It would seem that a significant number of people whose opinions I otherwise respect, including not a few literary webloggers, have great admiration for the British literary critic James Wood. (Or at least they profess to admire him--one could wonder whether some of those who have extolled his critical virtues aren't trying to stave off some of the critical barbs he might at some point hurl in their direction.) I would like to say I share the high opinion of Wood so many others have expressed, since in some ways he does continue a tradition of informed, wide-ranging literary criticism not tied to the careerist norms of the academy that desperately needs to be revived. But I just can't. Ultimately his reviews and essay-reviews are detrimental not just to the cause of literary criticism but to the continued appreciation of the possibilities of literature itself.
Last year in a review of Wood's novel The Book Against God, Wyatt Mason made some telling points against Wood as a critic, some of them similar to those I will make here, so I would recommend reading Mason's essay for an even more extensive discussion of the topic. However, I am going to use Wood's most recent review, of John Le Carre's Absolute Friends in The New Republic, to illustrate my particular problems with Wood's criticism. I should say that I am neither a fan nor a detractor of Le Carre. I have read a few of his books and found them entertaining enough. I would not be among those Wood takes after for elevating Le Carre above his merits to the status of "literary" writer. Perhaps thus I am even better able to see the limitations of Wood's approach to both criticism and literature than if he were attacking a writer I greatly esteem.
I will also say that I do not question Wood's intelligence, his preparation to be a critic, or his motives. I think he believes his approach to literature is the correct approach. (And unlike Dale Peck, Wood's harsh judgments are usually backed up with reasons, even reasons that have something to do with the book at hand.) I simply think that this approach exemplifies what's finally wrong with the kind of literary criticism he attempts to perpetuate.
It would indeed be easy to maintain that Wood sees literature as a kind of religion-substitute, a charge Wood has himself acknowledged and to an extent accepted. But it's not so much questions of religious belief or "philosophy" more generally that Wood wants to find addressed in works of "serious" fiction. It's that he wants to take literature seriously in the same way the devoted take their religion. Just as they often believe their religious tradition gets things right in a particular way, Wood wants to believe there's one true path to writing a serious novel, one which makes all other paths not just more full of obstacles but actual roads to perdition. Wood's attacks on writers like Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon can be seen as motivated by this larger belief.
In the case of Le Carre, his first sin is to have written genre fiction. Although Wood tries not to condemn the whole enterprise outright in this review, it's clear enough he has no use for it. We can't even say that in reading Le Carre we learn anything about spying because, Wood declares, "much of Le Carre's detail was entirely invented, including the terminology, and there were old intelligence hands who complained that his picture of the service, while intended as an anti-James Bond demystification, was itself a species of romance." Not only is Le Carre a genre writer, then, but he writes. . .fiction.
Next Wood goes after LeCarre's reputed "political complexity" (which of course Wood thinks is anything but):
. . .In fact, instead of analyzing the political complexities of the Cold War, Le Carre's books narrate the functional complexities of the political complexities; that is, they show us, mainly, that the two espionage systems often worked in matching ways. This insight then locks the mazy plots in place, essentially closing the door on further analysis: the two-sided mirror dazzles further curiosity. And so the form of the books tends toward a self-cancelling amnesty, each side a little shabbier at the end of the story than it was at the start.
I sure hope I am not alone in finding this passage mostly gibberish. To be fair, it has probably come out this way because Wood is trying to hide, as he does through most of the review, what he really finds objectionable about Le Carre: he doesn't like the man's politics, especially the "anti-American" turn his politics has seemed to take of late.
We are told that Le Carre "can write very well," even in this latest book, which Wood clearly despises. However, after quoting a passage of ostensibly good writing, and even explaining why some might find it good, Wood eventually concludes that Le Carre's "prose announces, in effect: 'here is what the world looks like according to the conventions of realism.' It is a civilized style, but nonetheless a slickness unto death." Apparently even what Le Carre actually does well he doesn't do well at all. (Or, he writes well very badly.)
Which brings us to the real nub of the issue, the failing of Le Carre's that is most debilitating, the overriding purpose novels must embody that Le Carre doesn't understand. In his essay, Wyatt Mason observes that ""How somebody felt about something' is precisely what Wood wants from a novel; reaching into character is what he expects. Consciousness is the ultimate freedom, and its honest representation in fiction is what draws us into sympathy with the created, not with its creator. This is the hallmark of the work of those authors. . .for whom Wood has the greatest regard." Of Le Carre Wood says: [His] character portraits are not themselves complex, merely complex relative to the rolled thinness of most characters in contemporary thrillers." Le Carre's characters, like those of Hemingway and Graham Greene, "are, paradoxically, alert but always blocking the ratiocinative consequences of their alertness. Such characters are not minds but just voyeurs of their own obscurities."
Frankly this is just a very pompous way of saying that Le Carre--and by extension almost all of the writers who come up short in Wood's estimation--does not employ the technique of "psychological realism," the revelation of consciousness that seems to be for Wood the most important legacy of the modernist fiction writers. To this extent Wood is stuck in the early twentieth century, taking what was indeed at the time an innovation in the presentation of character and a step beyond the realism of earlier writers as the final word about what novels ought properly to do. Clearly it fulfills his own needs as a reader of fiction, filling in whatever void was left when he abandoned religion, but to write this out as a prescription for what novels must be like for everyone else seems hardly tenable, just as other, differing prescriptions (for "plot," for "clarity," even for "originality") shrinkwrap fiction into easily storable commodities but don't allow for the flexibility of the form.
Wood is sometimes compared to the academic critic F.R. Leavis, and indeed Wood's prose does have some of the smug lecture hall certainty and harsh evaluative tone of Leavis at his worst. But there's very little in Wood's writing that conveys an enjoyment of literature (sometimes a failure of Leavis's as well), even of those literary artists he appears to admire. Furthermore, Wood's own criticism is very seldom enjoyable--it creates the tense atmosphere suitable to a hanging judge. (Note how seldom he reviews writers he actually does admire--and certainly very few current writers, unless they're to be sent to the gallows--preferring the already indicted malefactors.)
Wood also shares something with the "moral critics" such as the poet-critic Yvor Winters or Lionel Trilling (or even Irving Howe.) With all of them, literature is a rather sour and sober affair, the critic its grave taskmaster. I will take Wood's word for it that Absolute Friends is spoiled by the inserted political rhetoric he describes, as fiction usually is by such propagandizing. But one can't help but feel that by the end of the review Wood has converted what should be an aesthetic flaw into a flaw of the author's own character ("this humanly implausible and ideologically enraged novel"--enraged at George W. Bush). If Le Carre is not exactly judged to be a bad man, he is judged to be a "bad writer" solely because he has ideas different than James Wood's, ideas about the world and about fiction. To this extent, Wood shows himself to be a remarkably intolerant critic, just as "ideological" in his way as Le Carre is accused of being.
If this is the remaining legacy of the "great tradition" of British literary criticism (or American, for that matter), better that we should refuse it.