James Wood is arguably the most celebrated, possibly the most impugned, and definitely the most envied, literary journalist living. By his mid twenties he was the chief book reviewer for The Guardian. From there he moved to America’s The New Republic, then, as of 2007, The New Yorker. He also teaches at Harvard. There is a tendency, therefore, for critics to spend more time reviewing the superlatives other reviewers have used about him than his books themselves. His previous collections have tilted on an axis of religious belief and philosophy: he writes that our investment and belief when we read fiction is a metaphorical substitute for religious faith because it ‘resembles’ real belief. The style of his criticism, too, is highly metaphorical – something he has been praised and criticised for – because it resembles the process by which he understands what he is reading. In his new collection, The Fun Stuff, when discussing Edmund Wilson, Wood talks about ‘permanent criticism – which lasts… only if it, too, becomes literature.’ This is what Wood’s essays offer: they are a joy to read without knowledge of the books they discuss. Like the essays of William Hazlitt and Virginia Woolf, they are an art form in themselves, though of course other literary critics may contest this.
In an age of rationed book pages Wood’s reviews have a sense of luxury, as if the scrutinised author is a dinner guest on whom no expense is spared; they get Wood’s best china, even if they are the meal. Even when he doesn’t like a book he gives his full attention, which is surely worth more to reader and author than flippant praise. He quotes at length, is sensitive to detail and texture, and makes an effort to understand a book’s processes. And unlike critics one reads for the wit of their put-downs – those who tend to be most stimulating when on the attack – Wood is nearly always at his best on writers he likes. The most enlightening pieces in his new book are on W. G. Sebald, Marilynne Robinson, Mikhail Lermontov, and Richard Yates.
Book reviewing, to some extent, is always going to be propaganda for the reviewer’s own tastes. It then becomes a case of deciding whose manifesto you prefer. When I was seventeen my uncle gave me a book of Wood’s essays. When I went to university he gave me another, this time signed. I spoke to Wood between an interview with the BBC and a reading at the LRB bookshop and we talked about criticism and books.
In the first essay of this book you say rather uncharacteristically that perhaps novel writing, like athletic prowess, has improved in the last century. How so?
That’s a little bit of a throwaway line, but I meant simply that, as with athletics and classical music, when a form or activity becomes more professionalised, the average level probably goes up a bit. That’s all I meant really, that we may not be in an age of titanic novelists, but we’re probably in an age of many pretty good novelists.
There is diminishing space in English papers for rigorous reviews. Similarly, papers’ blogs, which theoretically have unlimited space, require snappy, uncluttered pieces of writing. How has book reviewing changed since you started out and what do you recommend for reviewers as serious as you might have been?
I have noticed that diminishment, and I’ve noticed it in the reviews of my own book. For instance, I got two reviews from The Independent – one in the daily and one in The Independent on Sunday – but they were very scrappy, short things by people who didn’t really seem to know what they were talking about: they were sort of disengaged; there wasn’t much investment. And that was sad to me because I remember when I started freelancing: It was the early days of The Independent, and it had a very serious book section that was edited by Blake Morrison, and there was space given, rather as there is still in The Guardian book section, to longish reviews and profiles. And I feel with The Independent, in style and the way it looks, it’s becoming a bit like Metro Magazine. Eighty years ago Cyril Connolly’s advice to the young reviewer was choose wisely what you review: don’t spend too much time reviewing bad stuff; minor art, because your pieces will be forgettable too. I think now my advice would be try and write longer pieces wherever you can. One thing that’s changed since the late ‘80s when I was freelancing is that there’s space online now to do that kind of thing. You don’t get paid for it, largely, but there’s the chance to do something at length. In the ’80s if you wanted to write at length there was the TLS, The London Review of Books, and maybe The London Magazine. Now it’s infinite online. But how you earn a living I don’t know.
Are there any young reviews over here or in the states you particularly admire or with which you keep up?
