For the past 10 years, the most dreaded literary critic in America has been a tall, thin, agreeable Englishman from Durham with a crop-top pate and an apologetic air about him: James Wood.
“I agree with Randall Jarrell that a critic who can't praise is not a critic,” Wood says as he sits at an empty café 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 De-Lillo 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 Updike's short-story collection Licks of Love.
On a cold, windy day in Cambridge, Mass., 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.
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 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 it has become bloated with unnecessary facts and language. Buried inside The Corrections, for example, was a very good novel 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 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 he can have a greater impact by sharing his opinion with students. “I really felt a connection,” he says of his Columbia University MFA students in particular, “because 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, it’s instinctive, you have your own words for it. Here's a 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 trainspotter-ish,” he says, laughing, “but I used to sit in bed and read this stuff.”
He was also obsessed with America. “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), Wood met the 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 he eventually 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.”
In 1995, Wood met the 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 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. 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 own 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 and like to do better.”
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 magazine’s primary literary critics. If there is any awkwardness in sharing that post, he doesn't mention it.
In fact, it seems Wood is getting just as much out of listening to younger critics. “I think that we're in a golden age for criticism,” he suggests. That generation begins with his own 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!”