I happen to think that the thriller genre is a limited, maimed, reduced thing, and unworthy of a writer of [Cormac] McCarthy's powers. So I think that however well he fulfilled his ambitions -- and it's a very sleek piece of work -- his ambitions deserve censure.
This is a view likely shared by many people who prefer their literary writers to avoid such disreputable genres as the thriller. To some extent, I probably share it myself, although if you categorize as "thriller" the sort of thing written by, say, James M. Cain or Jim Thompson, as opposed to the sort of thing written by Tom Clancy, I'd say that thrillers can be very good indeed.
But is it really the case that a talented writer such as Cormac McCarthy (and almost everyone seems to agree he is a talented writer) cannot write a thriller worthy of his talents? I'm prepared to believe that No Country for Old Men is not that book (although Wood now appears to concede that it's a "sleek piece of work" for a thriller), but isn't it conceivable that McCarthy could have written a successful thriller, one that both fulfills the expectations of the genre and can be admired simply for its superior literary qualities? I am at the very least uncomfortable with the idea that such an achievement is impossible because the underlying narrative and/or character conventions are too "maimed." Couldn't a good writer heal them?
And is it the critic's role to "censure" a writer's ambitions? Again, many other critics and their readers probably do consider this within the legitimate purview of literary criticism (especially of "literary fiction"), but what gives a critic (and I don't mean just James Wood--any critic) the moral authority to wag a finger at writers in this way? One might say that such a rebuke is being made on literary rather than moral grounds, but do literary critics have a better idea of what a novelist's ambition ought to be than the novelist him/herself? A critic is well-entitled to say "I didn't like that book" (for whatever specified experential reasons), but is he as entitled to say "You shouldn't have written that book"?
Something like this issue arose for me during the Litblog Co'op's consideration of the books nominated for our first Read This! selection. I felt that Case Histories, the ultimate selection, failed to satisfy as a detective novel, that it appropriated the form associated with detective/mystery fiction for purposes the form did not support very well because they were inessential to it. I thought the author had chosen the form for arbitrary reasons, and thus her novel couldn't be judged a successful novel of its kind. Could she have written a good detective novel, even one that satisfied both the criteria usually applied to detective fiction and those that should be applied to all fiction? I think so. I don't see why these need to be, a priori, mutuallly exclusive standards.