture. That’s a pretty big problem. The fact that Wood also finds much to praise in the novel does not negate the essence of that problem. Does a “positive” evaluation of the first section of the novel undo our ability to take issue with the claims about the third section?

  39. Steven Augustine
    at 10:48 am on November 16, 2011

    (@ Jane: it’s not “new”, the novel, though… that’s the amusing nature of this “controversy”. I’d have credited Lethem’s review of the review more if he had hit-back when Wood was at the height of his influence)

    Speaking of the Review in Question…

    Wood breaks Lethem’s novel into two books, the one he half-approves of (something “realistic” about childhood and after) and the one he ignores (something “unrealistic” which features the now-infamous “magic ring”, apparently). Praising the first book while denying the second… and considering Lethem an ingrate for being unhappy with that partition… is like praising Picasso’s ability to draw hands with anatomical precision and using that praise to sweeten an attack on Cubism as decadent, unrealistic, ugly and useless. Not that I’m comparing Lethem to a great Artist; I’m merely borrowing Picasso, here, for his good work in pushing beyond the “realistic”, an effort more often appreciated by critics of the plastic arts than by the literary versions of same. To the shame of the latter, I should think. Lethem may or may not have failed at the attempt at pushing beyond the “realistic” but it’s not just the failure, but the attempt, as well, that Wood penalizes. Which is the core of my (and many others’) argument against Wood’s project.

    That’s the general matter. Now, to get down to the level of (only a few) details (owing to the space constraints of the comment thread format):

    1. “Like a good many American novelists of his generation and gender, Lethem has a fondness for over-articulate explanation; call it Franzenism. Such writers seem never to have met an implication that they could leave be; the implicit is always to be prized from its shell and consumed publicly, with much italicizing and exhibitionism. In this sense, one might charge Lethem with having written a lively collection of dramatized essaylets and riffs on various codes of Brooklyn street life in the 1970s. The yoking passage is demonstrably such a riff, insisting on telling us what we might divine anyway — that this is “light street theater” — and wrapping everything up in a neat final sentence about yoker and yokee. There is an air, especially in that last sentence, of being cleverer than young Dylan could possibly be. Lethem wants, we feel, to get this yoking business down almost pedantically, to be analytically right about it.”

    A) I agree with the theory behind this charge (Art is more often in what is left out than what’s piled in) but Wood seems to miss the point that the charge is just as righteously laid at the feet of Italo Svevo or many of his Wood-embraced predecessors); my thesis being that cinema taught, to the 20th century novel, narrative compression/ elision and that DeLillean negative capability comes right out of the gorgeous dark of the arthouse cinemas of the 1950s, ‘60s and 70s. DeLillo not only leaves the beautiful blurs of the implicit all over his page but what is implicit in DeLillo is often the categorically undeterminable. To the extent that Franzen and Lethem fail in this regard, they fail at being DeLillo; something I doubt Wood would cop to chiding them for! Wink.

    B) Having said that: what Wood seems to take as the deal-breaking crux of “over-articulate explanation” in the cited passage… the “light street theater” metaphor… is, itself, rich in implication. Compressed metaphors like these can smuggle a page’s worth of philosophical divagation, and description, into a sentence. Lethem isn’t prizing the implicit from its shell, in this case, but strewing the path with several *more* shells (among them the shell containing the funky aura of the failed-but-brave social experiments of the 1960s).

    2. “But Lethem conjures Dylan’s Brooklyn world so well in part because he also makes it a fairy tale — a parentless playground. He excises the parents.”

    Does Herr Wood not understand that the author’s decisions about where to linger or what to focus on determines the novel’s actual subject, versus the subject of the novel the critic would have written had he written it?

    3. “Thus Lethem manages to bring alive what was theoretically over-determined in DeLillo’s Underworld, I mean graffiti. In DeLillo’s novel, graffiti was an efflorescence of the underground, an art of subversion. In The Fortress of Solitude, graffiti is simply the most thrilling act that a boy, particularly a white boy led on by a black boy, can get up to.”

    In his ever-jealous slap at DeLillo, Wood seems to miss, by a mile, the difference between the 1980s-style value/impact of NYer graffiti as a Big Ticket Art Market (and both a manifesto and trophy, therefore, of Class War) and the innocent, Huck-Finn version of the civic desecration Lethem knew as a kid. (And do we need to go into the obviousness of Wood repeatedly comparing DeLillo, unfavorably, to the lesser artist in this review? The Salieri Effect writ big ‘n bitchy). DeLillo was obviously interested in graffiti as a high-low cultural phenomenon (ergo, the Underworld set piece in which the high-end gallerist and a depleted white conceptual artist hunt down a notorious tagger); Lethem is reporting on “graffiti” very, very differently.

    It’s this kind of willfully ignorant, slyly spiteful obtuseness which invalidates so much of Wood’s product and which does a terrible disservice to the bits Wood actually gets right.

    To paraphrase Wood: Big critics with big virtues and big flaws are preferable to little critics with little virtues and big flaws, but it is discouraging to see the flaws opening so palpably in the midst of the fine.

  40. Lewis
    at 12:22 pm on November 16, 2011

    Steven,

    Let’s assume a world without good/bad dualities, which acknowledges that hierarchies of taste are really a social construct meant to enforce a certain power structure. What then is the value of criticism? To me it is in explicating texts, in revealing to the uninitiated reader the hidden meanings/tropes/techniques in novels etc and in introducing readers to exciting new authors the critic has discovered. In other words, the goal should be to expand human consciousness.

    What other values to criticism are there? One would be a commercial value. Books cost money and the critic by warning off or encouraging readers can guide them on how to spend their dollars. But in Wood’s case, what is the commercial value in attacking a new or emerging author, which Lethem was when he published Fortress of Solitude? I can understand if he, say, wants to attack the Harry Potters of the world. Christopher Hitchens wrote a brilliant hysterically funny essay doing just that and there seems a potential merit in steering readers away from commercial giants to lesser known perhaps more illuminating works of fiction–and it doesn’t really do the giant bestselling author much harm.

    Another value would be the entertainment one. Well-written criticism can be a joy to read and becomes its own cultural artifact. I think it is towards this last purpose Wood strives, and this is for his own monetary ends. Few literary critics get rich publishing in the New Yorker. But striving for entertainment means engaging the second value of criticism–the commercial one. He must write about popular books in an entertaining but dualistic way, i.e., this book is great, this one sucks. To me in that process the real value of criticism is lost.

    Wood seems at his best when he is explicating the nuances in the classics, analyzing Flaubert for instance and how his sentences work. But there isn’t much commercial value to the New Yorker in analyzing the subtleties of Madame Bovary. So we are left with a critic who loves the classics and is good at analyzing them and has little to no appreciation for more adventurous fiction. He earns his crust lauding the conventional and disparaging the experimental. So the commercial value in attacking Lethem is really for himself.

    But that is the world we live in. Meanwhile I imagine the best critics are published in little academic journals no one reads and will probably one day be out of business. I wish I spent more time reading them.

  41. James wood
    at 1:07 pm on November 16, 2011

    Lewis — Contemporary writers Wood has written about and praised, in detail, since arriving at The New Yorker in 2007, are: J.M. Coetzee, Jose Saramago, John Wray, Hari Kunzru, Peter Carey, Joseph O’Neill, Rivka Galchen, Jean-Christophe Valtat, Ismail Kadare, Teju Cole, Rana Dasgupta, Lydia Davis, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Geoff Dyer, Ben Lerner. Some of these writers are “realists,” I guess, and others (Lerner, Davis, Krasznahorkai) are not, exactly. Outside The New Yorker, Wood has also written in praise of David Means, Edward St.Aubyn, David Bezmozgis. Writers written about negatively: Paul Auster, Richard Powers, Chang-Rae Lee, A.S. Byatt. I guess, by your logic, the writers written about appreciatively must be “classics,” and the ones written about negatively “more adventurous,” since Wood can only write appreciatively about Flaubert?

  42. Steven Augustine
    at 1:42 pm on November 16, 2011

    @Lewis:

    I like much of what you say… without really agreeing with it (the magic of Literature!); laugh.

    The critic’s job, in my opinion, is to argue her/his preferences (and opinions) so well that the cultural conversation remains interesting, and elevated (above the venal chit chat the market prefers). And a large part of what makes it interesting is the extent to which there is pleasure in it. As much as I enjoyed reading, say, an essay of Pritchett’s on Pushkin (“Found Father”), I can’t say that it expanded my consciousness (or that I’d hoped it would). I can’t imagine where any literary critic gets the idea that it’s her/his mandate to teach anything (beyond factoids) or to sermonize.

    And I can’t see how the critical apparatus (in any serious form) is there for the “uninitiated reader”… surely that’s what those initial book-reading experiences are for?

    Not enough time/space to respond in detail to your assessment of Wood’s gifts/ duties; I’ll allow that I’m in partial agreement (ie: he’s on surer footing with “the classics”).

    @ “James wood”: I see you’re quite cautiously selective in the points you deign to address (and there’s nothing quite as easy, or lazy, as retort-by-list, eh? especially when you recycle the lists)… you’re almost as good as the Real ™ thing! laugh

  43. Steven Augustine
    at 1:45 pm on November 16, 2011

    erratum: “Founding Father”

  44. James Wood
    at 2:09 pm on November 16, 2011

    Why the quotation marks around my name? “James Wood” and James Wood are one and the same. And it is not “lazy” to correct someone’s charge that I write only about Flaubert and “the classics” (whatever they are) or about “realists” (whatever they are) by producing a list of 15 contemporary writers — some realists, some not — I have written about, admiringly, since 2007. What is “lazy” is to refuse to read those reviews.

