The Joy of Text

Serious Noticing: Selected Essays, 1997-2019 BY James Wood. New York: farrar, straus and giroux. 528 pages. $30.

The cover of Serious Noticing: Selected Essays, 1997-2019

James Wood, haters claim, is a hater. The New Yorker’s most influential and polarizing critic hates gaudy postmodernists like Paul Auster and cute sentimentalists like Nicole Krauss. He can’t stand the Cambridge fixture George Steiner, whom he pillories as “a statue that wishes to be a monument,” and he dismisses Donna Tartt as “children’s literature.” Most famously, he loathes fidgety, frantic novels by the likes of Thomas Pynchon and Zadie Smith, works of so-called “hysterical realism” that can’t shut up and sit still. In 2004, the editors of n+1 denounced him as a “designated hater.”

In fact Wood’s talent for appreciation far outstrips his gift for denigration. Of the twenty-eight essays collected in Serious Noticing, an anthology of pieces Wood has published over the past twenty years, only two are negative. And even when he is hating, Wood remains eager to discover something to admire. In “Hysterical Realism,” published in 2000, he emphasizes that Zadie Smith “seems capable of almost anything”; in “Paul Auster’s Shallowness,” from 2009, he prefaces his assault by insisting that Auster’s novel Invisible “has charm and vitality in places.”

Wood’s distaste is always buttressed by reverence that mounts a demand for perfection: He cares too much about fiction to let it calcify into cliché. It is only because he can identify Auster’s “second-hand sentences” as “lacquered with laziness” that he can rave, of a passage excerpted from Virginia Woolf, “This is a great sentence, and simply needs to be repeated again and again.” Even in his hit pieces, Wood is a designated (and frequently endearing) enthusiast. He frowns over the fiction he censures like a disappointed father. His disapproval is only a correlate of his abiding love.

Serious Noticing is two parts pan and twenty-six parts panegyric. Its introduction is new, but the rest of its contents have appeared before, either in one of Wood’s many collections or in the pages of the various magazines he has called home: the New Republic (where he was a senior editor from 1995 until 2007), the London Review of Books (where he has been a contributor since 1990), and the New Yorker (where he has been on staff since 2007). Serious Noticing comprises mostly criticism, but it also contains a handful of autobiographical sketches—soft, twilit evocations of Wood’s childhood in northern England, where his family spent their Sundays eating “fatally weakened vegetables” that had been “boiled punitively” into flavorless submission.

Nimble as these reminiscences are, the most numinous pieces in Wood’s new collection are his daring and spectacularly deft meditations on Melville, Woolf, and Joseph Roth. It is in these ambitious essays that Wood best satisfies the ideal he defends in his introduction, where he dreams of collapsing the distance dividing art, artist, and audience. Criticism, he clarifies, aims “to stimulate in the reader an experience,” namely the experience of reading whatever the critic has read.

Alec Soth, Irineu’s Library, Giurgiu, Romania, 2018, diptych, ink-jet prints, each 60 × 48". From Alec Soth’s I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating (MACK, 2019).
Alec Soth, Irineu’s Library, Giurgiu, Romania, 2018, diptych, ink-jet prints, each 60 × 48". From Alec Soth’s I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating (MACK, 2019).

Still, criticism is not just a neutral invocation, a summoning of some novelist’s ghost. Literary criticism in particular is privileged enough to produce what it evaluates: The art critic does not paint her plaudits, but the book critic speaks “to literature in its own language.” In “The Fun Stuff,” the first essay in Serious Noticing, Wood explains that the drum is his favorite instrument because of “how childishly close the connection is between the dancer and the dance”: “When you play the drums, you are the drums.” When Wood writes about literature, what he writes is literature.

What is unspoken here is the staggering presumptuousness of the critical enterprise. In his essay on Woolf, a prolific contributor of unsigned reviews to the Times Literary Supplement, Wood observes that “the writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses.” Wood sets himself a difficult task, then, in vying with Woolf, Melville, Cervantes, Austen, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Naipaul, Bellow, Chekhov, Hrabal, and Ferrante in this latest volume alone. It is impossible to adjudicate contests so audacious. But to Wood’s credit, he always keeps up. At his best, he even inches ahead.

