Essays

Winning Over James Wood

By posted at 6:00 am on October 29, 2013 37

1.
coverThis is an essay about the genius of James Wood, the literary critic at The New Yorker, and how it influenced the novel I’m about to publish.

Unfortunately even writing that sentence makes me feel uneasy. Enough people already like James Wood; enough people hate him, too. And while there are instances of novelists who admit to being influenced by critics – the most famous recent one is probably Michael Chabon deciding to expand the scope of his work after Jonathan Yardley praised his gifts but criticized the narrowness of their use – there’s something unsavory in that reversal, something suggestible and therefore at odds with the single-mindedness and determination that I associate (perhaps wrongly?) with good fiction.

Still, there’s the truth to deal with. When people ask me about influence I don’t think of the living writers I like best – David Lodge, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Rush. As Jonathan Franzen pointed out, by the time they reach maturity most novelists have moved beyond the stage of direct influence. What I think about instead is James Wood: his emphasis on precision in language, his (implicit and brave) rejection of the intentional fallacy and consequent belief that he can ascertain an author’s aim, his rejection of vague or lyrical cant.

But that uneasiness! I feel it. And therefore maybe it would be best to start with an inoculation – the things that are wrong with James Wood. I’ve compiled a list in my mind over the years.

James Wood has a terrible sense of humor.

Here’s a passage that Wood describes as “sublimely funny,” about how a character in Hardy called Cain Ball was named:

O you see, mem, his pore mother, not being a Scripture-read woman, made a mistake at his christening, thinking ‘twas Abel killed Cain, and called en Cain meaning Abel all the time. She didn’t find out till ‘twas too late, and the chiel was handed back to his godmother…She were brought up by a very heathen father and mother who never sent her to church or school, and it shows how the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, mem.

Only a deranged person could find this sublimely funny, even using the least general definition of the word sublime. It’s maybe faintly amusing in the donnish, ironic, humorless manner of a letter to the Economist. But the simple fact is that Hardy wrote a century and more ago, and humor is the least durable form of human communication. Someone is being born out there right now who will find it bizarre that I consider The Forty-Year Old Virgin funny, and in all but the most exceptional cases, P.G. Wodehouse for instance, comedy fades after ten or fifteen years.

So to conclude, I’ve read a lot of James Wood, and whenever he finds something funny it’s a sure sign that it’s not funny.

James Wood seems naïve about art.

One of the interesting little ghosts in the James Wood machine is his sophisticated and perceptive love of music, which was the subject that earned him a scholarship to Eton.

But his intermittent mentions of art are embarrassing. There are a few examples of this (including one nails-on-a-blackboard invocation of Andy Warhol) but the worst for me is in an essay on Laszlo Krasznahorkai, in which he describes a series of paintings as “exquisite and enigmatic.” What the hell is that? It’s unlike Wood to use such uninteresting words, the words a docent at a regional art museum might use, but there they are in print. “Exquisite,” in particular. It tells us nothing about the pictures, and worse, it implies that beauty is the metric by which to judge art. In an essay about one of the least stylistically beautiful (and one of the most stylistically interesting) writers alive!

James Wood is obsessed with character names.

covercoverAbout Revolutionary Road, he writes, “Frank is anything but frank, and springlike April will die in the fall.”

Okay.

Or of a character named Adam Morey in The Privileges, a book about, unsurprisingly perhaps, privilege, he says “the name suggesting both ‘money’ and ‘more’ of it.”

Oh, thanks James Wood!

So there you have it – I’m out now. I guess he sometimes chases the strong, vibrant language that he so admires in novelists. He can be unattractively dogmatic.

But the most honest thing to say is that the way he sees fiction has changed the way I see fiction. Whether he’s funny doing it or not.

2.
coverWhat makes James Wood great? One thing is his willingness to quote at length, and it seems only fair to grant him the same courtesy. Here is the long first paragraph of his review of The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, a review that I think should be handed out on the first day of every MFA program.