  45. Steven Augustine
    at 2:20 pm on November 16, 2011

    Oh, Good Gawd, man. Are you down in the blogs again?

  46. C. Max Magee
    at 2:27 pm on November 16, 2011

    [I can confirm that the "James Wood" here in this comment thread is The James Wood]

  47. Lewis
    at 2:31 pm on November 16, 2011

    Oh come on! Do you honestly expect us to believe you’re the real James Wood? If you are, prove it. Tell us the subject of your next three reviews in order of their future appearance. If it turns out to be true, I’ll respect you for deigning to discuss literature with the hoi polloi. This is too funny. Are we truly having an Annie Hall moment? Where’s Marshall McLuhan?

  48. Steven Augustine
    at 2:35 pm on November 16, 2011

    @The James Wood

    -And it is not “lazy” to correct someone’s charge that I write only about Flaubert and “the classics” (whatever they are) or about “realists” (whatever they are) by producing a list of 15 contemporary writers [...]-

    Who, in this thread, makes such a charge?

  49. Max Winter
    at 2:39 pm on November 16, 2011

    I wonder now, and I’ve wondered before, what would happen if writer response to criticism were not viewed as inappropriate, but, in fact, expected? If, in other words, the writer didn’t have to “sit still” in fear of being called shameless, or immature, or whatever it is Lethem is being called here? Could the dialogue help criticism? Help writers? Or would it just inhibit the critic instead…?

  50. Steve Abernathy
    at 3:06 pm on November 16, 2011

    I prefer Dirda.

  51. A nonymous
    at 5:45 pm on November 16, 2011

    Much of this thread is absurd, and that’s before we get to the bit where James Wood enters the fray and no-one believes it’s him. What I really can’t get over is just how self-importantly some of the people on this thread announce themselves and their ill-thought-out opinions. I usually detest people who write long, overly detailed comments, but two commenters came out with such egregious rubbish that it merited a long reply.

    Especially stupid are:

    1) Lewis: “Criticism succeeds in my view when it explicates a difficult text and in that it is invaluable. It fails when it takes down an author or props him up. The only value of the put down or the uplift is a commercial one, which seems to have little to do with the realm of serious art.”

    The ‘put down’ and the ‘uplift’ may have ‘commercial’ value, but another way of putting that is that they flag up whether a writer or a work is worth bothering with, worth taking a look at, and I don’t think that function of the critic is dead or old hat.

    “From the critic’s perspective and his or her supporters what such hit jobs really have to do with is class and power. Enforcing the status quo, saying this and this alone is good art, has no place in a post-modern world accept to reassure the convictions of a certain class of people. Who that class is depends on the critic. In Wood’s case it seems to be the upwardly mobile moderately educated white readers of the New Yorker.”

    If hit jobs were about ‘enforcing the status quo’, as you implicitly contend, there would never be any done to canonical figures that the critic doesn’t believe deserve their place in the canon. Yet how many ‘hit jobs’ of precisely that kind are there? Clue: rather a lot.

    The elision of deciding whether something is good or bad art and deciding that ‘this and this alone is good art’ is instructive: even you aren’t clear about what you’re claiming, and what you’re saying only has persuasive force if people read ‘this and this alone is good art’ and miss that your subsequent rejection of pretty much all criticism that involves good/bad evaluations relies on you having actually said ‘this is good art’.

    The rest just reads like someone’s read Literary Theory for Beginners and decided to deploy it without a bit of self-awareness. How else could someone stupidly claim that Wood’s role is to reassure the convictions of “upwardly mobile moderately educated white readers of the New Yorker” – by what measure? The snobbery of ‘upwardly mobile’ and condescension of ‘moderately educated’ is quite enough without the odiousness of bringing ‘white’ into the equation as you do.

    2) (to Steven Augustine) Critics don’t demand that they have that disseminative function, and nor should they be held responsible for when their readers read their reviews but not the works reviewed and basically trust the critic. Of course, it’s never that simple. Usually what happens is, one reads Wood, one reads what he recommends, one either enjoys it, in which case one thinks “good recommendation from Wood – i’ll read him more” or doesn’t, in which case one thinks the opposite and reads him less. Anyone who gets their opinions and recommendations from one source is naïve and silly, and Wood can’t be held responsible for that, but that he provides a generally well-argued, interesting take is agreed on by a lot of people, which is why he not only gets the positions he does, but is regularly held in the esteem he is (outside of this comment thread perhaps). Now, i’m not saying received opinion is always right, but I do think it’ll take a bit more than your stupid social class hand-waving (on which, more below) to show that it’s wrong.

    You say, “Wood is merely exploiting the conditions of a cultural vacuum. And who can really blame him?” Yet implicitly you of course are – hence the preceding several paragraphs, hence the use of ‘exploiting’ and the implication that he somehow knows and deliberately ‘exploits’ the fact that his readers don’t read as much as him, and often don’t read what he writes about. One of the great pleasures of reading Wood is having read a novel or the work of a writer, reading an essay of his which discusses it, and feeling that he’s articulating things you felt at the time in some latent way, but couldn’t express, or express as clearly and articulately as him.

    SA’s charges seem to revolve around casting Wood as the high priest of some thread of cultural reaction and philistinism, which is such a ridiculously absurd caricature. He may not like some ‘radical-ish’ writers, but he does like some others (Bolaño and Krasnahorkai spring to mind – and since when is Beckett not radical?). Shock.

    My favourite bit of one of your puffed-up and unbearably smug comments is “And I can’t help noticing that most of Wood’s fans in Litbloglandia fall in the “critic”, as opposed to able-writer, camp. Telling, no? A thousand little Salieris, clamoring at the feet of the biggest Salieri in bookchat. Don DeLillo being the Mozart here.” You may not intend it, it may not even be true, but I can’t recall the last time I read a string of overlong (always a clue) comments on a thread about a minor literary spat that gave off such a strong odour of the windbaggery, stupidity and all-round tediousness of a ‘little Salieri’ who patrols ‘Litbloglandia’. How tiresome is the ‘ah, but you couldn’t write that well!’ charge when the critic does not claim to be able to, nor need to in order to execute the critical task well – just as one doesn’t have to be a Hegel or a Kant to criticise their systems, or a Thom Yorke or a Stephin Merritt to criticise their music.

    “Wood’s appeal is the genteel, middlebrow version of the fun in any demagog [sic] on a flatbed with a megaphone, exhorting the crowd to throw complexity (and commies) out the window. Obviously, the NYer’s aspirational readers prefer it in a British accent.”

    This manages to both fail in its attempt to do the Nietzschean ‘social type’ criticism and to fail in a way that is so bad as to be insulting. He doesn’t exhort, straightforwardly or implicitly, that people should ‘throw complexity…out the window’, and the running together of a critical, aesthetic stance with a political outlook you have absolutely no basis for ascribing is the worst kind of straw-manning bullshit.

  52. David Auerbach
    at 5:58 pm on November 16, 2011

    The caricature of Wood as a “conservative” critic is ridiculous, but I suppose it’s easy to trot out every time Wood criticizes someone’s favorite writer. I can only think of this exchange from the late lamented animated comedy The Critic:

    Duke: Why the hell do you have to be so critical?
    Jay: I’m a critic.
    Duke: No, your job is to rate movies on a scale from good to excellent.
    Jay: What if I don’t like them?
    Duke: That’s what “good”‘s for.

  53. Sam Allingham
    at 5:59 pm on November 16, 2011

    As the original author of this post I am glad people are debating it. I’d like to make three (I hope) succinct points.

    1. Maybe the broad concept of a “positive” review has been misconstrued in our literary culture. As Wood pointed out above, he really enjoyed Lethem’s book. That he still found significant things to criticize in it reflects – to me – the fact that literature (like thought in general) expands when held up to close critical scrutiny. In other words, we criticize most seriously the things we love, and vice versa. This is why a completely “positive” review is often less interesting than a “mixed” review.

    2. I agree that quotation itself is no recipe for good reviewing; the Kael essay Lethem describes is, I think, a textbook examples of unfair quotation taken out of context. However, lengthy block quotes plus close reading of said quotes gives a good approximation on the page of a critic’s thought process: the evidence I was referring to in the article. I don’t ask my favorite critics to be right – whatever that means – I just ask that they be thorough in documenting their own investigations so I can decide if those investigations are substantial or not. Having read Wood’s original review, I thought the investigations were substantial and interesting – I’m less interested in the “rightness” of his argument.

    3. I think there’s a lot to be gained in direct dialogue between writers and critics, assuming that both parties enter the dialogue in good faith – these days the line is fuzzy anyway, Lethem being a prime example. My argument in this essay was not that Lethem shouldn’t have entered the arena, but that he did so in a somewhat irresponsible fashion.

    Thanks everyone! I’ve enjoyed reading people’s comments.

  54. Steven Augustine
    at 6:17 pm on November 16, 2011

    “I usually detest people who write long, overly detailed comments…”

    Thanks for the chuckle, “A nonymous”!

    And thanks, David Auerbach, for that penetrating reference to… your favorite cartoon.

  55. CRITICAL LINKING: November 17, 2011 | BOOK RIOT
    at 7:03 am on November 17, 2011

    [...] James Wood responds in the comments section of Jonathan Lethem’s critique of him at The Millions. Wild stuff. [...]

