For the past decade, the most dreaded literary critic in America has been a tall, thin, agreeable Englishman with a crop-top pate and an apologetic air.
“I agree with Randall Jarrell that a critic who can’t praise is not a critic,” James Wood, 42, says in a café near Harvard University, where he teaches.
But this doesn’t sound like the Wood we’ve come to know on the page.
That Wood has been the man lying belly-down in the jungle, while big-game novelists lumber by, their award-fattened flanks exposed to his shots.
Toni Morrison “loves her own language more than she loves her own characters.” Don DeLillo spawned a culture in which everyone with a laptop and a bit of paranoia is a genius. John Updike forgot when to stop.
“It seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book,” he wrote about his short-story collection Licks of Love.
On a cold, windy day in Cambridge, Mass., Wood doesn’t disavow these statements. But he admits he has exhausted the polemic. If publishers want to send flowers to anyone for this change, they should start with his students.
“I became aware of a curious dual track,” Wood says. “I would be polemicising in pieces about things I didn’t like, but almost never doing that in class. You can’t do that with students; it’s not fair to prejudice them.”
Wood’s concise and readable new book, How Fiction Works (FSG, $24), grew out of this engagement with students. It’s an attempt to show what he does like, and explain the novel as he sees it. Constructed in 123 short sections, How Fiction Works covers narration, style, detail, and other basic elements in typically crisp prose, but there’s one big difference.
The primary mode is praise.
Here are Wood’s maestros, demonstrating how it’s done: Henry James using what Wood calls free indirect style in What Maisie Knew, George Orwell’s mastery of telling detail in “The Hanging,” and Ian McEwan’s deft manipulation of the reader’s sympathy in Atonement.
For Wood, the modern novel began with Flaubert, when we started to see “that highly selective editing and shaping [achieved] by cutting out the chatty narrator that you get in Balzac or Walter Scott.”
Through free indirect style, by which he basically means third person narration that cleaves to one character or another, Wood says the novel has shown us more about consciousness than any other art form.
In recent years, however, he believes that — especially in America — it has become bloated with unnecessary facts and language. Buried inside The Corrections, for example, he felt, was a very good novel if only Jonathan Franzen could have stopped telling us how much he knew.
“The result is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them,” Wood wrote in a piece about the American social novel that Franzen and others were writing, “curiously arrested and very ‘brilliant’ books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.”
Once Wood may have reiterated this point in journalism, but now he feels that he can have a greater impact by sharing his opinion with students.
“I really felt a connection,” he says of his Columbia University students in particular. “These were people very interested in technique, and were willing to take what they learnt and go away and apply it.
“This was my chance to say, look, you all do this thing called free indirect style, its instinctive, you have your own words for it. Here’s a history of it. You can go back to Jane Austen, or even the Bible, and see it’s endemic to narrative. Let me give you some terminology and a brief history of it.”
In many ways, Wood is perfectly suited to this terrain. While other boys his age were playing rugby, he spent his time reading criticism by F.R. Leavis, Irving Howe, and Ford Madox Ford.
He was also obsessed with America.
“I went through a phase where I loved everything having to do with America,” he says. “Then someone gave me Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter when I was 21. That book just blew me away. No one begins a book like that in England, ‘My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter’.”
At Cambridge (the English one), Wood met the Canadian-American writer Claire Messud, with whom he has two children. As Messud began her career, Wood worked as a critic in London for The Guardian and other newspapers. In 1995, he met the literary editor Leon Wieseltier who invited him to write for The New Republic. Wood leapt at the chance to go to America.
“I always felt in America there was more room to move around,” Wood says. “There’s just so much space that people will, by and large, leave you alone to do your work.”
He was an immediate sensation. Coming from the outside, Wood cut a swath through some of America’s most hallowed names — a role that Dale Peck tried to take on, unsuccessfully. Wood quickly learned how small the country can be.
In 1996, he attended the dinner for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Messud’s novel When the World Was Steady was a finalist, alongside Richard Ford’s Independence Day, to which Wood had given a mixed review. About halfway through the dinner he felt a shadow standing over him. It was Ford.
“We need to talk,” Ford said.
“I immediately said to Claire, ‘We’ve got to get out of here!'”
Wood published some of his pieces as a book in 1999, The Broken Estate. That book — with its follow-up, The Irresponsible Self: Laughter and the Novel — became secret handshakes for aspiring critics.
A novel, The Book Against God, followed in 2003 and met surprisingly little payback. “People on the whole were very kind,” Wood says. “But I know if I were to publish that novel again, there are some things I would change.”
In the meantime, he now has a chance to reach a larger audience with his criticism. Last autumn he moved from The New Republic to The New Yorker, where he joined Updike as one of the primary literary critics. If there is any awkwardness in sharing that post, he doesn’t mention it.
In fact, Wood seems to get as much out of listening to younger critics.
“I think we’re in a golden age for criticism,” he says.
John Freeman is a book critic for National Public Radio. This piece originally appeared in The Times of London.