Most of the prose writers acclaimed for “writing beautifully” do no such thing; such praise is issued comprehensively, like the rain on the just and the unjust. Mostly, what’s admired as beautiful is ordinary; or sometimes it’s too obviously beautiful, feebly fine — what Nabokov once called “weak blond prose.” The English novelist Alan Hollinghurst is one of the few contemporary writers who deserve the adverb. His prose has the power of re-description, whereby we are made to notice something hitherto neglected. Yet, unlike a good deal of modern writing, this re-description is not achieved only by inventing brilliant metaphors, or by flourishing some sparkling detail, or by laying down a line of clever commentary. Instead, Hollinghurst works quietly, like a poet, goading all the words in his sentences — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs — into a stealthy equality. I mean something like this, from his novel The Line of Beauty (2004): “Above the trees and rooftops the dingy glare of the London sky faded upwards into weak violet heights.” We can suddenly see the twilit sky of a big city afresh, and the literary genius is obviously centered in the unexpected strength of the adjective “weak,” which brings alive the diminishing strata of the urban night sky, overpowered by the bright lights on the ground. The effect is paradoxical, because we usually associate heights not with weakness but with power or command. And the poetry lies not just in what the sentence paints but in how it sounds: there is something mysteriously lovely about the rhythm of “weak violet heights,” and the way the two adjectives turn into a plural noun that is really just another adjective; the sentence does indeed seem to drift away into the far distance.

This is not a particularly original passage of criticism – for one thing re-description sounds an awful lot like defamiliarization. But it has two qualities I associate with Wood. First, it’s absolutely correct; he’s a great reader, whether you like him or not. This passage is itself a re-description of a sentence one might easily have passed without noticing. Second, it’s a close reading that is attuned to the significance of language within fiction.

The second point is the significant one. In the last ten or fifteen years precision of language has become the password that marks out serious writers of fiction. (In this respect, though in fewer and fewer others, John Updike’s influence remains enormous.) There aren’t many literary novelists at the moment who are content to be plainspoken, and those who are, Kazuo Ishiguro for instance, have clear narrative motives for the choice. Instead, when you open almost any well-regarded novel today it will have long passages of precisely poetic prose, full of surprising and carefully curated language.

I attribute this generation of writers’ embrace of non-narrative and extra-narrative observation at least in part to Wood. From his first days at the Guardian he’s been a persistent and sometimes lonely advocate for Hardy and Lawrence’s brand of language-based realism. (The writers he’s criticized over the years – Richard Powers, A.S. Byatt, Paul Auster, this last to devastating effect – often have an element of magic in their works, and a fair criticism of Wood might be that he restricts his affections to books that even when they are fanciful make total sense, which sounds like a fair metric until you think about it.)

To pick out language for special attention might seem like an affectation in a critic of fiction. Language is important in a novel, obviously, but less so than in poetry, where the sense of distillation makes it overarchingly vital. Novels should have room for mess and digression, the way life does – and in my opinion they should also have some speed, which precious language can check.

But what seems to me to make Wood such an important critic is that he doesn’t care about language simply for itself, even when he cites its beauty, as in Hollinghurst’s case, but, crucially, as an indicator of a novel’s quality of thought. That seems to me to be his central insight: that since language is our only point of access to a writer’s intentions, its care or carelessness is the first test we ought to take of a book’s merit, and more than that our greatest clue to the quality of their thoughts. “Intelligence is not mere ‘smartness,’” he writes at one point, “but an element inseparable from the texture and the movement of the book.”

This – the division between smartness and thought – is where Wood’s brain began to work on my own.

3.
In the spring of 2011 I was living in Oxford, doing halfhearted work on a doctorate (its subject was false genealogies in the work of Edmund Spenser; film rights still available) and working intensely on the final third of a novel about the city, where by then I’d lived for nearly three years. One day I read that Wood was going to be in town, to deliver a series of six lectures on fiction at St. Anne’s College.

I went to all six, excited to hear him speak. They were intermittently terrific; it seemed to me that he was strongest in his readings of contemporary writers, where the weight of academic thought had yet to settle. In particular his lectures on Melville and Woolf were perceptive in parts but also seemed less persuasive in that academic setting, and I was reminded that in a very real way criticism is journalism, a first, delible draft of literary history. That was Wood’s strength, I thought: getting a living writer just right for a literate but not professional audience. His opinion of Orwell seemed less vital to me than his opinion of Ben Lerner.