  56. Steven Augustine
    at 7:54 am on November 17, 2011

    I’d just like to point out, to belated commenters who seem to think it “absurd” that we in the thread treated “James wood” as a pseudonym, initially: “James wood” referred to himself in the third person, more than once, before finally deciding to admit that he was definitely he. Examples:

    “Commenters to this thread may be interested to discover that the review by James Wood that Jonathan Lethem complains about…”

    “Lewis — Contemporary writers Wood has written about and praised, in detail, since arriving at The New Yorker in 2007, are…”

    Forgive us, please, for assuming that the actual James Wood would have used the personal pronoun when discussing James Wood in a comment thread. We won’t let it happen again.

  57. Lewis
    at 9:27 am on November 17, 2011

    Talk about post-modern moments. A critic writes a review of a writer. Then the writer responds to the critic. Then a blogger writes an article about the writer’s response to the critic. Then posters attack the writer for responding to the critic and other posters attack those posters for attacking the writer’s response. Then the critic responds to the posters, but no one believes he is the actual critic. The strangest/funniest part was perhaps when one poster pretending to be the critic also in response posted a link to a James Wood web site that is for James Wood the used car dealer and another asked that money be deposited in an offshore account for James Woods in the Cayman Islands, although those posts were unfortunately deleted. In any case, I do apologize if I offended you James for my sometimes gratuitous comments, although I never said that all you write about is Flaubert and you don’t write about contemporary authors. In fairness to you I have not read all of your critiques, only enough to get perhaps a biased impression. In fairness to me and Steven though, I agree that it is extraordinarily odd for a writer or critic to write about himself in the third person. Why would you expect any of us to believe you’re you when you speak of yourself as though you’re a corporation or a press agent speaking for you?

  58. Edmond Caldwell
    at 1:07 pm on November 17, 2011

    As those Harvard lads at n+1 once wrote, “Poor James Wood”! Getting publicly dissed by 2 authors he’s reviewed has got to be the best thing that’s happened to Jiminy Critic in quite a while — people are actually talking about him again! Sure, we all knew that a review signed with his name would still appear at infrequent intervals in the pages of the New Yorker, but we’d assumed they were from among his posthumous papers… But now everyone dusts off their pros and contras and joins the fray . . . and then Jiminy himself hops in! Yet the peevish epistle to his “lazy” detractors carries a plaintive subtext — please, somebody, read me!

    And speaking of lazy, how many times has Jiminy (or one of his back-channeled seconds) produced a list of author names to demonstrate the ostensibly ecumenical range of his sensibility! Of course, he does so because it works — on lazy readers. All you have to do is study the reviews with a critical eye and you’ll see that what comrade Steven Augustine has written above is eminently the case, that these are “neoconservative attempt[s] to reduce the wild infinities of Literary Imagination to a prim, dull park in front of a luxury high-rise…”

    The question, as always, is not which authors JW approves, but how, in what manner, he reads them in order to arrive at his approval. Take a look for example at his recent essay on Krasznahorkai. Behind the baffled, size-queen admiration for the Hungarian’s long sentences, the review comes down to three key assertions about Krasznahorkai’s novels: they’re basically realist, they’re basically novels of consciousness (of War & War he makes the deeply banal point that the novel ‘gets us into the head of a madman,’ etc.), and they basically address metaphysical concerns.

    Of course the novels do almost exactly the opposite — their baroque sentences explode the spurious metaphysic of “individual consciousness” in the materialist excess of language itself, deeply unsettling any notion of “reality” by dramatizing so-called reality’s always-ideological constructedness (rather than, say, its “quiddity” or “lifeness”). But we can’t have that now, can we? It’s simply too demoralizing for the professional-managerial class. So in comes Jiminy in his Hazmat suit (otherwise known as his “style”) to house-train those unruly sentences.

    You can see the same kind of revanchist domestication at work in his reviews of Bolano and Saramago. Yes, by all means, read his reviews!

  59. James wood
    at 10:24 pm on November 17, 2011

    It might be useful to quote some passages from my review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai, so that readers can decide for themselves whether Edmund Coldwell’s description of it as some kind of sinister neo-con recuperation seems accurate. Remember, Coldwell claims that I characterize Krasznahorkai as 1)basically a realist; 2) basically interested in what he calls the spurious metaphysic of individual consciousness; and 3) basically metaphysical. Here, then, are a few passages, chosen from the beginning, middle, and end of my piece (which appeared in May in The New Yorker):

    “It is often hard to know exactly what Krasznahorkai’s characters are thinking, because this author’s fictional world hangs on the edge of a revelation that never quite comes.”

    “The prose has about it a kind of self-correcting shuffle, as if something were genuinely being worked out, and yet, painfully and humorously, the self-corrections never result in the correct answer… Krasznahorkai pushes the long sentence to its furthest extreme, miring it in a thick, recalcitrant atmosphere, a kind of dynamic paralysis in which the mind turns over and over to no obvious effect.”

    “But the abysses in Krasznahorkai are bottomless and not logical. Krasznahorkai often deliberately obscures the referent, so that we have no idea what is motivating the fictions: reading him is a little like seeing a group of people standing in a circle in a town square, apparently warming their hands at a fire, only to discover, as one gets closer, that there is no fire, and that they are gathered around nothing at all.”

    “The ‘said Korin’ tag inevitably slips into the implied ‘wrote Korin.’ Reading, saying, writing, thinking and inventing are all mixed up in Korin’s mind, and inevitably get mixed up in the reader’s mind, too.”

    “Resembling, in form, Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, Krasznahorkai’s words often seem like a kind of commentary on late Beckett – there is a steady emphasis on nothingness, entrapment, going on and being unable to go on. In the fifth text, which accompanies the picture of the dog leaping at the man contentedly reading a newspaper, the beast seems to have become the Other, everything that threatens that bourgeois contentment – an immigrant perhaps, a terrorist, a revolutionary, or just the feared stranger.”

    “Krasznahorkai is clearly fascinated by apocalypse, by broken revelation, indecipherable messages. To be always “on the threshold of some decisive perception” is as natural to a Krasznahorkai character as thinking about God is to a Dostoevsky character; the Krasznahorkai world is a Dostoevskian one from which God has been removed.”

    “But this kind of summary does no justice to the unfathomable strangeness of this novel.”

    “It is unclear whether the whale really had anything to do with the irrruption of violence; Krasznahorkai mischievously dangles the possibility that the circus is a difficult artwork, that it was simply misread by everyone as an agent of apocalypse, in the way that all revolutionary and obscure artworks are misread (by implication, this novel included). Obviously, the whale is some kind of funny, gloomy allusion to Melville, and perhaps Hobbes: like the leviathan, like Moby-Dick, it is vast, inscrutable, terrifying, capable of generating multiple readings. But it is static, dead, immobile, and the Puritan God who makes Melville’s theology comprehensible (however incomprehensible Melville’s white whale is) has long vanished from this nightmarish town in the shadow of the Carpathians. Meaning scrambles for traction, and the sinister doorless truck which sits silently in the middle of the town square is also a joke about the Trojan horse: naturally, in Krasznahorkai’s world, the Trojan horse is empty. No one gets out of it.”

    I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound an awful lot like, say Robert Stone or John Updike or Richard Ford; it doesn’t sound much like the spurious metaphysic of individual consciousness (sounds to me like almost the opposite — all those bottomless abysses and obscured referents!); and though broken revelations and unfulfilled apocalypses and a vast Melvilean whale that is like an empty Trojan Horse could of course be seen as a metaphysics of sorts, it’s certainly a negative metaphysics, “signifying nothing.”

    Oh well, read the review for yourself and make your own mind up. But not, of course, if you belong to the “professional-managerial class.” If that’s your unhappy fate, get your Hazmat suit on, and hold fast to the spurious metaphysic of your individuality…

  60. James wood
    at 10:27 pm on November 17, 2011

    sorry..Melvillean (with two l’s)

  61. Ed
    at 11:39 pm on November 17, 2011

    Edmond, you must have read a different review of Krasznahorkai than I did. Wood evinces no bafflement when faced with Krasznahorkai’s long sentences, and only a deeply prejudiced reading—or a lazy one—could argue that his admiration is the result of being a ‘size queen’. Let’s remember that Wood is probably introducing this writer to the vast majority of his readers (certainly to me). It is unsurprising that he takes some time to talk about Krasznahorkai’s technique and place it in some kind of tradition. (Edmund Wilson did this all the time.) He writes: ‘Claude Simon, Thomas Bernhard, Jose Saramago, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolano, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, and Laszlo Krasznahorkai have used the long sentence to do many different things, but all of them have been at odds with a merely grammatical realism, whereby the real is made to fall into approved units and packets.’

    Following a substantial quote from Krasznahorkai, he then continues: ‘The prose has a kind of self-correcting shuffle, as if something were genuinely being worked out, and yet, painfully and humorously, these corrections never result in the correct answer….Krasznahorkai pushes the long sentence to its furthest extreme, miring it in a thick, recalcitrant atmosphere, a dynamic paralysis in which the mind turns over and over to no obvious effect.’

    You could (and do) argue that this is not Krasznahorkai’s purpose, but I don’t think you can claim that Wood stands confounded in front of his work and merely notices how far about his periods are.

    You also claim that Wood makes the ‘deeply banal point that the novel “gets us into the head of a madman”’. That does sound banal, but Wood says no such thing. Wood says: ‘the reader confirms what he has suspected from the start, that Korin found no manuscript but is writing his own in New York; that “the manuscript” is a mental fiction, a madman’s transcendent vision.’

    ‘The New Yorker’ might be read by the wealthy and those who want to be seen as intellectually stylish without making much effort. But it doesn’t take much effort to string together a series of Marxist platitudes, either. Whether you find Wood wrong-headed or not, claiming that he is writing about Krasznahorkai merely to protect capitalism from the abyss is nonsense.

  62. Ed
    at 11:41 pm on November 17, 2011

    Please sub ‘apart’ for ‘about’.

