I'm astonished to be saying so, but William Deresiewicz's review of James Wood's How Fiction Works provokes me to come to Wood's defense. Although Deresiewicz correctly points out the narrowness of Wood's conception of realism, ultimately he is less concerned with Wood's near-dogmatism on this subject than with what he considers the narrowness of Wood's approach to criticism. According to Deresiewicz, a great critic should exhibit "not great learning, or great thinking, or great expressive ability, or great sensitivity to literary feeling and literary form. . .but a passionate involvement with what lies beyond the literary and creates its context." In other words, literary criticism should not concentrate too strenuously on the "merely literary."
James Wood's greatest strength as a critic is that he does not spend much time and space on "what lies beyond the literary." He certainly could not be accused of lacking "a passionate involvement" with literary texts--even if he can be charged with restricting his involvement too exclusively to a certain kind of text--but to his credit he devotes most of his attention to a close reading of the fiction he considers and leaves what's "beyond" to those less interested in literature than he is.
According to Deresiewicz, the exemplars of modern criticism are the so-called New York critics, specifically Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe:
Wilson, who wrote about everything during his teeming career, from politics to popular culture, socialist factions to Native American tribes, warned about "the cost of detaching books from all the other affairs of human life." Trilling's whole method as a critic was to set the object of his consideration within the history of what he called "the moral imagination." Kazin, whose criticism, like [Elizabeth] Hardwick's, focused on the literature of this country in particular, sought to illuminate nothing less than "the nature of our American experiences." The goal of Howe's criticism, he said, was "the recreation of a vital democratic radicalism in America." The New York critics were interested in literature because they were interested in politics, culture, the moral life and the life of society, and all as they bore on one another. They placed literature at the center of their inquiry because they recognized its ability not only to represent life but, as Matthew Arnold said, to criticize it--to ask questions about where we are and how where we are stands in relation to where we should be. They were not aesthetes; they were, in the broadest sense, intellectuals.
With the possible exception of Wilson (who did indeed write about many subjects but whose essays on literary works were attentive to form and style and did mark him as, in part, an "aesthete"), Wood is a much better critic than any of these writers. Trilling is one of the most overrated critics of the 20th century, unwilling as he was to consider works of literature as anything other than what even his acolyte Leon Wiseltier describes protectively as "records of concepts and sentiments and values," apparently unable to describe "the moral imagination" except in platitudes. Kazin is simply hopeless, a truly awful critic whose essays and books on literary topics are simply useless to anyone interested in criticism that might enhance the reading experience. On Native Grounds is a bloated assemblage of historical generalizations mostly about writers, not writing. It's full of "remarks" about literature but no actual criticism. Like Trilling, Kazin bypasses the literary in order to arrive at banalities about "the nature of our American experiences." Howe is somewhat better--he does often enough really examine the texts on which he is pronouncing--but why would anyone want to rely for insight into literary texts on a critic who confesses he is most interested in "the recreation of a vital democratic radicalism in America"?
It's really rather amazing that Deresiewicz seems to believe that the approach to criticism represented by the New York critics has somehow been lost. In reality, criticism that obsesses about "politics, culture, the moral life and the life of society" is the dominant mode of criticism today, especially in academe and even more especially among so-called "intellectuals." These critics condescend to put "literature at the center of their inquiry because they recognize its ability not only to represent life but. . . to ask questions about where we are and how where we are stands in relation to where we should be," blah, blah, blah. James Wood stands out as a critic willing to challenge this tedious preoccupation with "context" and to make an "inquiry" into the literary nature of literature his "center" rather than the intellectual pomposity of "questions about where we are," questions that for Deresiewicz's preferred kind of critic take precedence over all that "aesthetic" fluff, finally over literature itself. In my opinion, it is all in Wood's favor that "what has happened in England since the end of World War II--anything that has happened in England since the war, politically, socially or culturally--simply doesn't enter into his thinking," and a testament to the force of his style, sensibility, and, yes, learning that he has managed to become widely known as a critic through publication in magazines that otherwise insist on relevance to politics and "the life of society."
Some of the responsibility for casting Wood in this particular sort of negative light undoutedly lies with the magazine publishing Deresiewicz's artice, The Nation. Left-wing editors, journalists, and "intellectuals" have always been particularly suspicious of "aesthetes," of writers and artists who emphasize the formal elements of their work and are too far "removed from commerce with the dirty, human world." Indeed, one hardly ever finds in The Nation reviews of fiction or poetry that isn't either obviously politically intentioned or can't be made to seem so. (Mostly, it has increasingly seemed to me, the magazine just doesn't review fiction or poetry much at all.) Attacking James Wood as a pointy-headed aesthete is a convenient way for the magazine to restate the long-standing "progressive" disdain for art in any of its non-partisan manifestations. I don't question that Deresiewicz believes all the things he says about Wood's failure to engage with the world "beyond the literary," but his conception of the role of both literature and criticism is clearly enough consistent with the Left's utilitarian attitude toward both.
Deresiewicz observes that Wood "ignores the meanings that novelists use [their] methods to propose. . . Wood can tell us about Flaubert's narrator or Bellow's style, but he's not very curious about what those writers have to say about the world." This actually makes me feel reassured about James Wood's prominence in current literary criticism. At least there is one critic with access to high-profile print publications who knows it isn't the novelist's job to "propose" anything and focuses his attention on writers' art rather than on what they allegedly have "to say."