Would that Wood were (1 of 2)

I admire James Wood greatly, and by “James Wood” I don’t mean the balding, friendly-looking English chap who tap-tap-tap finger drums as only a musically gifted Eton idol can do. And I don’t mean James Wood the novelist whose The Book Against God goes bump in the night. (Creating art is devilishly difficult, after all!) No, I mean James Wood the critic. He’s bloody good — fantastic, really. He writes with insight, seriousness, and a verve bordering on mystical passion. As good as he is, I’m troubled or annoyed or maybe just tuckered out by the staid’n’stale convention within which he writes, as a critic and reviewer of books. You know the drill: title (eye-catching) — intro (witty) — context (helpful) — plot summary (etc.) — quotes (etc.) — commentary & analysis (etc.) — assessment (etc.). The convention is exhausted, no? Unsightly. Like an ugly brown scar on a hillside caused by trundling workers. So. Since I’m neither a critic nor a writer (don’t let this blog fool you), I challenge the eminently gifted yet balding Englishman to introduce a new variation on the old, exhausted theme of book reviews. Instead of arguing about literary excellence, why not borrow sentences, characters, and techniques from novels to describe or evoke the qualia of common, everyday experiences, in the hope that the literary tools of the trade pique curiosity in books, much as a New Yorker book review might do — but without the review. Hmm.

4 Responses to Would that Wood were (1 of 2)

  1. Frisbee says:

    Yes, I agree that James Wood is a great critic–he doesn’t suck up, which is my favorite thing about him. The reviews are conventional, but they’re thorough and honest. He’s a replacement for Updike, as far as I’m concerned.

    A few years ago he reviewed a book called Atmospheric Disturbances, and though I did go out and buy it (oh no!), excited by the interesting review and thinking it would be just my kind of thing, I ended up agreeing with him cthat 100 pages could have been cut. So maybe I didn’t need to read the book after all. But of course that’s not the way it’s done. We must read the books.

    But I was terribly upset with him when he trashed Margaret Drabble in the New York Times. How could anyone trash Drabble? Even her worst books are better than almost anyone else’s.

    But that’s the way it is with good critics. You read them, they’re good writers, you get upset when they question your favorite writers’ books.

    Yes, he could try another essay form, but that’s just not his way.

  2. Hi Katsilvia, the charge of conventionality applies to just about everyone who writes about books, not just J. Wood and other literary critics and journalists. But if you’re going to accuse the bookish lot of boredom, which is what the form often inspires, then you better sight one of the best of them. Any ideas on improving the essay form?

  3. Frisbee says:

    I’ll have to go along with your challenge of James Wood, though he is, as you point out, great. I do think Updike inspired me more: he was more generous to writers and more intent on discovering what they tried to do and how well they did it. Wood sometimes sounds a bit fussy to me. He’s too critical, though that’s also the reason I like him.

    Apparently I got carried away yesterday, writing much but saying nothing and meaning I agreed that literary criticism could be more interesting.

  4. Interesting Frisbee. To be honest, living downunder, I haven’t read Updike’s or James Wood’s reviews as a matter of course, but I do recollect reading the odd Updke review via The Complete Review and have usually enjoyed them a lot. I like the generous approach, really.

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