  63. David Auerbach
    at 12:26 am on November 18, 2011

    Steven, it’s called rhetoric. I could spell out why I quoted that cartoon bit and how I think it comments on the discussion, but I’d like to think that most present can figure that out. Would you have approved if I’d quoted Hazlitt instead? You don’t do yourself any favors by pulling out the cultural snobbery card yourself.

    When I was rather young I read John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, in which he slams a good number of contemporary writers and sets out a rather draconian agenda for what constitutes good fiction. He praises William Gass (which was how I discovered Gass’s work in the first place), Guy Davenport, John Fowles, Eudora Welty, and a few others. He criticizes, often dismissively, writers that I esteem (Pynchon, Heller, Vonnegut) and some I don’t care for (Barth, Coover, Mailer, Porter).

    I don’t think anyone *can* adopt Gardner’s view wholesale. The book is just too particular and too much the expression of a single artist’s creative and ethical concerns. I could see where Gardner was coming from and see where the criticism was justified and where I thought he’d gone over the top. Unlike the hatchet jobs of Dale Peck (that’s the title of his collection, so that’s a description rather than a value judgment), Gardner’s criticism was evidently a constructive critical project, and yes, I could engage with that and take something from it. And the rest I ignored. His attack on Something Happened, which I consider an absolute masterpiece, is wrongheaded, but I see his point of view sufficiently to empathize with the emotion behind it.

    I had a similar experience with Pauline Kael’s work: her criticism of post-8 1/2 Fellini is really harsh and sometimes unfair, but she did assist me in seeing something different in those films, some of it bad but some of it good. When I read Renata Adler’s overlong savaging of Kael (which does make a few good points), I could only wonder what had driven her to style herself as Kael’s Ahab.

    Steven, I hope that this detour into my adolescent reading habits does not come off as irrelevant to the proceedings at hand. But with the hope of meeting Mr Augustine’s tastes, here is another quote from the ever-wise David Hume. For “philosophers” read “human beings.”

    “I have long entertained a suspicion with regard to the decisions of philosophers upon all subjects, and found in myself a greater inclination to dispute than assent to their conclusions. There is one mistake to which they seem liable, almost without exception; they confine too much their principles, and make no account of that vast variety which nature has so much affected in all her operations. When a philosopher has once laid hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and reduces to it every phenomenon, though by the most violent and absurd reasoning. Our own mind being narrow and contracted, we cannot extend our conception to the variety and extent of nature, but imagine that she is as much bounded in her operations as we are in our speculation.”

  64. David Auerbach
    at 12:35 am on November 18, 2011

    And in the hopes of bringing some good cheer into this whole thing, this is my all-time favorite letter to the editor in the NYRB:

    =========================

    February 5, 1981

    To the Editors:

    I am writing to protest in the strongest possible terms your decision to publish Renata Adler’s depressing, vengeful, ceaseless tirade against that brilliant critic Pauline Kael. Adler’s criticism in The New Yorker was mediocre, mushy. How dare she lash out at Kael for using masturbatory slang and “we” or “you” for “I”? Can’t the little viper see the beauty, poetry, hilarity, and straight-forwardness in Kael’s critiques? Oops. I’m using “Kaeline” rhetorical questions! What a crime! You’d think I or she killed Kennedy or something!

    Oh—while R.A.’s at contradictions,…she berates Kael for demanding punishment and crying guilt of her unfavored movie folk when she herself acts as if Kael knifed Gary Coleman—oops! I used a “violent” and “sadistic” metaphor! Okay, heat up the electric chair! So “line for line, When the Lights Go Down is worthless,” eh? What about the titles of her critiques of Seven Beauties and Carrie? I cracked up just reading them. And how about her punchy opening and closing lines, especially her closing line of her critique of Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder?

    Adler’s “review” is bathed in bitterness. The final irony is that about half as many people will read “Perils of Pauline” as will read “Master Spy, Master Seducer”—by Pauline Kael.

    Please print this!

    Matthew Wilder

    A loyal P. Kael fan, age 13

    Des Planes, Illinois

  65. Steven Augustine
    at 7:02 am on November 18, 2011

    David!

    Thanks for the detailed response! First off:

    “You don’t do yourself any favors by pulling out the cultural snobbery card yourself.”

    But David, I *am* a cultural snob. And I think that anyone who cares, and knows anything, to any real depth, about a craft or an art form (whether it’s candle-making or short story writing) will tend to be “elitist” about the practice(s) dear to them. Not “elitist” in the sense that some pink prig feels that only certain people (or classes) should have access to “finer” things… the repulsive specter of *that* kind of snobbery (to the extent that the e-word comes out of some thread-litigant’s shoulder holster) haunts every “high/low” discussion in the Litblogsphere. I am an elitist in the sense that when you cite a few lines from a mass-market cartoon as a response to a couple of pages of detailed, fairly-coherent and occasionally-insightful argumentation that I’ve presented, I can’t take the gesture seriously. I can’t credit those kinds of shortcuts (the populist version of the corny trick of dropping the shrunken heads of “Hegel”, “Kant”, “Lacan”, et al, into the mix and hoping these Mojos will do the magic work of finishing the argument). Your second comment (the one inspired by anger; anger works, sometimes) is better.

    I’ve never, in all of my various comments on the topic, referred to James Wood as a “snob”. The problem with highfalutin “flame wars” like these (I remember similar sensations debating about Bush2, then the sinister Obama) is that they are subject to powerful fields of distortion; partisans mass on both sides of a false dichotomy and pull a complex debate into big, dumb binaries. Nuanced positions are lost and probably wasted.

    To cite Gardner (writer of the treasured Grendel on my shelf, creator of a not-particularly-interesting litcrit taxonomy) as an example of the fact that critics can’t please everyone all the time… and that, you know, “De gustibus (etc)”… is proof that you don’t understand my contribution to this argument. Nowhere do I argue that Wood should be stoned, jailed, censured or ignored. Or that critics have no right to be irritating.

    I argue that the reductive, proscriptive, neoconservative burlesque that put Wood on the map (in the aftermath of 9/11, when calls for a New Spartan Puritanism were in the air) should be read as closely as his reviews purport to read the Big Targets who he tried (and failed) to take down. Some details of my argument can be found in this very thread, kilometers above.

    I’ll never take the techno-democratic (semi-meritocratic) miracle of the comment thread for granted, but this debate is too often muddied, fogged and vuvuzela’d by busloads of hotheads, sophomores, Sunday readers and (now that Wood has manifested) the starstruck. What should be an interesting argument, in a library, between maybe half-a-dozen genuinely-involved-and-informed nerds, is instead, now, just a mess of zingers and craven ass-licking.

    I think I made, for example, a not-completely-uninteresting point about Wood getting (and why he got) the “graffiti” comparison, between “Fortress” and “Underworld”, so very wrong. Did anyone take me up on it?

    Of course not.

    But one super-charged commenter caught me on typo-patrol (“demagog”; luckily, I spotted the Freudian-sounding “Found[ing] Father” before anyone picked up on it. Even Wood is afraid of being tasered by typo-patrol and was quick to fix “Melvilean”… has it really come to this? How does a typo sink an argument or bolster its counter-argument?), and dropped “Hegel” and “Kant” on the proceedings (@ a nonymous: you obviously aren’t an academic, or you’d have beefed up the affectation with citations… semi-obscure ones, at that; even “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann…” won’t cut it anymore. In my opinion, Zizek has devalued the Germans by flooding the market; why not try a techno-literary curve ball like Flusser? What an impressive head-scratcher that would be! )

    This is not a *serious* debate.

    “Unlike the hatchet jobs of Dale Peck (that’s the title of his collection, so that’s a description rather than a value judgment)…”

    Sigh.

  66. Jane Bookly
    at 9:12 am on November 18, 2011

    Hey, James Wood:how would you connect your revelation about books and Adorno at the end of the current New Yorker piece (about your father-in-law) to the claims you made about vernacular culture in Fortress of Solitude? Seems like in the current piece you are a bit more skeptical of Adorno than in the Lethem review. I’d be curious to hear what you think.

  67. Lewis
    at 9:27 am on November 18, 2011

    The question I want to ask both Edmond Caldwell and James Wood is how does money affect your work? How do you both survive financially as writers? I think it’s a mistake to assume that Caldwell is merely uttering “Marxist platitudes” as Ed suggests. I may be totally misreading Caldwell–and about him from his blog–but I keep thinking of Kafka’s Hunger Artist and the fundamental belief many struggling writers and artists have that they should sacrifice themselves to their art, that art is as close to religion as we can get now, and that those artists/writers who are commercially successful have in some fundamental way “sold out.” Wood seems to believe in art as a quasi-religion too from what I’ve read about him, but the books he reviews are also commercial products and ultimately for him to survive as a reviewer he must engage with the commercial realm. If Caldwell–and perhaps you too Steven?–is a hunger artist, does he see Wood as the panther? If he does, it’s important to remember that the panther is also in a cage.