Around the same time I read How Fiction Works, his short guide to (truth in advertising) how fiction works. Though that book was genial company it made very little impact on me, probably because I was already aware of the existence of free indirect speech, which Wood discovered in the same way that Columbus discovered America – long after it was settled terrain. Combined with the good-but-not-great lectures, the effect of the book was to lessen his importance in my mind. It wasn’t as if he was the only critic I liked, anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever read a word Zoe Heller wrote that I didn’t love. Dwight Garner was never boring.

Then a funny thing happened.

By June I had finished my novel about Oxford. It was under contract to a publisher and I took some time away from it, two or three months, because I wanted to return and edit it with fresh eyes. When I went back to it late in the summer I felt pleased with the book from sentence to sentence, and with its characters. But I started to have a terrible, itchy, and at first seemingly irrelevant thought: James Wood would dislike this book.

This was truly stupid, I thought at first. You might write for yourself, or some ideal reader, but never for a critic.

But then my thought clarified into something worse: James Wood would dislike this book and he would be correct.

There were two levels to this realization. The first was the level of language, and I experienced it as I edited from line to line, like those fibrillations you feel in a muscle just as you’re falling asleep: I would pass by a sentence and then startle back toward it, realizing the fatal slackness of its language. Where I thought I had been precise I had been quick, where I thought I had been quick and free I had been inexcusably careless. (Wallace Stegner put it so well – hard writing makes for easy reading, and the reverse.) I began to edit much more fastidiously, not in accordance with what I thought Wood would like (I wasn’t that far gone) but with what sounded like the truth. If, for instance, I had a character “crunch through the snow” in my first draft, now I would stop and think. Was there any vitality left in that word, “crunch”? Where had I received it?  Was it the best word I could think to describe the sound of shoes in the snow? What about the little shreds of wisdom (“fail better” was one I can recall cutting) that had been hollowed of meaning by familiarity?

The second level of that Woodian realization, and the less agonizing, more liberating one, was about a subtler idea: withholding.

coverThat is one of Wood’s own words, an attribute he values enormously in a writer. Reticence might be another thing to call it. In his assessment (one of his most profound to me) of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, he writes:

And throughout the novel, present but never spoken, never written – it is the most beautiful act of Sebald’s withholding – is the other historical name that shadows the name Austerlitz, the name that begins and ends with the same letters, the place that Agata Austerlitz was almost certainly “sent east” to in 1944, and the place that Maximilian Aychenwald was almost certainly sent to from the French camp in Gurs, in 1942: Auschwitz.

coverAs I read through The Last Enchantments – as my book was and is called – I began to see how catastrophically little I had withheld. Partially this was a fault of using the first person, a choice that I began to look on with dismay. My narrator analyzed every gesture of the people around him, and was constantly checking in on his own thoughts. He also explained the emotional significance of all the interactions he had, as if he were writing for a child.

So I began to cut as ruthlessly as possible, and just as importantly to elide plot, to remove connective tissue, to cede control of the book to the reader. As with the language, it wasn’t a slavish choice, taken in obeisance to James Wood’s critical opinion. Instead, it was that he had, as in the opening to his Hollinghurst review, illuminated an idea I already understood in my mind – that the best texts are writerly, per Barthes – but had never cared all that much about, until I relearned it through his gift for instantiating abstractions through criticism. How rare that seemed to me at the time, and seems still, in a critic.

I spent that whole fall of 2011 cutting and rewriting my novel. By the end of it I felt nearly sick with anxiety over the process. Still, I forced myself to take another few months away from it, and when I returned again I realized, with a tremendous exhalation of relief, that it was a better book now. When I finished reading the last draft I was sitting in a coffee shop in New York, and I can remember, though it sounds bizarre, thinking of James Wood – and feeling grateful to him.

Also, and not irrelevantly, on that day I remember thinking that even after all of my changes he would see the book as a failure. A few months away from publication, I still do, for reasons I’ll describe now.

4.
Of John Updike, whom I mentioned earlier, Wood has written, “he is not, I think, a great writer, and the lacuna is not in the quality of his prose but in the risk of the thought.”