What makes Wood such a formidable opponent? The most obvious answer is the crackling sensuousness of his prose. He writes unusually tactile criticism, thick with images you can almost reach out and grasp. A snare drum is “a bark, a crack, a report.” W. G. Sebald’s melancholic characters wither “like afternoon light.” Bohumil Hrabal’s flares of description open his characters “like a quick wound.” Several of Wood’s own essays likewise slice into their subjects. When Wood met V. S. Naipaul, the prickly novelist “offered a hand, and began an hour of scornful correction.” For his part, Sebald had a mustache “like frozen water.”

Even when Wood’s points are theoretical, his writing is novelistic. Most reviewers resort to adjectival abstractions, but Wood’s descriptions are visceral and verbal. Joseph Roth writes “strange, nimble, curling sentences, which are always skewing into the most unexpected metaphors.” Authors like Muriel Spark and David Foster Wallace have “employed and impaled cliché.” In László Krasznahorkai’s difficult novels, a word or phrase “is seized and worried at, murdered into unmeaning.”

“Hysterical Realism” opens with the ominous sentence: “A genre is hardening.” The genre has its own momentum, maybe its own motives. “The big contemporary novel,” Wood continues, “seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence.” The novel itself chatters nervously. The words do the wanting: The language lives.

Wood’s writing is lush, but a wire of rigor runs through it, and the exactitude of its argumentation stings. The results are as agile as they are inspired. Roth’s novels, requiems composed after the collapse of Austro-Hungarian empire, are “elegies twice over,” “elegies for an original feeling of elegy,” for “Roth enjoys the empire as a fictional form, as something analogous to the novel itself.” Tolstoy’s readers experience his characters’ internal crises, unspooled over hundreds of pages, in close to real time: “a hundred pages have elapsed for us, and yet, for Vronsky, barely an evening. And it has probably taken the average reader about an evening to read those hundred pages.” Naipaul is nasty because “he is simultaneously the colonised and the colonist, in part because he never seriously imagines that the former would ever want to be anything but the latter.”

And there is more to admire. When Wood is vicious, he is funny. Little can compete with the exhilaration of his hatchet jobs or even his throwaway jabs. The icicles of his cruelest barbs are as endlessly satisfying as lines of poetry: In his 2008 treatise How Fiction Works he characterizes commercial realist John le Carré as a “clever coffin of dead conventions,” and in the London Review of Books, he once deemed Nicole Krauss “moistly metaphorical.” (These are both formulations I did not have to look up: I have them memorized.)

One of Wood’s funniest signatures is the brutally astute parody. In imitation of the hysterical realists, he writes, “If a character is introduced in London (call him Toby Awknotuby, i.e., ‘To be or not to be’—ha!) then we will be swiftly told that Toby has a twin in Delhi (called Boyt: an anagram of Toby, of course), who, like Toby, has the same very curious genital deformation.” Mocking the spare prose that produced Raymond Carver “and a thousand thin cousins,” he writes: “He took the glass from the cupboard and set it on the table. He poured the bourbon into it, but did not drink it. Instead, he went to the door and listened. Nothing except far away a squeal of tires, over on Route 9 probably.” These are contests that I think Wood wins. With criticism like this, who needs fiction?

But Wood, of course, needs fiction, as he proves again and again in his more searching diagnoses of what makes his favorite books so successful. Wood’s style is distinctive, but it is hard to generalize about his taste, and perhaps the best thing about him is that he reinvents his approach to accommodate the exigencies of each book he reviews. Though his judgments are always meticulously justified, they are also consistently unpredictable, for Wood is willing to meet each work on its own terms.

The caricature, of course, is of a palate stable in its stuffiness: Detractors picture Wood as a tireless advocate of the mannered realism that died out with Flaubert. But in fact he is much harder on shopworn realists like le Carré than he is on experimentalists like his beloved Krasznahorkai. He adores Hrabal, who dashed off a novella in a single sentence, and esteems Knut Hamsun, a master of modernist enigma.

Wood does contend that fiction must maintain some kind of fidelity to reality—but in How Fiction Works, he acknowledges that this fidelity is achieved by means of formal innovation. If Kafka and Beckett can produce “harrowingly truthful texts,” it is because “internal consistency and plausibility . . . become more important than referential rectitude. And this task will of course involve much fictive artifice.” In his exquisite essay on Melville—perhaps the best in Serious Noticing, if not his absolute best—Wood writes that “realists may protest that it is life, not words, that draws them as writers: yet language at rush hour is like a busy city.” Indeed, “without the language,” Melville’s metaphysical speculations “would just be grain.”

