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A conversation with William Deresiewicz’s article in The Nation…Following James Wood into the Desert…

 Found in deserts.

 The following exerpts from William Deresiewicz’s "How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood" in  The Nation, are here interspersed with my rigorous commentary.

"Wood’s unapologetic commitment to literature’s transcendent value and criticism’s high calling is his most important virtue. The charge of that commitment is transmitted by the electricity of his style. Wood’s writing is stretched taut by his command of syntax, made brilliant by his virtuosity of metaphoric coloration."


So far so good


In all this, Wood is centrally concerned with the ways novelists tell the truth about the world, how they "produce art that accurately sees ‘the way things are,’" and it is here that we begin to see both his project’s deepest motives and the first of its limitations. Wood’s ideal authors are those, like Chekhov and Mann and the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, who are able to invent characters who seem to break free of their creators’ intentions, who feel "real to themselves" –and thus to us–because they "forget" they are fictional. A novelist’s ultimate achievement is to enable us to know a character so well that we catch a glimpse of his inviolable unknowability, his singular quiddity–in other words, though Wood doesn’t use the term, his soul.


Reasonable assumption…


What he finally seems to want from fiction is that it recapture his lost faith without spilling a drop. In order to do so, it must be, as it were, "literally" true–transparently true. It must feel exactly like life, must exhibit not, as he puts it, "lifelikeness" but "lifeness: life on the page."


…the possibility of a perfect transmission from world to work, from life to "lifeness," as if the artistic medium could function like a clear pane of glass. Wood knows, of course, that realism is a set of conventions, but like a liberal Catholic who understands that Jesus wasn’t really divine, he would prefer to forget it. Hence his discomfort with the artful distortion, the allegorical dislocation…


If artful distortion interferes with the relationship/connection established between reader and character, if it makes suspension of disbelief difficult, if it appears contrived or forced or phoney…then certainly this seems reason enough to condemn or criticize it


Almost all the great 20th-century realist novels," he says, "are full of artifice," which makes artifice sound like a kind of optional ingredient, sort of like sugar, that novelists are free to add in greater or lesser amounts. Of course, everything, in every novel, is artifice. The only distinction to be made is between artifice that is flaunted and artifice that is concealed.




Wood’s unwillingness to confront the contradictions in his thinking about these matters–to distinguish between realism and reality, artifice and experiment, character and person–points to a larger problem. Wood is a daring thinker, but he is not a particularly rigorous one.


Your choice of exemplifiers exhibits a decided lack of rigour . Here’s what Wood says in the introduction to How Fiction Works: "If the book has a larger argument, it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities. That is why I have tried to give the most detailed accounts of the technique of that artifice, — of how fiction works – in order to reconnect that technique to the world."


Is something true (or beautiful, or good) just because James Wood says so?


No, nor is it when anyone else simply says so. Wood’s authority rests on an impressive ability to argue opinion with both authority and elan, neither of which are evident in your review.


For so imperious a critic, Wood is surprisingly sloppy.


For so sophisticated a reviewer, your tone is surprisingly insulting.


The language of literary criticism, Wood says, must be literary, "which is to say metaphorical." This is a provocative idea, but it is based on several false premises and, indeed, faulty metaphors. Literary criticism may share its subject’s language, but unlike music or painting, words can also be used to form concepts. Language is not only representational and emotive–that is, literary–it is also logical and analytic–that is, critical.


Wood’s distinction between "thinking through" and "thinking about" (both prepositions are also spatial metaphors) is another rhetorically attractive statement that turns out upon examination to be logically void. If Wood’s work cannot be described as "thinking about" books–making conceptual statements about them–then neither word has any content.


This is tiresome pedantry.


And the reason criticism needs to make use of the conceptual resources of language is that while it does indeed deal with what art is like, it also deals with what it means.


Thank you Sherlock.


But beyond his theological preoccupations, Wood never shows much interest in what novels mean. His criticism shuttles between the largest scale and the smallest, the development of fictional technique over the course of novelistic history and the minute particulars of authorial style. His brilliance in describing both is unequaled, but he ignores just about everything that lies in between.


The book is a primer…


He ignores the broad middle ground of novelistic form–narrative structures, patterns of character and image, symbols that bind far-flung moments and disparate levels of a text–and he ignores the meanings that novelists use those methods to propose. (This explains his factual mistakes and interpretive blunders; he simply isn’t paying attention at a certain level.)


…not a magnum opus.


For all his interest in fiction’s ability to tell the truth about the world, there is something remarkably self-enclosed about his criticism–a sense that nothing exists beyond the boundary of his consciousness, and that his consciousness contains nothing but books.


It’s called focus.


Wood treats the novelistic canon like one giant Keatsian urn, a self-sufficient aesthetic artifact removed from commerce with the dirty, human world.


What Wood is doing is examining what matters most to those who love literature.


What made Wilson, Trilling, Kazin. Howe and Hardwick distinguished, significant, was not great learning, or great thinking, or great expressive ability, or great sensitivity to literary feeling and literary form, though they exhibited all of these, but a passionate involvement with what lies beyond the literary and creates its context.


So great literary critics, in order to warrant the accolade, must also be great sociologists, political scientists, economists?


For the New York critics, novelists are people; for Wood, people, including novelists, are ideas.


So biography is more important than the texts?


No one is doing what the New York critics once did. The real question is why. The first answer, it seems to me, has to do with a general loss of cultural ambition. We no longer have anyone who aspires to be the next Joyce or Proust either. The Modernist drive to remake the world has given way to a postmodern sense of enfeeblement.


We are immensely fortunate to have him–his talent, his erudition, his judgment–but if American criticism were to follow his lead, it would end up only in a desert.


Spoken like a true disdainer of serious, unalloyed  literary study

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