The risk of the thought. That phrase has settled in my brain. The Last Enchantments is a relatively conventional story about an American abroad at Oxford, where he makes a break with his past life, meets new people, and falls in love. These could be the elements of a radical book or a safe one, a good one or a terrible one. I don’t personally think it’s terrible, but it may be safe. The fact of the matter is that language and elision – the lessons that James Wood reshaped and renewed for me as I was editing – are important, but they’re still not as important as conception. As I look upon my book as a finished object, preparing to exchange it for money with people out in the world, I can’t help but feel its conception risks too little. (I should say I don’t think risk means formal radicalism – Alice Munro, to me, is a far riskier writer than, say, John Barth, because her stories rely on her perception of human psychology, which when written falsely is disastrous.) The Last Enchantments seems to exist too much within the contours of books that I’ve loved in the past, both long ago (Brideshead Revisited) and not that long ago (The Line of Beauty). That may sound odd, since at the outset of this essay I specifically disavowed the direct influence of other novelists, but I don’t mean that the books were influential on my own. I mean that I accepted the terms of other writers too easily – their view of the world. My own book is new, in the sense that I feel very sure it’s written with my voice, but I now I wonder if perhaps it’s not new enough.

Of course this is a common tactical retreat. Every writer must feel his last book is the worst one ever, and I don’t know how I’ll come to judge this one when I’ve traveled farther away from it. I’m working on something now that is riskier, or feels riskier to me, but it could be that I’ll look back on it with far greater regret than I do on The Last Enchantments. At any rate it’s certain that I’ll look back on it with regret. It seems impossible to me not to. Iris Murdoch said it best: every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.

This returns me to James Wood. Almost no subject on earth has more nonsense mysticism attached to it than writing. I think perhaps in the end what he has given me is the feeling that any real work of literature is underwritten not by inspiration, or genius, but by actual thought – actual work – actual choice. In every line of his criticism, Wood searches for the real work that an author is doing, rather than the most generous possible reading of its brilliance. No wonder his highest praise for Lydia Davis is for her “relentless control” of her work, which “gives it an implacable Beckettian power.”

The fact that this praise gets right is that writers live within the borders of their choices. That is the lesson I owe James Wood for teaching me, better than I was able to teach it to myself. Critics should never determine what a writer should write, of course. But writers shouldn’t be proud, either; they should take their lessons where they can find them. Read with the craft in mind, Wood can give a writer who pays attention the wherewithal to write with greater care, to take greater risks, and therefore ultimately to – one more time, why not – fail better.

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37 Responses to “Winning Over James Wood”

  1. Themba Mabona
    at 6:43 am on October 29, 2013

    clever promo

  2. Edward Champion
    at 9:15 am on October 29, 2013

    Summary for the tl;dr crowd: “I have a novel to push. So I’ll adopt a poorly supported, needlessly dismissive position better argued elsewhere by Edmond Caldwell that is more about me than the target of my attacks.” New template for The Millions? Well, if you’re going for a midcult BuzzFeed or Slate, knock yourselves out. I agree with James Wood about 45% of the time, but I’m always fascinated by how he arrives at his positions. This “essay” seems just as prescriptive and dogmatic about taste and reading. Who cares if Wood is a “lonely advocate” or has a somewhat eccentric obsession with character names? It’s no more crazier than Mary McCarthy’s close read of PALE FIRE. You don’t have to agree. But having another deep analytical approach sometimes helps to reconcile your own take on a novel. Why not a landscape of multiple intellectual positions which one can deem privately “wrong” in individual interpretation while simultaneously respecting the many adventurous journeys of other readers?

  3. Charles Finch
    at 9:44 am on October 29, 2013

    Edward Champion – I’m fascinated to know who you think I’m dismissing, or what I’m prescribing!

    As for promotion, I would be surprised if this essay sold a single copy of my book. Thanks for reading, however.

  4. CJ
    at 11:20 am on October 29, 2013

    To Mr. Finch – Bravo! I’ve seldom read such incisive analysis of what exactly it is that James Wood has that most other critics don’t. His sensitivity to language is nearly unparalleled, and his insights as penetrating as academic criticism, without the jargon. Thank you for articulating this!

