Feared lit­er­ary critic James Wood has laid down his guns to fo­cus on what he likes, writes John Free­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

FOR the past 10 years, the most dreaded lit­er­ary critic in the US has been a tall, thin, agree­able English­man from Durham with a crop- top pate and an apolo­getic air about him. ‘‘ I agree with Ran­dall Jar­rell that a critic who can’t praise is not a critic,’’ says James Wood, 42, as he sits at an empty cafe near Har­vard Univer­sity, where he teaches.

But this doesn’t sound much like the Wood Amer­i­cans have be­come used to 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, Wood wrote, ‘‘ loves her own lan­guage more than she loves her own char­ac­ters’’; Don DeLillo has spawned a cul­ture in which ev­ery­one with a lap­top and a bit of para­noia is a ge­nius; and 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, Mas­sachusetts, Wood doesn’t dis­avow th­ese state­ments. But he ad­mits that he has ex­hausted the polemic. And if pub­lish­ers want to send flow­ers to any­one for bring­ing about this change, they should start with his stu­dents.

‘‘ I be­came aware of a curious dual track,’’ Wood says, winc­ing slightly.

‘‘ 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 , grew out of this en­gage­ment with stu­dents. It is 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 Wood’s typ­i­cally crisp prose, but there is 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 Gus­tave Flaubert, when we started to see ‘‘ that highly se­lec­tive edit­ing and shap­ing, 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 it has be­come bloated with un­nec­es­sary facts and lan­guage, es­pe­cially in the US. Buried inside The Cor­rec­tions , for ex­am­ple, was a very good novel, he felt, if only Jonathan Franzen could have stopped telling us how much he knew. ‘‘ The re­sult — in Amer­ica at least — is nov­els of im­mense self- con­scious­ness with no selves in them at all,’’ Wood ob­served 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 in­flu­ence by shar­ing his opin­ion with stu­dents. ‘‘ I re­ally felt a con­nec­tion,’’ he says of his Columbia Univer­sity mas­ter of fine art stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar, ‘‘ be­cause th­ese were peo­ple very in­ter­ested in tech­nique, and were will­ing to take what they learned and go away and ap­ply it.

‘‘ This was my chance to say, look, you all do this thing called free in­di­rect style, it’s in­stinc­tive, you have your own words for it. Here’s a Wood met Cana­dian- Amer­i­can writer Claire Mes­sud, with whom he has two chil­dren, Livia, 6, and Lu­cian, 4. As Mes­sud be­gan her lit­er­ary ca­reer, Wood spent the next decade mak­ing a name for him­self as a critic in Lon­don, for The Guardian and other news­pa­pers. But even­tu­ally he found him­self sti­fled by the en­vi­ron­ment.

‘‘ I got to the point where I knew who was in and who was out, and fol­lowed all the news­pa­per sec­tions and watched who was do­ing what, and I hated my­self for that in­volve­ment,’’ he says.

In 1995, Wood met ed­i­tor Leon Wieseltier in Lon­don and im­me­di­ately sensed a kin­dred soul. Wieseltier in­vited him to write for The New Repub­lic , the lit­er­ary sec­tion of which he edited, and Wood leapt at the chance to go to the US.

‘‘ I al­ways felt in Amer­ica there was more room to move around,’’ Wood says. ‘‘ There’s 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 and like to do bet­ter.’’

In the mean­time, he 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. In­deed, it seems that Wood is get­ting just as much out of lis­ten­ing to younger crit­ics. his­tory of it, you can go all the way back to Jane Austen, or even the Bi­ble, and see it’s en­demic to nar­ra­tive. Let me give you some ter­mi­nol­ogy and let me give you 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.

‘‘ It sounds very trainspot­ter­ish,’’ he says, laugh­ing, ‘‘ but I used to sit in bed and read this stuff.’’ He was also ob­sessed with the US. ‘‘ I went through a phase where I loved ev­ery­thing hav­ing to do with Amer­ica,’’ he re­mem­bers. ‘‘ 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), 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 the US’s most hal­lowed names. But Wood quickly found out 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 Ford’s In­de­pen­dence Day , to which Wood had given a mixed re­view.

‘‘ About half­way through the din­ner I feel this shadow stand­ing over me and it’s Richard Ford, who puts a hand on my shoul­der and says in that voice of his: ‘ We need to talk.’ I im­me­di­ately said to Claire: ‘ We’ve got to get out of here!’ ’’

Wood suc­cess­fully ducked his date with Ford and pub­lished some of his pieces as a book in

‘‘ I think that we’re in a golden age for crit­i­cism,’’ he sug­gests. That gen­er­a­tion be­gins with his chil­dren, to whom he has been read­ing Beatrix Pot­ter and J. M. Bar­rie’s Peter Pan , among other writ­ers, re­mem­ber­ing how good some lit­er­a­ture is, and how lit­tle time a writer has to win over read­ers.

‘‘ You get such a ruth­less in­ter­roga­tor of tale,’’ Wood says with a small glint of pride at his chil­dren’s dis­cern­ment. ‘‘ And they’re right, some­times I’m bored my­self.’’ John Free­man is pres­i­dent of the US Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. He is writ­ing a book on the tyranny of email for Scrib­ner. How Fiction Works by James Wood ( Jonathan Cape, $ 39.95).

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