    In particular a passage from Lukacs about reification and its effects on journalism haunts me and I wondered if either or both of you could comment on whether this has relevance to your lives/work and the antagonism you seem to feel towards each other. The final lines of the quote are the most important:

    “The specific type of bureaucratic ‘conscientiousness’ and impartiality, the individual bureaucrat’s inevitable total subjection to a system of relations between the things to which he is exposed, the idea that it is precisely his ‘honour’ and his ‘sense of responsibility’ that exact this total submission [23] all this points to the fact that the division of labour which in the case of Taylorism invaded the psyche, here invades the realm of ethics. Far from weakening the reified structure of consciousness, this actually strengthens it. For as long as the fate of the worker still appears to be an individual fate (as in the case of the slave in antiquity), the life of the ruling classes is still free to assume quite different forms. Not until the rise of capitalism was a unified economic hence a – formally – unified structure of consciousness that embraced the whole society, brought into being. This unity expressed itself in the fact that the problems of consciousness arising from wage-labour were repeated in the ruling class in a refined and spiritualised, but, for that very reason, more intensified form. The specialised ‘virtuoso’, the vendor of his objectified and reified faculties does not just become the [passive] observer of society; he also lapses into a contemplative attitude vis-à-vis the workings of his own objectified and reified faculties. (It is not possible here even to outline the way in which modern administration and law assume the characteristics of the factory as we noted above rather than those of the handicrafts.) This phenomenon can be seen at its most grotesque in journalism. Here it is precisely subjectivity itself, knowledge, temperament and powers of expression that are reduced to an abstract mechanism functioning autonomously and divorced both from the personality of their ‘owner’ and from the material and concrete nature of the subject matter in hand. The journalist’s ‘lack of convictions’, the prostitution of his experiences and beliefs is comprehensible only as the apogee of capitalist reification.”

    But then I guess Ed would you say these are just more Marxist platitudes?

  68. Morten Hoi Jensen
    at 9:41 am on November 18, 2011

    For those interested, I’ve written at length about the many misconceptions about James Wood for “The Quarterly Conversation”, in a review of “The Broken Estate”, Wood’s brilliant first collection of essays. Everyone ought to read that book, particularly its essay on Flaubert, whom Wood has very ambivalent feelings about.

    http://quarterlyconversation.com/the-master-of-the-not-quite-the-broken-estate-essays-on-literature-and-belief-by-james-wood

  69. Steven Augustine
    at 11:41 am on November 18, 2011

    “If Caldwell–and perhaps you too Steven?–is a hunger artist, does he see Wood as the panther?”

    Lewis, I earn good money prostituting a second talent. I believe in the corrosive effects of ambition but I don’t believe that earning money (or not) for it has anything to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the Artist’s effort. Would (the nearly-unimprovable) Underworld be a better book if DeLillo had written it as a pauper? I doubt it.

  70. Joel
    at 1:25 pm on November 18, 2011

    As so often happens on lit blogs, James Wood has become everyone’s straw man. My current problem with Wood is that the books he lately chooses to review (and usually praise) are all seemingly tailored to his sensibilities: morose and thoughtful protagonists in big cities, traces of Sebald and Bernhard (both of whom usually get cited in the review), and the inevitable appearance of the word “flaneur.” Are young writers writing to his sensibilities, or are publishers just better at getting certain books to him that they know he might praise in The New Yorker?

    Lethem’s essay reminds me of the angry letter that Philip Roth wrote to Diane Trilling, never sent, instantly regretted, and then dug up years later to publish in an essay collection. He had even parodied the impulse to send such a letter in The Anatomy Lesson, and yet still felt the need to publish it later.

  71. Steven Augustine
    at 1:48 pm on November 18, 2011

    Joel, I enjoyed your comment so much that I wish you’d stifled the impulse to open it with a meaningless flourish (reading the thread, one finds that James Wood is not *everyone’s* anything)… a meaningless flourish which is also, obviously, incomplete; I’m sure you meant to write: “As so often happens on lit blogs, James Wood has become everyone’s straw man but not mine, since my criticisms, being mine, are spot on.”

  72. In the Deep Woods of the Blogosphere « SONYA CHUNG
    at 2:18 pm on November 18, 2011

    [...] completely insane seems to be happening.  Last week, Sam Allingham wrote an analysis at The Millions of Jonathan Lethem‘s takedown of James Wood‘s review of his own [...]

  73. Joel
    at 2:21 pm on November 18, 2011

    Steven,
    Good call. That’s pretty much exactly what I meant. And I kind of sensed the obnoxiousness of the sentence once I hit “submit comment.” However, I have read all sorts of empty criticisms of Wood over the past 15 years, most accusing him of adhering to a “traditional” realism while disparaging avant-garde forms, and I think that he becomes a straw man for some wholly fraudulent Comp Lit 101 argument about postmodern literature–the kind of argument where “nineteenth-century literature” or “Flaubertian realism” are thrown around as insults for pretty much anything written before Ulysses. Wood, though, is just one critic, with very specific tastes, not an emissary of any school of thought. As with Pauline Kael’s critics, the issue seems to be about Wood/Kael’s stature and influence, not what he/she have actually written. That’s why I wanted to look at what he’s recently written in The New Yorker, and notice the dreary sameness of the novels that he praises.

  74. Edmond Caldwell
    at 2:24 pm on November 18, 2011

    Jiminy Critic has two definitions of realism, one for the kind he doesn’t like, and a broader one (“lifeness,” “truthiness,” etc.) for the kind he likes. The kind he doesn’t like is the narrow adherence to conventional narrative techniques such as one finds in the works of Robert Stone, Richard Ford, or John Updike (although, oddly, he’ll often approve some perfectly pedestrian authors who practice the same thing, such as Jonathan Dee or Richard Price, but we’ll leave that for another time). The kind he likes, the higher or deeper realism of “lifeness,” communicates what Jiminy sees as the core of “real” human experience (individual consciousness) without any narrow fidelity to a particular style. Whenever Jiminy likes a writer’s work, he assigns it to this higher or deeper realism-of-consciousness (even if he has to ignore or misrepresent the work to do so). He wrote a whole book – or at least a collection of fragments published as a book – outlining his understanding of this mode of realism as “lifeness.” Yet whenever anyone charges Jiminy with advocating realism, he has this trick of immediately confining his understanding to the narrow kind, so that he can disavow it, just as he does in this comments thread.

    In the Laszlo Krasznahorkai review Jiminy makes the distinction between the two kinds of realism and assigns LK to the latter kind. LK is among those writers of “experimental fiction” who eschew “a merely grammatical realism, whereby the real is made to fall into approved units and packets.” Jiminy continues, in a passage that he somehow forgot to include above in his selection of self-exculpating quotes: “In fact, these writers could be called realists, of a kind. But the reality that many of them are interested in is ‘reality examined to the point of madness’.” A little earlier, he talks about how these writers deploy the long sentence, emptying it of much of the content of more narrow, conventional realism and instead “concentrat[ing] on filling the sentence, using it to notate and reproduce the tiniest qualifications, hesitations, intermittences, affirmations and negations of being alive.” Ah – being alive! Here is the whole desideratum of Jiminy Critic, his approved units and packets of warmed-over humanism, which have been consistent since the essays in The Broken Estate – realism, lifeness (the idea if not yet the insipid term), consciousness. Does it really need to be said that consciousness is still consciousness, even if it’s a deranged or “mad” consciousness, a consciousness under duress?

    Here’s a phenomenon you’ll often observe in freshman literature classes: whenever a story or a novel offers anything strange, disturbing, or uncanny, many students’ first reaction is to assimilate it back into the familiar. Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis has to be a dream, or proof that he had gone insane. Jonathan Culler, following Barthes, calls this practice the naturalizing or recuperating of “writerly” texts, typically achieved by assigning a controlling consciousness to every utterance. Consciousness, in all cases, must be primary, writing secondary, the effect of a prior cause. You can read an excerpt from Culler which almost reads as an anticipatory critique of How Fiction Works by following this link:

    http://contrajameswood.blogspot.com/2008/12/jonathan-culler-reviews-how-fiction.html

    Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s novels are very much writerly texts, and Jiminy’s whole effort is to make them into readerly texts. Jiminy writes, “It is often hard to know exactly what Krasznahorkai’s characters are thinking, because his fictional world teeters on the edge of a revelation that never quite comes”; instead of such a revelation, we get “a dynamic paralysis in which the mind turns over and over to no obvious effect.” It might be hard to know what the characters are thinking, what the ultimate effect of that thinking should be, but at least there are characters thinking, a mind turning over thoughts. There’s never a sense, in Jiminy’s review, that the “characters” are, say, being “thought” by those lava flows of language; that writing itself might be primary and constitutive. There always must be this stabilizing, prior presence of consciousness – the metaphysic of “the soul” that informs all of Jiminy Critic’s reviewing.

    Of a quote from LK’s novel War & War, Jiminy writes, “the entire passage, even those elements which seem anchored in objective fact, has the quality of hallucination. One senses that Korin spends all his time either manically talking to other people or manically talking to himself, and that there may not be an important difference between the two.” If there’s something contradictory or strange in the text, we can chalk it up to a hallucinating mind, which is still, after all, a mind. Again: “reading, saying, writing, thinking, and inventing are all mixed up in Korin’s mind, and inevitably get mixed up in the reader’s mind, too.” For Jiminy, War & War is what he elsewhere lauds as a “novel of consciousness,” even if consciousness gone mad.

    Thus we reach the thudding bathos of Jiminy’s climax: “By the end of the novel, I felt that I had got as close as literature could possibly take me to the inhabiting of another person, and, in particular, a mind in the grip of ‘war and war’ – a mind not without visions of beauty but also one that is utterly lost in its own boiling, incommunicable fictions…” Actually, by the end of the novel it is made plain that Korin is just an effect of writing, that there is no way out of language’s constitutive power. Jiminy’s trivial reading – that the novel gets you into the head of a madman – is the ultimate recuperation. Jiminy banally speculates that the manuscript in Korin’s possession does not really exist in the world of the novel, that it is Korin’s “mental fiction.” But Korin doesn’t possesses the manuscript because the manuscript (and writing in general) possesses him.