    Summary of Edward Champion’s comment for the tl;dr crowd: “I have a website to push. So I’ll adopt a poorly supported, needlessly dismissive position that is more about me than the target of my attacks.”

  5. Grace Burrowes
    at 11:39 am on October 29, 2013

    Gads. The Examined Novel lives a perilous existence, as does its author!

    A writer’s most needful trait is not ruthless skill with language–that can be acquired–and not even humility–that WILL be imposed. A writer’s most indispensable asset is courage, and I salute yours.

  6. Charles Finch
    at 11:41 am on October 29, 2013

    CJ, needless to say I enjoyed your comment top to bottom, especially the TLDR!

    Grace – you’re so right about humility, wonderfully put.

  7. Andrew Saltarelli
    at 12:15 pm on October 29, 2013

    Hi. A nice essay, thank you for it.

    I learned much from James Wood, too. I’m not a published author, and probably never will be — my river of inspiration dried up in my early thirties, alas — but during my heady, solitary years of writing he was my vital ghost. Doubtless the obsession was unhealthy, if not deranged, but there it is. The existence of his mind and spirit sustained me. I wonder if other marginal, desperate aspirants felt the same. I wouldn’t doubt it.

    The reason for this is perfectly straightforward. The Broken Estate was a work of original genius, and for those of us who stumbled on it randomly and on our own, when we were young and on fire and thought of literature, like a Saul Bellow hero, twenty-four hours a day, its effect was liberating; we rejoiced to find that we were not, as we had feared, utterly belated. If we could do that thing we dreamed of — write a masterpiece — there was a man who would recognize it, celebrate it, tell the world of its haul of treasure.

    I imagine that for most people James Wood is just another voice in a vast, cozy chorus. This was not so for me. No one else approached him. He made you feel that the spirits of Melville and Woolf and Hardy and Tolstoy carried on, the lineage unbroken and literature itself still fresh, raw, alive, capable of the most marvelous transformations; capable indeed of transforming our blood knowledge, our root imagination, of who we were, and what this life was.

    This happened to be especially energizing for someone like myself, who lived in the hinterlands of the West. For the ten years that I was writing, I met exactly no one who read books, or considered the writing of books anything other than a quaint archaic trade, an eccentric pastime. I was lucky enough to have a partner who read, but otherwise it was the sheerest wasteland, and the distant peripheral noise of the ‘literary community’ seemed nothing but hollowness, publicity, group-think, and exhaustion, a nattering digital book club.

    I no longer read fiction — the dead poets are fine enough company (which admission no doubt cannot today be taken for anything but howling pretentiousness) — but I remain glad he is alive and well. Indeed, my prevailing thought is simply that we failed him; or not we, exactly, but our circumstance. And here is where I disagree with the essayist. None of Wood’s reviews of contemporary novelists have the breadth and depth and passionate clarity of his resurrections of the speaking dead (except, perhaps, for his fabulous take-downs). Not because they are more poorly written, or tossed off, but because the material in the main is comparatively thin, derivative, precious, jejune, lifeless, low stakes, hysterical, cloistered, etc. I don’t, as a fact, blame us. We are, in the end, utterly belated. Literature must draw its vital energies from the world; and when it is estranged from the world, it must draw them from a close living circle of friends or family. The former condition gave us Shakespeare (and the Victorian novelists); the latter Wordsworth (and the Modernists). We, who have neither, who reach a final isolation, cannot be expected to produce masterpieces, except perhaps a random, odd, unrepeatable freak. The writing on the wall is legible enough. We will have to put away our books, and our bright ideas, and find our way in the bad hard world like everyone else, content with whatever little, unremembered acts of kindness and love we can be roused to.

    In the meantime, in these last twilight years of the written word, its potency vanishing day by day, almost wholly gone, I hope James Wood remains standing at the gate. Someone needs to be there with the silver sword.

  8. Charles Finch
    at 12:20 pm on October 29, 2013

    Andrew – a fascinating reply, thank you for writing it. I’d be curious to know which of Wood’s essays on dead writers you find most interesting.

