If James Wood, today’s preeminent reviewer of literary fiction, were reviewing The Fun Stuff, a collection of 23 of his essays published between 2004 and 2011 in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and the London Review of Books, he would be thorough, he would be specific, he would quote a lot, and he would appreciate the critic’s range and unpushy persuasiveness: “Certainly, the novella 'Agamemnon’s Daughter,' which [Ismail] Kadare wrote in the mid-1980s, around the time of [Enver] Hoxha’s death, is laceratingly direct and bitterly lucid. It is perhaps his greatest book, and, along with its sequel, 'The Successor,' surely one of the most devastating accounts ever written of the mental and spiritual contamination wreaked on the individual by the totalitarian state.” The polite Englishman might not point out, as I rudely would, that only laziness would prevent a reader of Wood’s essay from seeking out that Albanian novelist’s work.
Wood might, however, criticize what in fact he does concede about his own writing: “For me, [Keith Moon’s] playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheleved, careful and lawless, right and wrong.” For me, just another Yankee reviewer, reading or rereading Wood’s pieces one after the other (rather than as intermittent oases in a sea of sludgy literary criticism), is a little disappointing, if only because Wood, with his bright, clear voice, starts to sound slapdashedly slick: “Above all,” he announces in his essay on Marilynne Robinson, “I deeply admire the precision and lyrical power of her language, and the way it embodies a struggle – the fight with words, the contemporary writer’s fight with the history of words and the presence of literary tradition, the fight to use the best words to describe both the visible and the invisible world.” A bit blurby, there, wot?
Wood doesn’t give his opinions and reactions as much play as, for instance, as a just as professional but less beholden author might – the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, for example, or the late John Updike. He’s got a job to do, which is to say he measures his audience and tries to bring us up to speed, which I can’t help thinking puts us into the mode of graduate seminar students in the presence of a youngish brilliant professor: there’s no discussion. Wood is not conversing with us, we’re just supposed to listen to him riff: “I suspect that [Lydia Davis’s] prose will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions, distinct and crookedly personal, in the way of the work of Flannery O’Connor, or Donald Barthelme, or J. F. Powers.” His judgments are impressive, but too often, he has killed and mounted his response rather than described it fluttering before him. That’s his default eagerness to cover himself and his subject, which he well knows has its drawbacks: “Sometimes one despises oneself, in near middle age, for still being such a merely good student." We wish his criticism were riskier, more alive, less mindful of being good and responsible.
Wood’s reviews of Lydia Davis and Aleksandar Hemon will persuade you that you have to read those writers, and you will feel grateful to Wood for having introduced you to them, through a meticulous and perfect selection of quotes, or for having jostled you into giving them another look: “And it needs to be stressed that Hemon did not become, in those eight years, merely a proficient but a superb stylist. Sometimes, his English has the regenerative eccentricity of the immigrant’s, restoring buried meanings to words like ‘vacuous’ and ‘petrified.’ A sentence like this one stands at a slight angle to customary English usage: ‘I piled different sorts of blebby pierogi and a cup of limpid tea on my tray.’ ‘Blebby’ is wonderful but perhaps more wonderfully, how many native English speakers would ever describe tea as limpid?”
Having read several of these pieces as they came out (and having been inspired to try out some of the authors he lauds), I only realized reading them together that, for the most part, Wood’s reviews are not essays but appreciations. So regularly positive and appreciative is he that it seems he’s compelled to announce in the title his one big pan, “Paul Auster’s Shallowness.” Wood is not D. H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf puzzling over and thinking out loud about a book or an author, letting the quick observations prompt new observations and conclusions, and that, really, is the letdown. We don’t see Wood thinking; we see him having thought his way through and then laying out, rather too carefully and self-consciously, the conclusive presentations: “[Edmund Wilson’s] criticism, at once partisan and Olympian, manages the extraordinary feat of being disinterestedly interested.”
When he is not enhancing our appreciation of modern novelists, he’s taking up such greats as Orwell, Tolstoy, Hardy and (as presented by the translator Robert Alter) God: “Biblical style is famous for its stony reticence ... This reticence ... achieves its best-known form in the family stories of Genesis. The paratactic verses with their repeated ‘and’ move like the hands of those large old railway station clocks that jolted visibly from minute to minute: time is beaten forward, not continuously pursued.” And there, in those clocks, is one of Wood’s too rare fresh images.
In his absolutely exciting and real essay on George Orwell, we get the pleasure of seeing him write his way through feelings, memories, and perceptions (live writing and live reading!): “I sat up when I encountered Orwell’s two references to the East London suburb of Dagenham, because that was where my father was born, in 1928, into exactly the ‘indeterminate class’ that Orwell cannot bring himself to admire.... Theoretically, Orwell had to approve of men like my father; practically, he could not, and in The Road to Wigan Pier, in perhaps the most scandalous paragraph he ever wrote, he announces that the working-class attitude to education is much sounder than the middle class’s – they see through the nonsense of education, ‘and reject it by a healthy instinct,’ and sensibly want to leave school as soon as possible.”
His paragraphs of descriptive and narrative writing, in the opening and closing essays about the Who’s Keith Moon and Wood’s late father-in-law’s library, only go to show that as a personal essayist, it’s as if he’s imitating competency rather than recording his own sensations: “Route 12D, north of Utica, New York, south of Fort Drum and Carthage, runs through poor, shabby countryside. In the unraveled townships, there are trailers and collapsed farmhouses. Here and there, a new silo, shining like a chrome torpedo, suggests a fresh start, or maybe just the arrival of agribusiness. The pall of lost prosperity hangs heavily. Heavily? No, to the skimming driver aiming elsewhere it only falls vaguely, or vaguely guiltily.”
Okay, so instead he’s simply a great reviewer who has earned himself one of the largest forums in literary criticism today. He’s a hungry, happy bookworm, appreciative of the novels and novelists who feed him and us. That’s fun enough.