Yes, there are two freelancers I like who are both managing to keep alive from freelancing, and that’s Leo Robson and Edmund Gordon. Leo writes for The New Statesman, and a bit about film for the TLS. Edmund writes pretty much exclusively about fiction and is also teaching at King’s College. That’s another change from the ‘80s. Apart from UEA, Creative Writing didn’t really exist in Britain, so there wasn’t a chance, unless you had a PHD, of doing the teaching thing. Now I guess, if you get a book out, there is a chance to bulk up your salary by doing some teaching in addition to reviewing.
Over here we have the Hatchet Job of The Year, its aim being to reward high quality book reviewing. It’s also become a way for people to locate the funniest negative reviews. Do you think this kind of thing will encourage serious reviews or just witty ones, and does trying to be witty sometimes get in the way of a good book review?
I think it’s not a good emphasis, and I have to say, judging from some of the excerpts that I read, I wasn’t actually that impressed with the standard either. I thought, if you’re going to have an award with that title, then there’d better be a really good, sort of Martin Amis level, Gore Vidal level of vituperation, or, dare I say it, James Wood level. I’m all for wit, but what I saw there was strained; flat-footed insults. It seems to me the wrong kind of emphasis; it’s weird how obsessed people are with negativity. But you know, any panel I’m on about criticism, half the discussion seems to be about negative reviews, and I always want to say to people, that represents about 5%, not just of my output, but of most critics’ output. Maybe not Adam Mars-Jones: he’s very good at what he does, I have to say, having suffered twice at his hands I can tell you he’s a good surgeon.
In your essay on Edmund Wilson, you said that a young F. Scott Fitzgerald was grateful to be criticised by Wilson, because at least somebody was reading him intelligently. Do authors ever correspond privately with you about their books which you have reviewed; and do you see evidence of their work changing in response to your criticism?
They do indeed. I get quite a number of communications from people. Obviously most of them are thanking me for something I’ve written; the negative reviews tend to get a chilly silence, as you’d expect. But I do run into people who will say, not so much about their own work, but they’ll say that thing you wrote about Toni Morrison or whatever – it helped me work out something that was wrong with my own work, and I adjusted it. And I suppose in some ways Zadie Smith and I have been in some kind of…
Public dialogue, some kind of communication in which I would say, probably as an author – or I think it’s a temperamental thing – she’s quite susceptible to criticism and perhaps feels that she needs to incorporate it and learn from it, which maybe she does to a fault. But I feel that in some way she and I have been going back and forth on certain issues and I thought her new novel was absolutely splendid.
Do you think writers should respond to critics and write about their own work?
Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I know there’s a code of etiquette which seems very English, doesn’t it, in which you’re supposed to grin and bear it. There’s that Kingsley Amis thing: ‘I’ll let a bad review spoil my breakfast but not my lunch’ which is doubtless a wise coping strategy – I’ve used it myself. But in some larger sense I don’t see why a writer shouldn’t – particularly if you think the critic is wrong – come out and say ‘I that’s a load of bullshit. I’m going to defend my work; I’m going to produce an apologia for my work.’ Jonathan Lethem did that with something I wrote about him. The comedy there was that it was quite a nice review and he’d sort of misread it in his mind as being a negative review, so in a sense his response turned out to be more personal that he meant it to be. But in principle there was nothing wrong with the idea.
You have attacked writers like John Updike for being too prolific – almost profligately productive. The implication is that his fiction reads like it has been too easy for him. Do you require a book to have been an ordeal for the writer to produce?
It’s more that I feel, particularly in a post-war environment, that language needs a kind of respect for silence. We’re postmodernists. There’s a modernist and now a postmodern tradition, and both of them, in different ways, incarnate a kind of wariness about language, and a sense that every word you choose is surrounded by its opposite – by silence. And I suppose in somebody like Updike and similarly in someone like Paul Auster who I criticise in this book, there’s a feeling that they’ve not had to grapple with that; that their language has come out too easily. And yes, I suppose that gives a metaphysical, moral shallowness to the prose.
William Deresiewicz once said that ‘Wood’s critical authority has become so daunting, it seems, that even he is afraid to challenge it.’ It seems that to some extent you new book does challenge your own ‘dauntingness.’ In the collection’s eponymous essay, you talk about the freedom of Keith Moon’s drumming – how its virtue is that it is comprised wholly of fills, and how the truant in you is drawn to it. Do you ever feel constrained to be consistent with the taste and seriousness you have previously displayed in your criticism?