    Towards the end of the essay Jiminy shifts into talking about the metaphysical, because all really good novels are ultimately “about” metaphysical concerns rather than, say, exemplars of materialist ones (and chiefly, in the case of many practitioners of the baroque sentence, the materiality of writing itself). Of the illustrated novella Animalinside he asserts, “by the end of this relentless text, the dog has passed through the political and become metaphysical or theological” – often, by sheer coincidence, the trajectory of many a Jiminy Critic review. Jiminy pretends in this comments thread that the term “metaphysical” has to entail a belief in God, and since he’s only pointing to what he sees as a God-sized hole in Melancholy of Resistance (“a book about a God that not only failed but didn’t even turn up for the exam”), he can’t be accused of yet again going all metaphysical on us. But here Jiminy is just relying on the ignorance of his preferred brand of reader; privately he knows better (later even conceding that it might be an “anti-metaphysic” he’s pointing to).

    The slide from the political to the metaphysical is typical of Jiminy’s reviews, and his reading of Melancholy of Resistance takes place under its sign. In his construal, the novel “takes repeated ironic shots at the possibility of revolution” (always a high recommendation!) and therefore segues perfectly into his (again typical) quietist conclusion: “Mental fictions may enrage us, and may lead to madness, but they may also provide the only ‘resistance’ available. Korin, Valuska, and Mrs. Eszter are, in their different ways, all demented seekers after purity. That they cannot exactly describe or enact their private Edens makes those internal worlds not less but more beautiful. Inevitably, as for all of us but perhaps more acutely for them, ‘heaven is sad’.” Ah yes, yet another novel that ultimately counsels resignation (with a little poignant inner “resistance” in one’s holy consciousness) in the face of a world that cannot be changed.

    Jiminy can point to all the “bottomless abysses and obscure referents” and name-dropping of Beckett and Bernhard that he likes – it’s misdirection, drawing attention to the curtains and wallpaper and the upholstery – never let it be said that Jiminy Critic is not an accomplished upholsterer! – rather than to the foundations of his own review. Those foundations are the same as always: realism, the novel of consciousness, metaphysics, quietism.

  75. David Auerbach
    at 2:55 pm on November 18, 2011

    Steven, while I’m glad you’ve pulled back from your portentous pronouncements of doom (“Wood is the deprivation we deserve”; “I’m not disappointed at all because I know human nature too well”) and happy that I may have had something to do with it, my comments aren’t meant to convince you of anything. My purpose is only to speak to those spectators who may be overwhelmed by your words and dismiss Wood and thereby miss out on, say, his enthusiastic words for Verga, Svevo, and Shchedrin. So indeed, I’m not here for a serious debate.

    Two points though. First, your reductive history is off the mark. Wood was “on the map,” as you say, prior to 2001. Also, ironic that you should boil down my words to “De gustibus…” when I dismiss Adler’s and Peck’s criticism as distinctly inferior. “Proof that you don’t understand my argument”?

    I’m sorry that the world and the web do not meet your standards for argument and criticism. It happens. I think of Proust–

    “…the lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone and prevents us from admitting that, when we chat, it is no longer we who speak, that we are fashioning ourselves then in the likeness of other people and not of a self that differs from them.”

    And to balance that out, here’s some more cartoon dialog:

    Green Sweatered Woman: I don’t have to tell you who I am. You don’t ask me who I am, you don’t know me, you don’t need to know who I am, you don’t know who I am, you don’t ask me who I am, you don’t know me, you don’t need to know who I am, you don’t know who I am.

    Mouse ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald: I know. No one knows who you are. Congratulations.

    Green Sweatered Woman: I don’t have to say thank you to you. I said I don’t have to say thank you to you. I don’t have to say thank you to you. I said I don’t have to say thank you to you. I don’t have to say thank you to you.

  76. Steven Augustine
    at 3:05 pm on November 18, 2011

    David:

    “My purpose is only to speak to those spectators who may be overwhelmed by your words and dismiss Wood and thereby miss out on, say, his enthusiastic words for Verga, Svevo, and Shchedrin.”

    Please don’t encourage me (there’s a lawn that needs mowing; a leaky roof calling…). Laugh.

  77. Steven Augustine
    at 3:10 pm on November 18, 2011

    @ Edmond Caldwell (the comment directly preceding David’s):

    My goodness, that’s fine work! I’m embarrassed to post anything after it…

  78. Pleasant and Painful Experiences | HTMLGIANT
    at 4:14 pm on November 18, 2011

    [...] Speaking of writers and critics… Jonathan Lethem and James Wood. My goodness. And the comments are… a riot. My favorite? The one written at 5:45 on November [...]

  79. David Auerbach
    at 6:20 pm on November 18, 2011

    I’m happy to encourage you, Steven. I’m not angry with you either. If I had a fraction of the anger for you that I’ve had at times for Jonathan Franzen (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/04/opinion/l04franzen.html), it would still be unfair to you.

    C. Wright Mills wrote in 1951:

    “Attempts to reinstate the old emphasis on the power of man’s intelligence to control his destiny have not been taken up by American intellectuals, spurred as they are by new worries, seeking as they are for new gods. Suffering the tremors of men who face defeat, they are worried and distraught, some only half aware of their condition, others so painfully aware that they must obscure their knowledge by rationalistic busy-work and many forms of self-deception.

    “No longer can they read, without smirking or without bitterness, Dewey’s brave words, ‘Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril,’ or Bertrand Russell’s ‘Thought looks into the face of hell and is not afraid,’ much less Marx’s notion that the role of the philosopher was not to interpret but to change the world. Now they hear Charles Péguy: ‘No need to conceal this from ourselves: we are defeated. For ten years, for fifteen years, we have done nothing but lose ground. Today, in the decline, in the decay of political and private morals, literally we are beleagured. We are in a place which is in a state of siege and more than blockaded and all the flat country is in the hands of the enemy.’ What has happened is that the terms of acceptance of American life have been made bleak and superficial at the same time that the terms of revolt have been made vulgar and irrelevant.”

    Now, I don’t know that things have ever been so different, but feeling aware of this situation it is difficult not to be frustrated. You want to be taken seriously. I want to be taken seriously. We all do. I’m no longer sure what it would mean to be taken seriously, or if there anything would satisfy that phrase. Is Jonathan Franzen taken seriously? I don’t even know.

    But since this has turned into a metacommentary on criticism and the web, I might as well say my piece. With a nod toward Steven Stapleton’s infamous Nurse With Wound record list,(http://nursewithwoundlist.blogspot.com/2009/03/introduction.html), this is a partial list of modern writers loosely falling under the rubric of “critic.” Some of them I have read extensively; many I have only read a bit but strongly wish to read more:

    A.D. Nuttall
    Alastair Fowler
    Amos Funkenstein
    Angus Fletcher
    Anthony Grafton
    Arnaldo Momigliano
    Brian Vickers
    Bruno Snell
    Calvert Watkins
    E.R. Curtius
    E.R. Dodds
    Erich Auerbach
    Ernst Cassirer
    Erwin Panofsky
    Frances Yates
    G. Wilson Knight
    G.E.R. Lloyd
    Gabriel Josipovici
    Georg Simmel
    Gilbert Murray
    Giorgio Melchiori
    Guy Davenport
    Hans Belting
    Hans Blumenberg
    Hugh Kenner
    I.A. Richards
    Ian Hacking
    Jeanne Fahnestock
    Keith Thomas
    Kenneth Burke
    Laura Riding
    Leo Spitzer
    Leslie Fiedler
    M.H. Abrams
    Moses Finley
    Northrop Frye
    Paolo Rossi
    Paul Oskar Kristeller
    Peter Green
    R.B. Onians
    R.G.M. Nesbit
    R.P. Blackmur
    Ralph Ellison
    Raymond Klibansky
    Rebecca West
    Robert Musil
    S.L. Goldberg
    Sigurd Burckhardt
    Susanne K. Langer
    Wilbur Sanders
    William Empson

    Pritchett and Wilson are fine writers (I’m very fond of Pritchett’s critical style), but for me they do not reach the heights that many of the above do.

    My contention is that if instead of having this discussion and others like it, we were all to go off and read as much as possible of the works of critics like these and others, it would be more worthwhile for us all and for the entire discipline. I’m as guilty of failing as anyone (I’m here, aren’t I?), and my lack of progress on my to-read list shames me on an hourly basis.

    And, having just shamed myself further, I’m going to go off and read now.

  80. Steven Augustine
    at 8:10 pm on November 18, 2011

    David:

    “My contention is that if instead of having this discussion and others like it, we were all to go off and read as much as possible of the works of critics like these and others, it would be more worthwhile for us all and for the entire discipline.”

    I’m far less interested in the works of critics than I am in the works of actual Writers; far less interested in the critical works of great Writer-critics than in their *real* work (with the possible exceptions of Shaw and Burgess! laugh).

    And I respectfully disagree with your contention: time spent thinking for oneself is usually the more worthwhile of the two! Arguing with smart people is an aerobic version of thinking for oneself. So thanks for the work-out!

    PS “You want to be taken seriously.” Long past caring.

    PPS “Is Jonathan Franzen taken seriously?” Franzen’s work doesn’t make my toe curl but he is a better writer than he’s given credit for being, IMO. But even the dreaded Alma Mahler’s autobiography is worth reading (I have it in two languages, even), on some level, if you’re clear to yourself about why you’re doing it!

    And with that chuckle…. signing off from sunny Berlin…

  81. A nonymous
    at 10:56 am on November 19, 2011

    @ Steven Augustine

    “In my opinion, Zizek has devalued the Germans by flooding the market”

    Zizek does a decent bit of film analysis, but almost everything he does beyond that is pretty ridiculous. And how has he ‘flooded’ the market? By being a big fan of Hegel and Marx? What does ‘flooding the market’ even mean? I can’t fully explain it, but something about your massive self-importance is unbelievably annoying.

