James Wood is arguably the most celebrated, possibly the most impugned, and definitely the most envied, literary journalist living. By his mid twenties he was the chief book reviewer for The Guardian. From there he moved to America’s The New Republic, then, as of 2007, The New Yorker. He also teaches at Harvard. There is a tendency, therefore, for critics to spend more time reviewing the superlatives other reviewers have used about him than his books themselves. His previous collections have tilted on an axis of religious belief and philosophy: he writes that our investment and belief when we read fiction is a metaphorical substitute for religious faith because it ‘resembles’ real belief. The style of his criticism, too, is highly metaphorical – something he has been praised and criticised for – because it resembles the process by which he understands what he is reading. In his new collection, The Fun Stuff, when discussing Edmund Wilson, Wood talks about ‘permanent criticism – which lasts... only if it, too, becomes literature.’ This is what Wood’s essays offer: they are a joy to read without knowledge of the books they discuss. Like the essays of William Hazlitt and Virginia Woolf, they are an art form in themselves, though of course other literary critics may contest this.
In an age of rationed book pages Wood’s reviews have a sense of luxury, as if the scrutinised author is a dinner guest on whom no expense is spared; they get Wood’s best china, even if they are the meal. Even when he doesn’t like a book he gives his full attention, which is surely worth more to reader and author than flippant praise. He quotes at length, is sensitive to detail and texture, and makes an effort to understand a book’s processes. And unlike critics one reads for the wit of their put-downs – those who tend to be most stimulating when on the attack – Wood is nearly always at his best on writers he likes. The most enlightening pieces in his new book are on W. G. Sebald, Marilynne Robinson, Mikhail Lermontov, and Richard Yates.
Book reviewing, to some extent, is always going to be propaganda for the reviewer’s own tastes. It then becomes a case of deciding whose manifesto you prefer. When I was seventeen my uncle gave me a book of Wood’s essays. When I went to university he gave me another, this time signed. I spoke to Wood between an interview with the BBC and a reading at the LRB bookshop and we talked about criticism and books.
There is diminishing space in English papers for rigorous reviews. How has book reviewing changed since you started out and what advice can you give young reviewers as serious as you were?
I have noticed that diminishment, actually, in the reviews of my own book. I got two from The Independent – one in the daily and one in the Sunday paper – but they were disengaged, short things by people who didn’t really seem to know what they were talking about. That was sad to me, because I remember when I started freelancing: it was the early days of The Independent and it had a very serious books section edited by Blake Morrison, and space was given to longish reviews and profiles. Eighty years ago Cyril Connolly’s advice to the young reviewer was, choose wisely what you review: don’t spend too much time reviewing minor art because your pieces will be forgettable. Now my advice would be, try to write longer pieces wherever you can. One thing that’s changed since I was freelancing is there’s space online to do that kind of thing. You don’t get paid for it, largely, but there’s the chance to do something at length.
Over here we have the Hatchet Job of the Year, its aim being to reward quality book reviewing. It has also become a means for people to locate funny negative reviews. Do you think this kind of thing will encourage serious reviews or just witty ones, and can trying to be witty get in the way of a good book review?
It seems to me the wrong kind of emphasis, and, judging from some of the excerpts, I wasn’t that impressed with the standard either. I thought, if you’re going to have an award with that title, there’d better be some Martin Amis, Gore Vidal, or, dare I say it, James Wood level vituperation. In any panel about criticism I’m on, half the discussion seems to be about negative reviews, and I always want to say to people, that represents about 5 per cent, not just of mine, but of most critics’ output. Maybe not Adam Mars-Jones’s but he’s very good at what he does, I can tell you, having suffered twice at his hands.
In your essay on Edmund Wilson, you said that a young F. Scott Fitzgerald was grateful to be criticised by Wilson, because at least somebody was reading him rigorously. Do authors ever correspond privately with you and do you see evidence of their work responding to your criticism?
I get quite a number of communications from people. Most of them are thanking me for something I’ve written; the negative reviews tend to get a chilly silence, as you’d expect. But I do run into people who will say, not so much about their own work, but that something else I’ve written about Toni Morrison or whoever has helped them identify what was wrong with their own work. I suppose Zadie Smith and I have been in some kind of public communication. As an author she’s quite susceptible to criticism and perhaps feels she needs to incorporate it, which she maybe does to a fault. But I thought her new novel was absolutely splendid.
Do you think writers should respond to critics and write about their own work?
Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I know there’s a very English etiquette in which you’re supposed to grin and bear it. There’s that Kingsley Amis thing: ‘I’ll let a bad review spoil my breakfast but not my lunch,’ which is doubtless a wise coping strategy. But in some larger sense I don’t see why a writer, if they think the critic is wrong, shouldn’t come out and say: ‘That’s a load of bullshit. I’m going to defend my work; I’m going to produce an apologia for my work.’ Jonathan Lethem did that with something I wrote about him. The comedy there was that mine was quite a nice review and he’d sort of misread it in his mind as being negative, so his response turned out to be more personal that he meant it to be. But in principle there’s nothing wrong with the idea.
William Deresiewicz once said: ‘Wood's critical authority has become so daunting, it seems, that even he is afraid to challenge it.’
I don’t feel I have any authority at all. I understand I have the authority of an institution, and of a space. There’s no doubt a million or a thousand Americans would love to write for The New Yorker, but I firmly believe that the authority of any piece is rhetorical and made anew each time you write. You’re trying to convince a reader who hasn’t read and who may never read a book that it is or isn’t worth reading. At any moment it seems likely that you haven’t quite convinced enough with your marshalled evidence or the force of your arguments. That’s what makes reviewing interesting.
