In a recent post, Dominic Preziosi described how delightful reading James Woods reviews in the New Yorker can be. Im a huge Wood fan, too, and I love many of the things that Dominic seems to love: the mini-tutorials on fiction, the clever turns-of-phrase, the joy of seeing Wood size up and then take down an overpraised writer (in this case, Tom Wolfe).What Dominic doesnt mention, however, is how infuriating it can be to read Wood, even for a fan.
As regular readers of his reviews will know, Wood has a very particular vision of literary history. Roughly speaking, he sees literature as a story of rapid improvement followed by even more rapid decline. As we move from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Fielding and beyond, we see an increase in the skill with which interiority is depicted (which, for Wood, is the real mark of great writing). Literatureor at least the novelcomes to a peak in the works of Jane Austen, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and a few other explorers of deep consciousness; it then tapers off into postmodern pastiche and parody, with the occasional writer of brilliance (Saul Bellow, for instance) reminding us what literature is capable of. Its a progressive, teleological vision of literature, a narrative in which one writer necessarily prepares the way for, and then gives way to, the next writer.In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Woods tendency towards teleology is on full display. In an otherwise brilliant essay on Henry Jamess The Portrait of a Ladyseriously, the rest of the piece is just incredibly goodwe get this long sentence:
The importance of the famous chapter [of The Portrait of a Lady], Chapter 42, in which Isabel sits all night, alone, until the candles burn down to their sockets, and slowly, steadily, confusedly comes to the realisation that her husband hates her, the importance of this chapter is not just that it fulfils a centurys progress in the fictional interrogation and revelation of consciousness, and anticipates, in its formidable systematic microscopy, the next century of progressit is that Isabel, conspired against by two people who have forgotten their pasts, recovers hers. (my italics)
I said that Woods vision of literary history is highly teleological. Its also highly contestable. I know many people (my wife included) who would argue that Chaucer explores consciousness just as subtly as James does; its just that he goes about this exploration in a different way. Does Jamess method really represent progress over someone like Austen? Wood loves Austen, and I think his passing reference to a centurys progress is less an evaluative claim (James is better than Austen) than it is a claim about the very possibilities of literary creation: at her moment, Austen didnt have the tools necessary for the kind of systematic microscopy that James would perform; those would only come later. If this is what hes saying, and I think it is, then you can understand why some readers would get worked up by Woods pronouncements. If you condescend to Austen, youre going to get some push back.Wood is the only book reviewer who can actually get me to throw a magazine across the room in frustration.* But thats what the best critics do: they force us to get angry, to push back, to argue. And Woods ability to infuriate is just one of the reasons that he remains one of our best living critics.*Well, maybe Adam Gopnik does too, but that's only because his arguments are so lousy.