First of all, as to the Deresiewicz thing, that just shows you how much, in this relation to authority in particular – and I think this is also the case with Lethem’s response – people are talking about themselves. They’re not really talking any more about the subject, they’re talking about their own fear of authority, or slightly resentful relationship to it I don’t feel I have any authority at all. I understand I have the authority…
Invested in you?
Of an institution, and of a space, right. And that’s a big deal. And there’s no doubt that a million people or a thousand people in America would love to have that freedom to write in The New Yorker. But I do firmly believe that the authority of any piece is a rhetorical authority and it’s made each time you write a piece, and that’s what makes reviewing quite interesting: that you’re trying to win a legal argument; you have quotes and a case to make. And you’re trying to do a very peculiar thing which is you’re trying to convince a reader who hasn’t read the book and who may never read the book that it is or isn’t worth reading. That always seems a little perilous to me: at any moment it seems to me likely that you’re not quite winning your case; that you haven’t quite convinced enough with your marshalled evidence or with the force of your arguments. In that sense I don’t think you can rest on authoritative laurels. So on the one level I understand that thing about authority but on the other I think it’s just a nice freedom of reviewing that it’s made anew each time.
There is a line in the new collection: ‘One despises oneself in near middle age for still being such a merely good student.’ Do you ever want to be a different James Wood who doesn’t have the baggage of your reputation: your templates of belief, your hard-won atheist’s scepticism of miracles and the magical in fiction?
I would happily. It’s not just that Deresiewicz thing of authority – there’s also something tedious about having a past as a critic which then becomes the sum of all your pronouncements on things. What happens, actually, as a critic, is that your writing tends to get ignored sentence by sentence as texture and gets flattened into a series of pronouncements: he likes X, he didn’t like that; he’s against Pynchon but he’s for so and so. And then of course if there’s a negative element, like there is with my argument against ‘Hysterical Realism’ or Pynchon, it never leaves you and is always stronger than anything positive. It’s always ‘He’s against this or that’ – the prohibitions are what’s remembered. That becomes a tedious past that one is quite desperate to get rid of. No-one lives like that. We’re always losing and growing skin. It would be horrible to remain consistent in that way: ‘Oh, I’m exactly the same now as I was twenty years ago.’ We change, our reading habits change, so I’m quite keen to escape that. You know what: if I didn’t write another book review for ten years – or forever – and just wrote other things, I’d be very happy. Who knows?
You’re fine for all this to go in?
Yeah! The other thing is, sometimes I do look at what I’ve written and think: it wasn’t meant to be anything like that. And the reason it wasn’t meant to be anything like that is because when I was a teenager what I really wanted to do was poetry – I wasn’t any good at poetry. Then I wanted to write fiction, and for a long time a wrote a bit of fiction and then I’d tear it up and throw it away, then I started putting off the writing of it all together. Suddenly, by my late twenties I was sort of known, at least in London, as a reviewer and as a hard reviewer. I was very hard on current English writing then, and people would come up to me and say, well your novel better be a masterpiece because clearly that’s what you demand of other people. That was completely terrifying, so I went into arrest and didn’t write a novel until I was thirty-three.
Your position on the aesthetic isn’t solid: some people seem to think you favour millionaires of style, but in your reviews you often demonstrate a wariness of style; of language for its own sake. Is this an evangelical hangover? Is the aesthetic a ‘guilty pleasure’?
I think you’re right to relate it to the Christian upbringing, where there was a hostility towards fiction. Of course I didn’t have that – fiction when I was a teenager was the great liberation; it was seeing that I could escape that prohibitive Christian world of surveillance: that you can think some things but you can’t think those things. I could see, as soon as I read grown-up novels, that what made a novel good was that anything could happen and anyone could think anything. Where I do think I’m a child of my background is – to dignify it a bit – this Kierkegaardian either/or thing; the ethical or the aesthetic, whereas there’s part of me always wanting to go to the sweet box and enjoy almost amorally. And then there’s another part of me, if not wary of that, feels, well, that won’t be quite sufficient, will it? Surely beauty must account for itself. Surely beauty to be beauty is also truth. And this was always my quarrel with Updike a bit: he’s a great painter but where’s the metaphysical gristle.
