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Arguing with Wood

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.

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If I weren't such an execrable reader, perhaps I wouldn't pity critics, who are evidently obliged to read through all the vetted verbal excretion of their time, all of it claiming to be significant literature. The least one can do in return for their pains, one might think, is concede to them the privilege of spouting off at length about their personal preferences.In this case, even better, the critic sounds like a certified progressive (certified by the New Yorker), convinced of the simple truth that all true forward motion ultimately amounts to progress. This perspective no doubt allows for eddies and back-stream movements like the deplorable non-progressive Tom Wolfe but leaves generous place for the best of, say, the graphic novelists, who no doubt rival or surpass Homer and Virgil in every dimension. The light at the end of the tunnel is always brighter, no? It only remains for our critic to discover and proclaim the true tunnel from the many decoys.

In my simple minded way, I'm a bit confused by the uses of words such as "teleology" and "progress," then countered by the use of the post-Jamesian, post-Woolfian "tapering off" into postmodern parody and pastiche. Teleology can cover many bases, I suppose, including the end of the world coming as Fire or Ice; and I suppose one can "progress" towards destruction and waste -- or even mere postmodern parody and pastiche. But is that what Wood means here? If Austen, James, and Woolf reach a peak "in the fictional interrogation and revelation of consciousness," what is the meaning of the "next century of progress?"One question that neither Woods, nor Jean Strouse, writing in the current NYRB never answers, is why some readers -- to say nothing of the director Jane Campion -- refuse to accept James's ending, and prefer to envisage Isabel in a paradise of their own devising. But that's question less about James than about contemporary culture. Maybe Isabel looked around the corner, sniffed the air, sensed post-modernism coming, and decided that even life back with Gilbert Osmond was preferable to that! Or perhaps its simply simply that for us to know Isabel Archer from reading Portrait is to fall in love with her, thus making her unhappiness unimaginable. Dorothea Brooke affects us the same way, but even though she never finds a man up to her, she does a little bit better the second time round.

You're right, I was a bit sloppy in my use of "teleology." Basically, I'm arguing that Wood believes literature has a single goal that it should be moving towards--namely, the "fictional interrogation and revelation of consciousness"--and that he has a very specific understanding of what that revelation of consciousness should look like.My claim that Wood sees this final cause reaching a point of perfection in Austen, James, and Woolf is based less on this particular article than on a reading of Wood's criticism in general--more specifically, his book How Fiction Works. And you're right to ask, well, if literature reaches its peak in 1881 with The Portrait of a Lady, then what does Wood mean by the "next century of progress"? I think an analogy to baseball might help here. Most fans would agree that the average major league player today is much, much better than the average major league player from the 1950s. That's because the average baseball player today has lots of advantages over the old-time player--a better understanding of nutrition, a cushier way of traveling from city to city, more training from a younger age, etc. But, given this state of affairs, I don't think it would be inconsistent to say that baseball most approached perfection in the 1950s, when Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Jackie Robinson were all playing. (Perfection here could mean that it was played with more grace, with more beauty, with more passion, etc.) I'm not sure if that helps, and maybe I'm misreading Wood, but I think that's what he's saying: the average novelist writing today has lots of tools for exploring consciousness that James couldn't have had, but that doesn't make him/her a more perfect explorer of consciousness.Your last paragraph is absolutely right--we fall in love with Isabel and so can't stand to think of her as forever unhappy.