Piqued by Leon Wieseltier’s huffy take on James Wood’s exodus to The New Yorker, many commentators seemed to overlook the paper of record’s tacit endorsement of the proposition that Wood is “brutal,” blasting away at our frail eminences. Isn’t he that vicious British critic? an English professor recently asked me. In fact, Wood is anything but.
In September, The Quarterly Conversation will be publishing a long essay in which I try to illuminate Wood’s shortcomings as a critic of contemporary American fiction, but it feels important to me now to note that these shortcomings arise from Wood’s fundamental virtues as a critic, namely his passion for, and faith in, literature… just as Faulkner’s excesses are inseparable from his gifts. Wood himself may not assent to E.L. Doctorow’s axiom that “excess in literature is its own justification,” but he is its exemplar.
Wood incites passionate disagreement – making him a rare nut in the tepid oatmeal of our media culture – and is hard on writers who leave him wanting. Quite often, he is wrong about them. But Wood does not hate books, or even novelty. He presents a pretty persuasive platform for his criticism in his 2005 essay “A Reply to the Editors,” directed at N+1. It is, along with his conflicted review of DeLillo’s Falling Man, one of the best things he’s published recently. For as long as he’s at The New Yorker, I’ll enjoy reading James Wood, and rising (I hope) to his provocations.
Isn’t this what citizenship in the republic of letters is supposed to mean?