    “What should be an interesting argument, in a library, between maybe half-a-dozen genuinely-involved-and-informed nerds, is instead, now, just a mess of zingers and craven ass-licking.”

    I think we’re getting to the root of precisely what annoys me about you, and I think it’s straightforward: you adopt this kind of policing or gatekeeping pose, where you tell everyone else how these kinds of arguments Should be conducted, and yet have literally nothing of your own to say that is of any interest.

    “@ a nonymous: you obviously aren’t an academic, or you’d have beefed up the affectation with citations… semi-obscure ones, at that; even “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann…” won’t cut it anymore.”

    Again with the pompous windbag stuff. So i mentioned Hegel and Kant in passing as examples of people you didn’t have to be like to be able to criticise their systems. I could’ve said anyone, but they’re two figures with big systems of thought often regarded as epochal philosophers who are quite hard to understand, but whom plenty of people who wouldn’t claim to be as brilliant as either have made some withering criticisms of – so they seemed appropriate for the purposes of showing why the logic you were employing is absurd. The whole way that someone mentioning a couple of philosophers in passing to make a point is taken by you as evidence of ‘affectation’ is, again, maddening! You are literally guilty of every single thing you’ve criticised others for, your contributions are so obviously that of an intellectual lightweight, and you write in the style of someone who resides to an unhealthy degree on these kinds of comment threads.

    I have literally never read a thread so stuffed with people whose evident estimations of themselves is so totally out of whack with the insights they have to offer on the issue at hand. It’s really straightforward: Lethem was overly touchy about some criticism from Wood, for whatever reason, a pointless spat has developed, and people who dislike Wood’s critical take have flocked to this thread to complain about how much of a cultural neocon or white middle-class whatever, or reactionary he is. Now, no-one’s perfect, but he’s really not any of these things, as a cursory read of a handful of his reviews should really convey. I suspect that there’s a lot of ‘he doesn’t like my favourite writer’ going on, a lot of ‘he doesn’t employ the critical language i like’ too, and probably just a smidgeon of ‘he writes for the New Yorker &c and is widely read, i write for my blog and am not’ too. There’s been plenty of sub-Marxist/Foucauldian stuff deployed by people claiming Wood is the high priest of some exercise in class-cultural dominance, but that kind of accusation is often hard to make well, isn’t made well here, and has gone largely unsubstantiated. One of the things, by contrast, that you Can say in Wood’s favour is, he’s quite a big fan of substantiating his points with quotation, as the original article here attests to. Doubtless because i’m defending Wood i’m automatically some kind of ‘ass-licker’ or whatever, but ultimately I couldn’t give a fuck.

  82. A nonymous
    at 10:58 am on November 19, 2011

    “estimations of themselves is”

    *are

  83. Steven Augustine
    at 12:07 pm on November 19, 2011

    @ A nonymous:

    1. What you lack in a sense of humor you more than make up for with energy.

    2. It must be great to be 26.

  84. Alvaro
    at 1:30 pm on November 19, 2011

    A non, you said it best here:

    “The snobbery of ‘upwardly mobile’ and condescension of ‘moderately educated’ is quite enough without the odiousness of bringing ‘white’ into the equation as you do.”

    Wood’s detractors here can’t defend these kinds of sentiments without resorting to that hearty, knowing “chuckle.”

  85. Alice Elliott Dark
    at 10:20 am on November 20, 2011

    Every author wants a rave review. Of course. That is a positive review in the mind of an author. Any criticism stings, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile, or accurate. Critical pieces aren’t written for the same purpose as book reviews; nor can they be looked to as a bookselling tool. I very much enjoy reading pieces by James Wood because he is an excellent writer and thinker. I assume The New Yorker has him in its pages for this reason, not because of a judgment that he is the final word on books. He makes an argument about a book that reflects his own way of thinking about books, as does every great critic. Readers learn his way of thinking and either like it or not. James Wood likes certain kinds of books I don’t like, but I always like his writing. I use his book How Fiction Works regularly in my classes although I disagree with some of his conclusions; I have my own way of thinking about how fiction works, as do many people. Isn’t that okay? I do not understand the notion of wanting to “take him down.” Why would that be of use to the world?

  86. Drew Johnson
    at 4:24 pm on November 20, 2011

    It would be interesting if someone (not me) would take the time to find the original strains of anti-Wood writing on the web.

    There are the people who want to write about his reviews but can’t manage to type “Wood” instead of “Woods.” There are the, as mentioned above, “sub-Marxists.” There are the people who inevitably say he doesn’t take books on their own terms–of which, it seems, Lethem is one. There are a couple of interesting takes on Wood’s limitations and/or blind spots out there, but they’re never by the people who always show up to these parties. Why is that?

    But the whole enterprise doesn’t feel like a real discussion of anything. And I wishi it were. Few enough people seem to be taking up Lethem’s book as a wronged masterpiece. Which would seem to be at least one of the things worth doing if Wood were so misguided.

    Colson Whitehead had his fun at Wood’s expense, but I don’t think most of those who laughed along with his parody regularly revisit John Henry Days or put it forward as a great–and greatly misunderstood–book. Isn’t it a very bad book? Much worse than Whitehead’s other books? Maybe even as bad as Wood says it was?

    Franzen seems to go back and forth about this. He sometimes speaks as though he respects the Corrections review–and sometimes he’s contemptuous of the review and of Wood as well. Why not one or the other? What is this discussion? Is it serious? Is it worth having?

    Lethem’s book was put forward and discussed as a big book. His bid for something, a place at the table, I suppose. He has that, I think. But again, I don’t think The Fortress of Solitude is thought of as a wonderful or indispensable book, is it? I liked it but thought it failed in what it was after. It was a book with a lot of great stuff in it that didn’t come off, particularly in light of the terrible changeover from 3rd to 1st that breaks the book in two. As many people noted at the time. I think it’s strange that Lethem places so much emphasis on the lack of discussion of the magic ring. The ring is pretty irrelevant to my memories of the book–which is to say the ways that the ring mattered haven’t stayed with me at all. Not nearly as much as the Brooklyn Lethem created. The ring doesn’t have the impact that Lethem ascribes to it. I was a little surprised that he thought it was so important. The book certainly didn’t read that way.

    Most of those above don’t mention Lethem at all. In their eagerness to get to Wood? Wouldn’t it help for Wood to be wrong about something, some thing, one thing? Instead of just everything?

  87. Steven Augustine
    at 8:44 pm on November 20, 2011

    Drew:

    it’s 50 pages of commentary. You haven’t read all of it (and why should you?), so I’ll point out the fact that the majority of the commenters A) mention Lethem (but not necessarily in more than one comment each) and the commenters who are Contra James Wood (by no means the clear majority in this thread) make very specific claims against very specific aspects of Wood’s project. For you to imply otherwise is not about the presentation of facts or ideas but your participation in a group-emotion which supporters of Wood appear to be getting swept up in, here. It’s a reactionary reflex I’ve seen at work whenever authority is mocked or merely challenged.

    Two factors blur the “debate” (which I accused of being unserious, somewhere after the midpoint) : A) commenters express not only their opinions of Wood and Lethem but their opinions of other comments/ commenters, as well and B) certain commenters (I include myself in this category) assume that everyone else is familiar enough with Wood’s “Hysterical Realism” essay (“Tell me how does it feel?” 2001) and his “Netherland” review (“Beyond a Boundary” 2008) and his review of Norman Rush’s “Mortals”, among other texts, that the *political* accusations against Wood (agree with them or not) make sense.

    The limitations of comment-thread “debate” (space and time, mostly) will mean that “everyone” is busy trying to make the best point possible without, on the other hand, writing a self-contained essay that no one could be expected to read more than the first few paragraphs of, anyway.

    Again: no sane person (under retirement age) can now be expected, coming late to it, to read the whole thread with enough care to be able to comment knowledgeably on it. Much of your comment is wildly inaccurate, gratuitously hostile (unless Wood is a blood relative) and boilerplate herd-think ignorant. Again: it’s the same reaction any vaguely “dissident” or anti-normative commentary attracts anywhere on the web; your response is almost structural. Just drop the noun “Noam Chomsky” on your average Yahoo thread and watch similar crystals form.

    Interestingly, “unsubstantiated” criticism of Wood’s work seems to outrage his partisans; however, where’s the partisan’s *detailed argument* in support of it? Someone pointing out that Wood is with the NYer, or, writing “I very much enjoy reading pieces by James Wood because he is an excellent writer and thinker” is not proof of anything; it is not *substantiation*. That’s lost on quite a few of you, I know. But it’s exactly from such fine points this near-debate was made… and all that you contributed, Drew, was your knee-jerk animus.

  88. Drew Johnson
    at 9:17 pm on November 20, 2011

    Steven,

    The kind of language you call specific is general no matter how specific it gets.

    Since I’ve been reading your comments in these threads for most of a decade, I don’t expect that statement to mean anything to you. This iteration of your eternal case was about the same as my memory of the rest of them. I’m glad we’re all not developing together.

    I guess I should be glad: new ad hominem stuff would probably hurt my feelings. You think I’m a knee-jerk group-thinker and I think you are. And here we are. What a good thing that we can talk about literature in this way.

  89. Holly LeCraw
    at 10:05 pm on November 20, 2011

    Brava, Alice.

    Also, a nonymous is refreshingly sensible, if wordy. But there seems to be a s/he-who-types-the-most-words-wins mentality here.

