A Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man: On James Wood’s ‘The Nearest Thing to Life’

May 12, 2015 | 4 books mentioned 5 min read

covercoverJames Wood is a kind of literary mentor to me. He seems to be able to take murky notions floating around in my head and articulate them with casual precision, as if he wrote from the tip of my tongue. His compact volume How Fiction Works –– which I read in a single sitting on a bus from New York to Boston –– is one of the loveliest and most concise primers on fiction I’ve come across. But if that book was too stuffy for some (like Walter Kirn, who, in his review for The New York Times couldn’t suppress his disdain for a critic of Wood’s ilk, who “flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic”), Wood’s essay collection The Fun Stuff displayed a more personal side. In essays like “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library” and “The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon,” Wood shows how emotionally resonant and stylistically idiosyncratic he can be. Add to this his remarkable considerations of Edmund Wilson, Lydia Davis, W.G. Sebald, and Geoff Dyer, and you have a well-rounded book that should quiet anyone suspicious of a term like artist-critic.

coverBut if suspicions still abound, here is Wood’s newest work, The Nearest Thing to Life, taken from a series of lectures given at Brandies and the British Museum. This book, which manages to be even slimmer than How Fiction Works, also manages to be even better. The Nearest Thing to Life is as close as we’ll ever get to a manifesto from the British-born New Yorker critic. Contained in the book’s 134 pages is a passionate defense of criticism, a memoir of Wood’s early life and influences, and an insightful study of the meaning of fiction.

This should all be old hat by now. Every year, new books arrive promising some meditation on fiction’s quintessence, and though many of them are useful and even well written, they rarely offer truly fresh observations. All of which makes The Nearest Thing to Life that much more remarkable. Wood succeeds so well because of his knack for recognizing defining contradictions. Consider the way he unpacks the duality of fiction through the lens of religion:

The idea that anything can be thought and said inside the novel –– a garden where the great Why? hangs unpicked, gloating in the free air –– had, for me, an ironically symmetrical connection with the actual fears of official Christianity outside the novel: that without God, as Dostoyevsky put it, “everything is permitted.” Take away God, and chaos and confusion reign; people will commit all kinds of crimes, think all kinds of thoughts. You need God to keep a lid on things. This is the usual conservative Christian line. By contrast, the novel seems, commonsensically, to say: ‘Everything has always been permitted, even when God was around. God has nothing to do with it.’

Wood loves fiction because of its “proximity to, and final difference from, religious texts.” Fiction, he writes, “moves in the shadow of a doubt, knows it is a true lie.” And although we believe in the veracity of a novel’s world, this belief “only resembles actual belief.” These are ideas I’ve written about before but never with such sure-footed clarity. Wood, in this wonderful book, is able to exude dispassionate scrutiny with personal expression, a rare feat indeed.

coverJames Wood was born in Durham, England, in 1965 but has for the last 18 years lived in America, specifically Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches at Harvard. His standing as a foreigner leads to a lovely meditation on what Wood refers to as “homelooseness:” “Exile is acute, massive, transformative; but homelooseness, because it moves along its axis of departure and return, can be banal, welcome, necessary, continuous.” For Wood, this is one of contemporary fiction’s most prevalent themes, the search for a semblance of home in an increasingly global community. A glimpse at many of the well-acclaimed American novels from the past decade or so proves his thesis: from Jhumpa Lahiri to Junot Díaz to Teju Cole to Gary Shteyngart, some of our most lasting recent fiction has come from immigrants, emigrants, exiles, expats, a diasporic smorgasbord. Wood returns here to Aleksander Hemon, a writer Wood greatly admires and about whom he has written repeatedly, and one can see why Wood feels such a connection to the Bosnia-born Hemon, for exiles, no matter what their origin, all share this in common: wherever they are isn’t home. Or, as Hemon himself puts it in The Lazarus Project: “If you can’t go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world –– indeed, nowhere is the world.”

But perhaps Wood is best in this brilliant book when he writes passionately and tenderly about criticism itself. First, he distinguishes what he calls “writer’s criticism” from “academic literary criticism.” Though English studies began in universities around World War I, criticism has been around for centuries, but, as Wood points out, “it existed as literature” by writers like Samuel Johnson and Samuel Coleridge and Virginia Woolf. Academia, with its claims to dispassionate engagement, can’t quite capture the beauty of literature. “A lot of the criticism I admire,” Wood writes, “is not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate redescription.” Though he doesn’t use the term, Wood calls for criticism as testimony, a creative and revelatory way to pay witness.

Consider the example Wood provides here. Virginia Woolf attends a lecture in London given by the art critic Roger Fry, and she describes the way Fry pauses while studying one of his slides. Suddenly, a word strikes him “as if for the first time” and in this moment the audience sees something important, something the critic does not see: himself.

For two hours they had been looking at pictures. But they had seen one of which the lecturer himself was unconscious –– the outline of a man against the screen, an ascetic figure in evening dress who paused and pondered, and then raised his stick and pointed. That was a picture that would remain in memory together with the rest, a rough sketch that would serve many of the audience in years to come as the portrait of a great critic, a man of profound sensibility but of exacting honesty, who, when reason could penetrate no further, broke off; but was convinced, and convinced others, that what he saw was there.

It is a remarkably beautiful passage, one that captures criticism at its most moving. Wood, though, fails to point out that Woolf is doing the very thing she attributes to Fry: she is convinced, and convinces other, that what she saw was there. This is testimony about testimony, one artist enraptured with other artists. Wood captures Woolf who captures Fry. Criticism (and art, for that matter) is nothing if not endless, complex description of our own experiences with literature, and our descriptions of other people’s description. In many ways, literature is a path paved by paraphrase.

Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, wrote, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.” In keeping with this notion, The Nearest Thing to Life gives us a profound portrait of an inimitable artist.

is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, Read It Forward, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.