You can also be quite irreverent about language. You did two of your infamous parodies in the new collection: one of Paul Auster, who you don’t think is good; one of Alan Hollinghurst, whom you allow is a beautiful writer. Do you not feel conflict when you parody a writer as good as Hollingurst? Is this not reductive to fiction’s overall currency? Is it not shitting in fiction’s nest to parody a great prose writer?
I think that’s true, and he is a lovely prose writer, except I thought he had become – I won’t say lazy; that’s not a fair word – but I felt that in his new novel his prose had become a little bit too fluent and was in danger of becoming a parody of itself. I thought it was okay to do a parody of a prose that’s becoming a parody of itself. I don’t know about you, but I thought there was some really nice stuff in that novel but I pushed against the whole literariness of it. Maybe I just made the cardinal mistake reviewers do make…
Of saying, why couldn’t you have written a different book?
Or why couldn’t you have done that one again, which is unfair to writers. If they did do it again they wouldn’t get praised for it. But do you remember the middle section in The Folding Star? It’s beautifully done: he goes back to that village – there’s that old writer. I thought he did that better in that novel than any of the rather similar material in the new one.
You used to come under fire for censuring books that were praised everywhere else. You are noticeably more generous now. Do you feel under pressure to be kind, especially to young offenders?
Yes. Absolutely I do. I pretty much started my career at The Guardian – it wasn’t the very first review I wrote but it was probably the first that made a name for me: a cruel review of a debut novelist, actually. And I think I was so young, and so ambitious myself to write, that it didn’t register that this was a first-time novelist. It was a first novel, and a pretty terrible novel and I was horrible about it. And who cares, really? Both the review and the novel have been long forgotten, but a few weeks later someone told me that the review had come out on the day of the author’s book launch, that she was in tears, and that it ruined the party. That’s a pretty horrible thing to hear. Nobody wants to be that person, and ever since it’s made me very wary. All the firepower has been concentrated on big names. Delillo’s strong enough to takes it: Updike, Pynchon, Auster… I’ve always been tender on first time novelists. Since going to The New Yorker in 2007, there’s a slightly different emphasis when you move from a smaller magazine like The New Republic that defines itself militantly. ‘We only have sixty-thousand readers, and we’re out there fighting a cultural cause’ – I liked that about it. But when you’re writing in The New Yorker for a million readers actually there’s good work you can do which is going out – Edmund Wilson did this too when he was at The New Yorker – going out and finding people and saying to that large readership: hey, what about this person? I just reviewed a first book of short stories by a writer called Jamie Quatro – I want to show you more. Great name! I thought there was some marvelous stories in that book. And it was fun being able to say, here’s something worth reading.
A few years ago in Harpers, Wyatt Mason charged you with not looking hard enough for new fiction worth championing. One of the books he said you could have mentioned was Alexander Hemon’s Nowhere Man. Of course, in your new collection there is a very good essay on Hemon. To what extent does your criticism ‘take’ and respond to criticism?
Absolutely it does. Mason was completely right, and I sometimes think, and can say this for the record, that my fabled negativity is just laziness on my part, which is to say, damn it, I can’t really be bothered to read X, or do I really have to make that extra effort with Y.
So you have resented authors for having to read them?
Slightly, yes. With Pynchon, when I’m looking hard at myself – though I think it’s undeniable that for the last 15 years since Vineland his work have not been very good – I think that I’ve never really liked Pynchon very much because I’ve never been willing to do the hard work of getting stuck into Gravity’s Rainbow or V and cracking them. So that laziness of choosing your diminished horizons has to be guarded against as a critic.
That’s funny. I have this image of you having great things to say about the sinuous writers who you inwardly resent, who accumulate slow nuance over a massive text like The Magic Mountain and then attacking books with wonderful sentences which you might inwardly love. Are there any young, or at least very new novelists, who have really impressed you of late?