  9. Jack M
    at 12:55 pm on October 29, 2013

    My only problem is that I am put off by authors who discuss their own work in too much detail. It reminds me of the “how to write fiction” books where the author only refers to his or her own work as examples.

  10. Charles Finch
    at 12:57 pm on October 29, 2013

    Jack M, I generally agree…

  11. ZK
    at 2:11 pm on October 29, 2013

    Still waiting for the great Ed Champion novel. It’s a lonely party.

  12. Jacques Fleener
    at 2:19 pm on October 29, 2013

    This piece reads to me like the edited transcript of the sort of conversation one might have with oneself in the car, on a drive, maybe over the course of several drives, imagining dealing with the media after publication of one’s book.

    Here we have the author daydreaming about making it onto James Wood’s radar. On some days these daydreams involved an enraptured Wood, full of praise. On other days, when the writer was in the frame of mind to contemplate not adulation but rejection, he took a beating from his shadowboxing partner.

    I think it’s actually fascinating to think about whether authors are especially qualified to think in such a manner, since developing conflicting points of view among characters is part of the job. Although a musician could of course try to predict what a music critic might say about his songs, and maybe react to this imagined criticism, in the end a musician makes music, while a writer already works in arguments.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if other authors could benefit from setting fictionalized versions of noted critics upon their own works – even idealized versions of these critics. The resulting dialogues surely could help writers work through some of the narrative and structural challenges routinely faced during the writing of their books.

  13. Ryan Chapman
    at 2:33 pm on October 29, 2013

    Mr. Finch, you get right to the heart of what makes Wood such an exacting critic. I’ve read and re-read “How Fiction Works,” happy to wrestle with his prescriptions for contemporary writing. (We part ways with his insistence upon close indirect style.)

    It’s also rare to see a novelist write about the home stretch, that time between a manuscript’s acceptance and its final edits. Thanks for the peek.

  14. Charles Finch
    at 4:15 pm on October 29, 2013

    Ryan, thanks so much for reading and for these kinds words.

    Jacques, as you’ll observe I make no reference to James Wood actually reading, let alone reviewing, my novel. The New Yorker publishes book reviews so selectively that I don’t have any ambition in that direction. Thanks for reading.

  15. LP
    at 6:20 pm on October 29, 2013

    Any writer who cares about what James Wood thinks while they are writing their novel is a writer whose work I don’t want to read. Ever.

  16. Charles Finch
    at 6:27 pm on October 29, 2013

    LP, what a nuanced and interesting point of view!

  17. Andrew Saltarelli
    at 7:27 pm on October 29, 2013

    Thanks Charles.

    I think, not surprisingly, his really great essays are on the really great writers: Melville, Woolf, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Hardy. He is also superb on Henry Green, Pritchett, Bellow, Verga, Sebald, Orwell, and many, many others. It’s funny to me that he’s so often criticized for narrow taste. To me he is the definition of catholic: I cannot understand his reverence for Roth and Bernhard; I don’t share his relish of our endless metropolitan flaneurs. What I would really love to see is him come out with a book on poetry. He’s dabbled in it before; a wonderful tough probing of Seamus Heaney in the London Review a few years back, a defense of Eliot. Be nice to read him on Wordsworth (my hero), Frost, John Clare…the rural bards. Oh well, not a whole lot of poetry chanters left. Good luck on the novel!

  18. Charles Finch
    at 8:31 pm on October 29, 2013

    Andrew, absolutely agree on Green and Sebald…

  19. Andrew Saltarelli
    at 9:15 pm on October 29, 2013

    Just wanted to say, very happy that my first ever internet comment was not ridiculed and excoriated! And thank you Charles for a personal response. I feel so damn emboldened I went on to comment on an acute Tim Parks post in the NYR blog. As it happens, it’s about his waning ability to read fiction, a trait I share. In fact, I haven’t been able to finish reading a piece of fiction, story or novel, in five years. I do know exactly how you feel, though, measuring your book against the mind of Wood, but I know it from my past; and even though my own efforts ended in relative defeat, I do think it was helpful being terrorized by so exacting and discerning an intelligence. At any rate, I feel absolutely no snobbery about not being able to enjoy fiction anymore, and I truly hope you remain, as you seem, a kind balanced humble man, writing what you write because it pleases you. (That last virtue, humility, I know is hard, but I believe Wordsworth when he said it was the greatest and most necessary. Read his Lines Written on a Seat Left By A Yew Tree, it is a real masterpiece of wisdom, and one I am sorely trying to put into practice!)