What good fiction is at pains to reflect is therefore not reality in a vacuum, but reality glimpsed through the veil of a specific author’s vision. A vision is not entirely arbitrary, but it is not entirely inert either: It is interpretive, and that is why it can revive the world, rather than merely recapitulating it. In How Fiction Works, Wood writes that

the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.

It is literature that must redeem reality, not the other way around. And there are as many ways of freshening life as there are people living it. As Henry James once remarked, “Humanity is immense, and reality has myriad forms; the most one can affirm is that some of the flowers of fiction have the odour of it, and others have not; as for telling you in advance how your nosegay should be composed, that is another affair.”

Wood himself is myriad. He is an expert on music and theology, a drummer and a two-time novelist. But some detractors notice only what he does not tend to mention, and that is politics. A recent and representative article in the Times Literary Supplement, complete with the obligatory title “Politics vs. Aesthetics,” draws vague and inchoate connections between Wood’s praise of free indirect discourse and his supposed liberalism (though I confess I’m not entirely sure what “liberalism” connotes in this context). Allegedly, Wood prefers novels that presume “social stability” and are “not given to the wild plunges of narrative upheaval that appear in, say, Dostoevsky.”

But in fact, Wood loves many chaotic writers precisely by virtue of their volatility. In the London Review, he argues that Hamsun’s “greatest novels” “throttle reason.” (The novelist’s later work suffers because he “began to draw characters who were entirely stable essences.”) In Serious Noticing, Wood approves Krasznahorkai because the Hungarian’s world is a “Dostoevskian” one in which “everything is full of vague and doomy imminence.” In “Dostoevsky’s God,” he praises Dostoevsky himself.

Besides, it is not exactly true that Wood is apolitical. What is true is that he is not indiscriminately political. Instead of wringing the same lesson out of every book he reads—“another novel that proves Gramsci right,” the parody might go—he delves into the political questions that bear more specifically on the author at hand, addressing, for instance, the suffocations of totalitarianism in his essay on Albanian author Ismail Kadare.

It is true that Wood usually devotes more time to aesthetic questions than he does to political contextualization, even if he falls far short of committing the more grievous errors of omission of which he is often accused. But to say that Wood responds to politically charged fiction with a characteristically aesthetic sensibility is only to say that he has a particular set of preoccupations and a word limit—which is only to say that he is a human critic rather than God.

And would God’s glacially omniscient criticism be worth reading anyway? If Wood were speaking from every perspective, saying everything there is to be said about any book, he would no longer be doing criticism we could recognize as such. In How Fiction Works, he mocks “the almost comic paradox of Flaubert’s celebrated wish that the author be ‘impersonal,’ Godlike.” Flaubert’s failure, Wood suggests, is also his gift: We would not want to read a novel by God, because God has every vision, hence no vision at all. To peer through His eyes would be to see the world when no one is seeing it, thus to undo the act of seeing altogether. To see as Flaubert does, in contrast, is to suffuse sight with style. The prose Wood prizes interposes itself between self and reality as intrusively as a frosted pane. In an essay regrettably absent from Serious Noticing, he writes that D. H. Lawrence “savours the way language at its densest becomes its own medium, like night. At such moments one feels its lack of transparency as a new kind of visibility; and this enables one to see the old transparency as a new kind of obstruction.”

One concrete and demonstrable affinity between Wood’s writing and the liberal tradition, at least as the latter is elaborated in the work of John Rawls, is that both tend to presuppose that we can extricate ourselves imaginatively (if not materially) from our circumstances so as to migrate briefly into someone else’s. If criticism competes with and sometimes converges with fiction, and fiction is isomorphic not with the world but with a vision, then the critic offers us not truth but perspective. Both a critical essay and a novel invite us into an experience that is not our own.

In the introduction to Serious Noticing, Wood quotes the philosopher Arnold Isenberg, who argues that the critic induces her audience to enter into “a similar view of that work”—to adopt a “sameness of vision.” Criticism, then, involves the most intimate inhabitation, and this is one way in which the critic may defeat the novelist, for it is the critic’s gesture the reader imitates.

What are we to think, then, about a critic criticizing a critic? Do I intend to get you to see Sebald or Roth as I see Wood seeing them? But of course, to see Wood as I see him is, in part, to see how Wood sees. He has stained my vision indelibly, and I can pay him no greater tribute than to read him (and to ask you to read him) as generously, justly, and gorgeously as he taught me to read.

We choose the rivals we hope to deserve. Wood chose Melville, and I choose Wood.

Becca Rothfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard.