James Wood is still raising hackles. Back in 2000, before he ascended the throne at The New Yorker, Wood published The Broken Estate, a tour by essay of various nineteenth and twentieth century literary greats. In a piece on Virginia Woolf, Wood speaks fondly of her critical work, which he calls “a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor.” A “writer-critic” like Woolf, he says,
has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. That competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.
Reading this, one has the strong sense that Wood is talking as much about himself as about Woolf. Wood published a novel in 2004, and whether or not one agrees with his methods or judgments, Wood’s prose is full of glittering precision and dreamy metaphorical effects that often top the novelists he’s examining. Wood is forever showing plumage. A few examples:
Of Melville: “No other nineteenth-century novelist writing in English lived in the city of words that that Melville lived in; they were suburbanites by comparison.”
Of Chekhov: “He found the world to be as deeply evasive as he himself was – life as a tree of separate hanging stories, of dangling privacies.”
Of George Steiner: “[His] prose is a remarkable substance; it is the sweat of a monument.”
His metaphors do sometimes fail. Take this, for example, from Wood’s summary of Anthony Julius’s screed against Eliot: “The idea seems to be that the three demons are separate but pull together, like hardworking chefs, to prepare the feast of prejudice.”
No one hits the bull’s eye every time.
It’s a tired old saying that ‘those who can’t, teach,’ and something similar is said of critics: that they make their way by praising or deploring the works of others because they themselves are unable to create anything original. Like Flaubert’s Pellerin who “held the old masters in such veneration that it almost raised him to their status,” the critic schemes to win status by counterfeit means: If he can’t join the club by the front door, he climbs the trellis to break a window. The assumption here is that it’s easier to be a critic. Everyone is, so they say. But being critical is not at all the same thing as being a critic. I congratulate myself that Montaigne agrees:
Here is a wonder: we have many more poets than judges and interpreters of poetry. It is easier to create it than to understand it. On a certain low level it can be judged by precepts and by art. But the good, supreme, divine poetry is above rules and reason… It does not persuade our judgment, it ravishes and overwhelms it. (Essays I, 37)
I wonder if we aren’t after all better served by “writer-critics” like Wood who possess some sort of artistic capacity, who because they share in the writer’s perspective are perhaps less confounded by the ravishment of words. Or does that make them more susceptible? But Wood at least is a pleasure to read, which is more than can be said for certain of his fellows. (Sam Anderson considers reading Wood “practically a form of intellectual erotica.”) I’ve personally benefited by Wood’s discussion -in the middling How Fiction Works- of the novel’s free indirect style, by which “we inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.” I’ve also gleaned a few satori moments meditating on Wood’s philosophy of metaphor (“the whole of the imaginative fictional process in one move”) and its function within narrative:
Narrative sequence, at bottom, is nothing other than the materiality of words, which forces us to place one word after the next, rather than on top of each other… Metaphor is the way to explode sequence.
Despite the occasional “feast of prejudice” flop, this kind of stuff is, I think, reason enough to hope that Wood keeps peacocking around for some time to come.