    Be well.

  20. Charles Finch
    at 10:27 pm on October 29, 2013

    Andrew, your first comment, my God! Congratulations. It’s all downhill from here.

    I remember that poem but it’s been years. I’ll look at it again.

  21. Edward Champion
    at 10:48 pm on October 29, 2013

    It is always a pathetic sight to see grown men hide behind cowardly acronyms rather than use their real names. Perhaps they have little more than bile and permanent resentiment to steer them on this mortal coil? I am certain they will be easy food for the zombies when the apocalypse comes.

    As to Charles Finch, who had the gallant courtesy to respond and is actually interested in a discussion, well, I won’t go as far as LP, who was quite mean and ungenerous, here are but a few of your prescriptive points: (1) There is only one kind of humor and that another person’s humor which does not match your own should be discounted. (2) An “obsession” with character names is bad, even if it allows us insight into a critic’s mind at work. (3) “There aren’t many literary novelists at the moment who are content to be plainspoken.” Colm Tóibín? Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD? Denis Johnson at times. What remains of the dirty realists. (4) The idea that language is Wood’s chief indicator of a novel’s quality of thought (easily debunked by Wood’s rave for Rachel Kushner’s THE FLAMETHROWERS, which is noteworthy for focusing more on her storytelling strengths rather than the language, on how the real meshes with the inverted). (5) The notion that Wood is searching for the real work an author is doing with “every line of criticism.” Not so with the takedowns you cite.

    In your defense, Mr. Finch, you are very well aware of this. And had I posted the above comment with less rapidity, I should have acknowledged this. On the other hand, if I’m going to tsk-tsk certain analytical types for their failure to track a mind unfolding, then I’ll modestly impugn myself. But that’s only because, Mr. Finch, you have bigger balls than any pusillanimous member of the above alphabet soup.

    Speaking of which: no mention of Garth Risk Hallberg’s remarkable deal with Scott Rudin, to which I offered my considerable congratulations? Is this how you treat your homegrown, The Millions? Man, I can’t wait to see how you slight Emily Mandel down the line. True backhanded class!

  22. Kim
    at 10:57 pm on October 29, 2013

    I read your essay with interest and delight, particularly the bit near the end about risk and convention. You write with an intellectual intimacy that invites a reader to explore and sharpen their own ideas in direct relationship to yours. It might please you to know that, (1) I laughed out loud at your response to LP, and (2) you sold at least one novel tonight based solely on this essay.

  23. Charles Finch
    at 11:48 pm on October 29, 2013

    Kim, I’m genuinely so pleased that you enjoyed the essay – thank you so much for commenting!

    Edward Champion, I think I understand your point of view – that critics should try to minimize the uncertain qualities of their own personal taste in their reaction to a work. I respect that idea but don’t agree with it entirely (and indeed, James Wood doesn’t seem to me to follow it either).

    I don’t agree either with all of your examples, but don’t want to wade into a point-by-point argument. It may interest you to know however, that GILEAD was actually originally in the draft of this essay alongside Ishiguro. The editors can verify it if you’re skeptical, since it’s a funny coincidence.

    I took it back because I went back and checked the text to be sure of what I was saying and didn’t feel quite comfortable with it as an example of plainspokenness, in the end. Actually it was hard for me to find any writers whose work didn’t seem to have some filigree of linguistic invention. Likely more a fault of my reading rather than contemporary writing that I could only cite Ishiguro.

  24. heather curran
    at 11:56 pm on October 29, 2013

    I enjoyed your insightful essay as well Mr. Finch. For me I read it as simply a critic you respect being ever present as you aspired to write a novel of worth and meaning. I also felt deeply for the generosity of Andrew’s comments. His first post especially hit me hard. It seemed such a sad prognosis for the future of the novel although I slightly agree. One must engage with humanity to truly have something new to say. Thank you.

