On Wednesday David Herman argued in these pages that the best literary critic living in America is Adam Kirsch, a distinguished writer and poet, and a worthy contender for that imaginary prize. Yet, I think we should look to another for that title.
In his masterly book The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, John Gross laments the demise of the literary critic in the public imagination, and the growing domination of universities and literary theorists at the centre of intellectual debate on literature. “The body of theory that has accumulated over the last few years,” he writes, “seems to me a monstrous excrescence, a vast distraction, a paltry substitution for the experience of literature itself.” Gross praised the remaining literary journalists who “refused to retreat behind an academic stockade”.
Today, James Wood is one of the few who could pass Gross’s worthy test. Both in Britain and America, he has attempted to take literary criticism from an enclosed, esoteric debate on theory and back into the public domain, while also relighting a previously dwindling fire surrounding the reactions to literature. He has recreated the long-form review essay, distinct from the short-form pieces that make up the books pages of most newspapers today, meaning he can write in detail, seriously and truthfully. Wood has cemented a position as the most incisive, detailed critic of realist fiction, based on a firm understanding of the classics.
Wood’s writing shows what literary criticism can and should be, even in the 21st century. As long ago as 1990, Wood was challenging the academic orthodoxy, the slow drive towards the apparently obvious authority of cultural materialists. Having established himself as a demanding critic in the pages of the Guardian, Wood left for America in 1995 for the New Republic. He now writes for the New Yorker.
Wood espouses a novelistic method of what he calls “serious noticing”, that encapsulates the realism of writers such as Chekhov and Orwell; their ability to retell vividly, to explore their characters in memory, and create novels that are, in Wood’s words, the nearest thing to life: only separated from reality in the artistic process. When describing his “somewhat austere” childhood, Wood wishes that his children could “be assaulted by the pungency, by the vivid strength and strangeness of detail, that I was as a child”. Wood’s second novel Upstate is a clear instance of this serious noticing; although the novel is often tedious, there is a palpable, vivid poignancy to his novelistic style.
Along with his attention to detail, to small phrases of beauty, Wood also asks the most vital question in appraising literature: what’s at stake? It’s a query that must be asked, must be responded to, in order for literature to play any meaningful role outside of the academy, or even outside of the page. In Wood’s eyes, all writers must be able to display substance, not the “shallowness” he saw in Paul Auster, or the “manic factories” of Thomas Pynchon. He portrays an urgency, a philosophical tone that is wholly missing from most of criticism, especially in Britain, whose “airless” scene Wood left for America.
Along with being perhaps the most widely-read, most penetrating critic in Anglo-American letters (taking that position from the late, great Christopher Hitchens), Wood is also a brilliant, engaging writer, able to become not just a reader, but an interpreter, a lecturer who guides the reader, tells them why they should read authors.
He exposes the ideas, the contrasts, the struggles, with which the novelist must contend; Wood’s first book collection is entitled The Broken Estate, and it deals with the internal conflict between religion and fiction. Wood writes of Virginia Woolf, that “a kind of religious or mystical belief and a literary belief softly consorted — and yet, for her, the novel still retained its sceptical, inquisitorial function”.
Wood reminisces about his time as chorister in Durham Cathedral and his position on the highest step on the ladder towards faith. Wood tells us of his first reading of DH Lawrence, of Dostoevsky, of Cervantes, Nietzsche, and Camus, and the rebelliousness that they brought in “fuelling my atheism”. It is this serious mixture of philosophy, and a clear love for all worthy literature, that makes Wood the most impassioned, readable and important critic of this generation.