There’s no question that, for good or ill, James Wood has reigned supreme amongst literary critics for more than a decade. At least in part this state of affairs is a reflection of Wood’s missionary fervour, his sense that literature – and the novel in particular – must fill the gap left by the death of religion. But it is also testament to the thrilling force and acuity of his writing. Certainly I remember the excitement of encountering his first book, The Broken Estate, and the chastening realization that the person speaking with such eloquence and ferocity was only a year or so older than myself.
Yet for all his brilliance Wood is an oddly blinkered reader (and to some extent, writer). This is especially apparent in his recent How Fiction Works, a Ruskinesque disquisition on the rights and wrongs of fiction, which manages, by virtue of its narrowness of focus and its curious lack of interest in examining its own intellectual underpinnings, to lay bare something unsettlingly reactionary at the heart of Wood’s thinking.
It’s difficult not to contrast its fusty fury with the increasingly expansive and nuanced work of one of Wood’s first scalps, Zadie Smith, whose White Teeth Wood famously dismissed as “hysterical realism”. In a series of essays in The New York Review of Books (in particular, her review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, ‘Two paths for the novel?’) Smith has sought to tease out both the crisis afflicting the novel and – whether successfully or not – to make sense of what a new mode of fiction might look like.
I’m not the only one made increasingly uncomfortable by Wood’s certitudes. John Banville wrote a typically slippery but sceptical review of How Fiction Works in The New York Review of Books (sadly not online) and here in Australia both Delia Falconer and James Ley articulated similar reservations in a pair of stringently argued reviews (Delia’s is especially worth reading).
There’s also Edmond Caldwell’s Contra James Wood, a gloriously obsessive but brilliant blog devoted to picking Wood and his pronouncements apart (although like any such endeavour, Caldwell’s relentless shadowing of his quarry is itself a sort of tribute) and now Daniel Miller has published an excellent piece in Prospect attempting to draw together the various strands of the growing resistance to Wood’s reign.
Miller’s piece is well worth a read, as is Contra James Wood, but it’s difficult not to wonder whether the pre-eminence of Wood isn’t itself a symptom of precisely the exhaustion of the novel, and in particular the realist novel Zadie Smith explores in her piece for The New York Review of Books. I wouldn’t for a moment want to diminish Wood’s very real achievements as a critic, or the capacity of the force of his conviction about literature’s necessity to remind us why novels matter, but the ease with which it is possible to caricature him as a glittering ultra deploying his rhetoric to rally the forces of the past against the inexorable logic of the future should give us pause, if nothing else. And, as Miller points out, in many ways Wood’s thundering only underlines how isolated he has become, and how much more attuned to our cultural moment critics (and indeed novelists) such as Smith, Benjamin Kunkel and others like them are.