  25. Charles Finch
    at 12:00 am on October 30, 2013

    Heather, first of all, thank you so much – that’s exactly what I was aiming to convey. And secondly, I agree that Andrew’s comment has stayed rattling around my brain since I read it, though I still believe in fiction (or perhaps just can’t see why I’m wrong to believe in it). Andrew, hope you see this feedback for your first internet comment!

  26. Winterman
    at 12:54 am on October 30, 2013

    A perceptive and reflective essay. What we can’t miss is the author’s gratefulness to James Wood as shown clearly in the essay. Critics and writers work on their projects daily, but not necessarily consistently. But I like the notion in the end: fail better. What is sweeter to taste the successful failure?

  27. Charles Finch
    at 10:24 am on October 30, 2013

    Winterman, thank you so much for reading and for your response

  28. Edward Champion
    at 1:07 pm on October 30, 2013

    Charles Finch: Thanks very much for the reply. I think any critic or reader is in constant war with her tastes. And if there’s a published exchange, those tastes tend to battle (mostly in a healthy way) with those of other readers, often resulting in hyperbolic clashes such as those in the thread above. This is one of the chief reasons why James Wood has found himself in so much trouble (the “hysterical realism” charge comes from an essay that is now twelve years old, yet even today this is ascribed to his aesthetic prescriptions). And I suspect this is one reason why I took issue with your plainspoken qualifier. (That is a funny coincidence!) If you write for The Millions again (and I hope that you will), I think there’s a great opportunity here for you to expand upon this idea of plainspoken voice and how it has come to define some literature of the past twenty-five years. In any event, I’m glad that we could find points of agreement and disagreement without too many howitzers going off! Thank you again, sir!

  29. Charles Finch
    at 3:24 pm on October 30, 2013

    Edward Champion, glad we could exchange ideas, thanks again for reading and responding

  30. Ezra
    at 10:49 pm on October 30, 2013

    Wood’s ideas of what constitutes “beautiful prose” are extremely restrictive. Most prominently, “beautiful prose” is never, ever narrative; it is always a description of a static something. A “beautifully written” book is therefore one that has as little narrative as possible and as much description and metaphors as possible.

    This idea is further developed at: http://weird-proof.org/2013/04/04/pritchards-law/

  31. Charles Finch
    at 6:18 pm on October 31, 2013

    Ezra, interesting catch. I guess it’s hard for me to think of a place where pure plot is beautifully written (that’s what segregates prose and poetry perhaps)

  32. Sarah
    at 10:04 am on November 2, 2013

    I hadn’t known that James Wood has a background in music… But, I remember that, in a class he taught at Columbia’s MFA program, he would read aloud to us from texts he’d assigned, and we would fall captive to his voice. He would show us the music in the language — the cadence, the poetry, the color, the texture… He read with tenderness, precision and warmth; as if long passages of prose were songs waiting to be brought alive by a human instrument.

    The class was unforgettable. He’s the teacher who revealed most clearly to me how fiction is a craft. Writers are artisans. Precision is required. So is joy. And intuition. And a great deal of hard work.

  33. Charles Finch
    at 12:44 pm on November 2, 2013

    Sarah, fascinating to hear about him as a teacher. Thanks for posting.

  34. David Flynn
    at 2:33 pm on November 4, 2013

    This is meta-criticism of the highest order. Bravo sir! I have placed The Enchantments on my bulging TBR pile.

  35. Charles Finch
    at 3:08 pm on November 4, 2013

    David, thank you so much on both counts!

  36. Winning Over James Wood – The Millions | Writers News Show
    at 9:11 pm on November 9, 2013

    […] Winning Over James WoodThe MillionsAnd the poetry lies not just in what the sentence paints but in how it sounds: there is something mysteriously lovely about the rhythm of “weak violet heights,” and the way the two adjectives turn into a plural noun that is really just another … […]

  37. The Last Enchantments + Giveaway! | One Little Library
    at 8:01 am on January 6, 2014

    […] reading the book, I highly suggest first reading Charles Finch’s article “Winning Over James Wood,” which he wrote for The Millions. It’s a fantastic article about literary criticism and a […]

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