Yeah, I’ve got one here which I’m reviewing for The New Yorker: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. It’s absolutely phenomenal! I’m loving it. She’s just a natural novelist. It’s set in the ’70s and it’s narrated by a young woman from Nevada who’s obsessed with high speed motorcycling. It’s really well written. Jonathan Franzen has also praised her as a coming novelist.
There are certain quotations which you like to reuse from review to review, from book to book – Flaubert’s ostrich feather of train-smoke, Hardy’s ‘scarlet handful of fire’ – which suggest a deep personal relevance or fascination. Is there still room in your likes and dislikes for manoeuvre? Does knowing definitively what you like become an impediment for a critic?
I hope not. When I reuse stuff it’s almost always laziness / journalism, that is to say, the deadline gun is pointed to the temple and I’m essentially self-plagiarising. It’s not a great habit, but it gets you through a piece. And you’ve exactly put your finger on a danger. It’s not just the repetition – readers notice the repetition – repetition is fine: there are touchstones you go back to: I always keep coming back to this lovely description in Bellow’s Seize the Day of Mr Rappaport’s cigar, or his ‘big but light elbow.’ But the danger is this awful sclerosis, whereby you wouldn’t feel any need to admit anything new because you’ve got it all taped up. I don’t feel that at all.
You once made the example of Socrates’ scholar, who, each time he reads the same book, must forget what he knows in order to teach himself new things, or rather, to ‘learn from himself what he already knows.’ How willing are you to re-read an old book and forget what you have said about it in order to learn something new?
I actually feel that way about DeLillo; I would like the chance to reassess him. I still think I’d feel that Underworld was overwrought, and I would still have arguments with the controlling paranoia. And I noticed, actually, when Martin Amis reviewed it in The New York Times, it was a very positive review but he used a weird formulation; he refused to say it was a great novel but that ‘with Underworld, Delillo has certainly become the greatest American novelist,’ which is how he put it… But, what it would allow me to do is go back to some of the earlier stuff you were mentioning: go back to Mao II in a slightly less adversarial mode, and to this new book of stories, and just be more patient. I’ve tried to do that with David Foster Wallace – I haven’t written on him, but I’ve taught Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in a very academic, non-judgemental sort of way, trying to decouple the evaluative side which is so important in reviewing, and the academic side: investigating his techniques and strategies. It increases your respect for the book. I mean, he has a tremendous ear in those stories. He’s a writer I keep coming back to. If you look at how I’ve written about Wallace it’s like a cardiographic up and down. I reviewed Infinite Jest very positively for The Guardian, though with a word of warning about comedy of culture rather than the comedy of character, then dipped down and threw him in with Hysterical Realism, and went against him in the Oblivion review, though with some praise. But that’s the normal and natural way we live with writers.
Have you considered writing a long work on one author?
Yes, I would love to write a long work about Chekov, and the only reason I haven’t done it is I felt that not being able to read any Russian at all was a real impediment because obviously there’s a whole other layer and criticism I couldn’t have access to as a non-Russianist. So about five years ago I had a crazy idea to take Russian lessons and almost at the very moment that I was about to commit time to Russian lessons, what happened? I got a drum kit – for the first time in my life! – and started drumming lessons, which I have never had.
In an old essay on Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, you say some books – great ones – become more modern the older they get. Do you feel you can keep up?
Wow. That is a bloody good question, isn’t it, and you really know how to ask them. Well, why not? I feel more curious and more open to new writing now than I was ten year ago, when I was sort of in the trenches, and probably more than I was even when I was at The Guardian, when I was twenty-three and doing battle with phantom English forces – things that were half in my imagination: Julian Barnes must be sliced down! Maybe one thing that comes with getting a bit older is some sort of reason about temporality, which is, when you’re twenty-three the fact that Julian Barnes is sort of there in your face as it were is a kind of offence and an insult. You think, no! He’s not good enough! Or Ian McEwan or whoever. But what you don’t realise is that as you get older so he’ll get older. Time and posterity will sort people out to some extent. Julian Barnes: it’s irritating when he wins the Booker Prize, but he’ll fade away. And when you’re older, you can put some of those battles to rest.
Follow me on twitter @jonniemcaloon