    It’s noteworthy that one of the commenters here actually has named his blog “Contra James Wood” and another has a half-scolding, half-baffled quote from Wood proudly displayed at the top of HIS blog. That is an awful lot of energy, intellectual and otherwise, expended on one critic. Seems to me that such attention will work mainly to speed Wood along the way to more prominence, which (as I think he’s brilliant, if imperfect) will be a nice outcome.

  90. Joel
    at 10:11 pm on November 20, 2011

    Steven,

    Although I disparaged the sameness of Wood’s recent reviews, I am definitely an admirer of his work. And, with a newborn baby and lots of free early-A.M. time, I actually have read through every comment. Strangely enough, Edmond Caldwell, in a comment above, sums up why I *like* Wood’s criticism, at least compared to the other reviewers in his class, the ones who write the big Harpers/NY Review/LRB reviews in mainstream publications. I really do think (quoting Caldwell) that ” all good novels are ultimately “about” metaphysical concerns rather than, say, exemplars of materialist ones.” The reason I always enjoy reading Wood is because I think that he can draw attention to what is great about a novel that he ultimately either dislikes or (less often) simply doesn’t get. For example, he might only understand a small portion of what makes Pynchon great–his reviews of Mason & Dixon and Against the Day are all *about* a materialist appreciation of the prose at the expense of any political/metaphysical analysis–but he understands it well.

    Drew: I could make a case for the much-maligned Chronic City as a neglected classic. As for Fortress, Wood’s review actually got me to read the book in the first place, particularly because he offered what to me is the highest praise: a flattering comparison to Roth’s Call It Sleep.

  91. De schrijver en zijn dokter-criticus « JJ Pollet
    at 2:47 am on November 21, 2011

    [...] het interessante essay op The Millions. Share this:FacebookTwitterVind ik leuk:LikeWees de eerste om post te waarderen. Posted by [...]

  92. Steven Augustine
    at 4:39 am on November 21, 2011

    Drew:

    “Since I’ve been reading your comments in these threads for most of a decade, I don’t expect that statement to mean anything to you. This iteration of your eternal case was about the same as my memory of the rest of them.”

    I’ll explain the mechanism to you: in some comment threads appended to articles concerning James Wood, I make my eternal case against Wood’s eternal (in my opinion) failing. The other comment threads in which I appear (the ones having nothing to do with Wood), you wouldn’t have noticed, since our only shared interest is Wood. But my much larger interest is the health of the resource of the public Literary Imagination, under pressure from the culture’s terrible shift to the right during the course of the past 30 years or so. Wood is a symptom, not the focus.

    Holly:

    Don’t bother. And, yes, I read the first chapter of your bodice-ripper.

    Joel:

    I actually enjoyed that comment! I think it uses “specific language” (we’ll have to run it by Drew’s specific-language-detector to be sure) and you make an interesting case. Plus, it was free of knee-jerk animus… always nice. And I’m glad you refer to Edmond Caldwell’s fantastic little essay (appearing at 2:24 pm on November 18, 2011).

  93. Steven Augustine
    at 4:55 am on November 21, 2011

    PS @ Joel:

    “And, with a newborn baby and lots of free early-A.M. time…”

    I forgot to congratulate you! Ours is five!

  94. Holly LeCraw
    at 12:32 pm on November 21, 2011

    Oh, dear. Steven, I knew you’d say that, and prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that you’re a condescending, self-important bully (at least online–I have a feeling you might be a lovely dinner party companion) but I hoped I’d be wrong. Oh well.

  95. Steven Augustine
    at 1:52 pm on November 21, 2011

    Holly:

    To quote Tom Hanks: “There’s no crying in baseball!”

    Considering that glass jaw, should you really be slinging insults at strangers?

    (Fear not… I hear a Nonymouse galloping in on his Hegelian steed…!)

  96. Frances Madeson
    at 2:15 pm on November 21, 2011

    Sister Alice,

    Perhaps it’s because I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time in the sack lately, but teaching How Fiction Works to young people who hold dear the wish to be creative fiction writers appears to me to be the functional equivalent of holding down pubescent girls (who wish to be fully human) on the operating table for a quick, but irrevocable, female genital mutilation. And, adding insult to grievous injury, making them pay dearly for the privilege of having their clits whacked off. What does a 3-credit course cost at Rutgers-Newark? I’m guessing it’s pricey!

    In the spirit of edification, I’ve composed a delightful short story called “Claire’s Recuperation” in which Wood’s very own wife is interviewed in the Recovery Room at Lenox Hill Hospital (conveniently located near Hunter College where she plies her trade), explaining exactly what she meant by her ultimate cogent statement before the laudanum took her all the way under: “Cliteradectomy seems the logical extension of my marriage to James…”

    I’m just waiting to hear from my pro-bono legal team (he’s in the shower at present) as to whether I can use Claire Messud’s full name in the story (if she’s a public person in her own right then she’s fair satirical game) or if I have to obscure her identity with a thinly-veiled and comically-butchered rendering. I plan to publish it in Bridge Text on Facebook (it’s an open group) just as soon as he (my attorney) weighs in on the issue, which could be a while as I hear him in there singing, “By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising…” (he’s no Glen Campbell, his talents are more oral than vocal), which is our own private allegorical code for yet another imminent schtupfest. (Oh, I see him toweling off now… gotta run…Incoming!!!!)

    BUT before I spread my labia for him, if you’d like to step out of the dark cave you’ve been laboring in into the light, there are a number of brief essays I can suggest you read that will persuasively answer your sincere and non-rhetorical query. Just let me know and I’ll set you up (post-coitus, naturally) with the appropriate links. In the alternative, if you prefer to join us in a 3-way I could pleasure you into seeing it My Way. I’m not bragging, but I do seem to have a knack for it! And as my mama done told me (via the inimitable Jerry Herman, a truly excellent writer and thinker), “If ya got it (drumbeat), flaunt it!”

    Sister Holly,
    The above is 427 words. Hope that’s not too much for you, babe.

    Also Holly, if you know, should I have put an umlaut in schtup?

    Also Holly-a-le (and yes, dear, that’s a reference to Elkin’s The Rabbi of Lud, which I’m betting the millions you’ve never read much less absorbed its wisdom), as one who has been effectively “bullied” by Steven Augustine, what can I say? Not to be squirrelly, but some of us like our cliterature a little on the rough side. Time/(potentially) life saving, ya know? As for delightful dinner party companion, silly girl, I heard he slurps his noodles rather savagely.

  97. Holly LeCraw
    at 3:59 pm on November 21, 2011

    You’re absolutely right. There is no crying in baseball.

    Which gets back to the original point I and others made about a zillion words ago, which was that Lethem should not have publicly responded to Wood’s review. (Clearly there are others more than happy to do it for him.) Not that Wood-the-critic isn’t worth debating; but if an author tries to settle a score it never ends well.

    I’d like to thank Sam Allingham again for his thoughtful, cogent piece.

    p.s. Looked up “shtup.” There seems to be neither an umlaut nor a c. Good to know.

  98. Nicholas
    at 2:56 pm on November 23, 2011

    Hoo boy, Frances, that was quite the thread-killer. Congrats!

  99. Frances Madeson
    at 2:58 pm on November 25, 2011

    La petite mort, Nicholas. Très petite.

  100. Hey, Internet: Vol. 4 | A. is A.
    at 5:13 pm on December 4, 2011

    [...] The Disappointment Author: Lethem vs. Wood [...]

  101. vivek
    at 4:50 pm on December 15, 2011

    ‘But those of us who care about criticism are more interested in the evidence than the verdict, and in the case of Lethem v. Wood, the evidence is skimpy indeed.’

    This judicious remark, which with this very well written post ends, should indeed be the last word about James Wood were it not for the fact that texts do not exist only in relation to other texts, nor is it the function of a rational consumer of texts to impose a partial order upon them.

    Indeed, the sort of evidence used to evaluate texts and contribute to their currency, must be wholly outside texts and involve a questioning of accepted canons of taste.
    It is in this respect that Wood falls down- except in the sense that he proves to us on this side of the pond that America is simply monstrous- and that, like George Stiener, his own erudition leads him along facile paths when it ought to be prodding him to insight.
    Perhaps, if Wood had studied Chemistry or Carpentry or anything other than Literature, he might question the sort of physical model of the world he subscribes to and see how just as the World is being changed by new physical models, so too must Criticism.

    “Feeling permanently guilty of its own solitute, it [literary writing] is none the less an imagination eagerly desiring a felicity [bonheur] of words, it hastens towards a dreamed-of language whose freshness, by a kind of ideal anticipation, might portray the perfection of some Adamic world where language would no longer be alienated.” (Barthes)

    ‘I think the ubiquity and appeal of this notion- an appeal I found in James Wood- arises from an intuition of something else- what we might call the residual entropy of the reading mind. Clearly, to read is to be as stupid as possible. ‘Only very stupid people read’. It represents the lowest possible energy state, yet its residual entropy turns out to be infinite.

    ‘What of style, of everything that coruscates or is crystalline? It is a stone or a piling on of stones as part of reading’s peine forte et dure, except if abstracted from as a form of geometrical frustration’

  102. De schrijver en zijn dokter-criticus – Ooteoote
    at 12:01 am on March 30, 2013

    [...] Lees het interessante essay op The Millions. [...]

  103. Caleb Crain: The Pompous Nitwit Novelist Who Did Not Understand Libel Law (But Who Threatened Me Anyway)
    at 2:08 pm on August 29, 2013

    […] I suggested that Lee should leave a followup comment to clear up the matter. This is precisely what James Wood did in a thread at The Millions. This is indeed what adults […]

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