There is a line in the new collection: ‘One despises oneself in near middle age for still being such a merely good student.’ Do you ever want to be a different James Wood who doesn’t have the baggage of your reputation for scepticism, your templates of belief etc.?
I would happily. There’s something tedious about having a past as a critic, where your writing tends to get ignored sentence by sentence as texture and flattened into a series of pronouncements: he likes X, he’s against Pynchon, etc. The prohibitions are remembered over the positives. One is quite desperate to get rid of that. We change, our reading habits change. You know what: if I didn’t write another book review for ten years – or forever – and just wrote other things, I’d be very happy. Who knows? Sometimes I do look at what I’ve written and think, it wasn’t meant to be anything like that. When I was a teenager I wanted to write poetry – I wasn’t any good at poetry. Then I wanted to write fiction, and for a long time I wrote a bit and tore it up. Then I started putting it off and suddenly, by my late twenties, I was sort of known, at least in London, as a reviewer who was hard on current English writing. People would come up to me and say, well your novel better be a masterpiece. That was terrifying, so I went into arrest and didn’t write a novel until I was thirty-three.
You did two of your infamous parodies in the new collection: one of Paul Auster, who you don’t rate; one of Alan Hollinghurst, who you allow is a beautiful writer. Do you not feel conflict when you parody a writer as good as Hollingurst? Is it not shitting in literature’s nest?
I think that’s true, and he is a lovely writer, except I felt that in his new novel his prose had become a little too fluent and was in danger of becoming a parody of itself. I thought it was okay to parody a prose that’s becoming a parody of itself. I don’t know about you, but I thought there was some really nice stuff in that novel but I pushed against the whole literariness of it. Maybe I just made the cardinal mistake reviewers do make...
Of saying, why couldn’t you have written a different book?
Or why couldn’t you have done that one again! But do you remember the middle section in The Folding Star with that old writer? It’s beautifully done. I thought he did it better in that novel than any of the rather similar material in the new one.
You used to come under fire for censuring books that were praised everywhere else. You are noticeably more generous now. Do you feel under pressure to be kind, especially to young offenders?
Absolutely I do. When I started at The Guardian I wrote a cruel review of a debut novelist. I think I was so young and so ambitious myself to write that it didn’t register that this was a first-time novelist. A few weeks later someone told me that the review had come out on the day of the author’s book launch, that she was in tears, and that it ruined the party. Nobody wants to be that person. Both the review and the novel have long been forgotten, but I’ve been careful since to concentrate all my firepower on big names. DeLillo is strong enough to take it, etc. Since going to The New Yorker in 2007 I’ve liked finding new people and saying to that large readership: hey, what about this person? I just reviewed a first book of short stories called I Want To Show You More by Jamie Quatro – great name. I thought there were some marvellous stories in that book. And I’ve got one here which I’m reviewing called The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. It’s absolutely phenomenal! Kushner is a natural novelist. It is set in the ’70s and narrated by a young woman from Nevada who’s obsessed with high-speed motorcycling. It’s fun being able to say, here’s something worth reading.
A few years ago in Harpers Wyatt Mason suggested that you look harder to discover worthy new fiction. To what extent does your criticism take and respond to criticism?
Absolutely it does. Mason was completely right, and I sometimes think, and can say this for the record, that my fabled negativity is just laziness on my part, which is to say, damn it, I can’t really be bothered to read X...
So you have resented authors for having to read them?
Slightly. With Pynchon, when I’m looking hard at myself, I think I haven’t liked him very much because I’ve never been willing to do the hard work of cracking Gravity’s Rainbow or V. So that laziness of choosing your diminished horizons has to be guarded against as a critic.
There are certain quotations which you like to reuse from essay to essay, from book to book. These suggest a deep personal relevance or fascination. Does knowing definitively what you like become an impediment?
When I reuse stuff it’s almost always laziness/ journalism, that is to say, the deadline gun is pointed to the temple and I’m self-plagiarising. It’s not a great habit. There will always be touchstones: I keep coming back to this lovely description in Bellow’s Seize the Day of Mr Rappaport’s cigar, or his ‘big but light elbow,’ but you’ve put your finger on the danger, which is this sclerosis whereby you wouldn’t feel any need to admit anything new because you’ve got it all taped up. I don’t feel that at all.
You once made the example of Socrates’ scholar, who, each time he reads the same book, must forget what he knows in order to teach himself new things. How willing are you to re-read, forget, and learn something new?
I’d actually like the chance to reassess DeLillo. I still think I’d feel that Underworld was overwrought and would have arguments with the controlling paranoia, but it would allow me to go back to some of the earlier stuff like Mao II in a slightly less adversarial mode, and to his new book of stories, and be more patient. I’ve tried to do that with David Foster Wallace – I’ve taught Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in a very academic, non-judgemental sort of way, investigating his techniques and strategies. He’s a writer I keep coming back to. If you look at how I’ve written about Wallace it’s a cardiographic up and down. But that’s the normal and natural way we live with writers.
In an old essay you say some books – great ones – become more modern the older they get. Do you feel you can keep up?
That is a bloody good question. Well, why not? I feel more curious and open to new writing now than I was ten years ago when I was in the trenches, and probably more than I was when I was twenty-three and doing battle with phantom English forces. Maybe one thing that comes with getting a bit older is reason about temporality, which is, when you’re young, Julian Barnes being in your face is a kind of offence and an insult. You think, no! He’s not good enough! But what you don’t realise is that as you get older so he’ll get older. Time and posterity will sort people out to some extent. It’s irritating when he wins the Booker, but he’ll fade away. And when you’re older, you can put some of those battles to rest.
(Read the unabridged interview here on Jonathan McAloon’s blog. Follow @jonniemcaloon)
The Fun Stuff by James Wood is published by Jonathan Cape (£18:99)