This year I grabbed a lot of books almost totally at random and finished most of them, some in a few hours (hello, Jean Rhys’s gorgeously unnerving Wide Sargasso Sea, which I read in a hotel in Tijuana in the spring), some over many months (looking at you, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, an exquisitely boring novel I now meditate upon, helpless, for around two hours a day). I didn’t have a plan. For a while I read nothing but Joan Aiken novels. Nominally this was because I was writing about Joan Aiken for The New Yorker, but when you are reading books as delightful as Aiken’s, the whole question of motive begins to seem somewhat beside the point. For instance, you would never say, “I’m leaving this world for a plane of transcendent joy so I can write about it for the New Yorker.” Or maybe you would, but in that case I harbor grim suspicions about the integrity of your Instagram feed.
I read a lot of Chinese poetry from the Tang era, returning again and again to Du Fu whenever I felt hopeless or desolate. His work is a steady source of strength for me in hard times: compassionate, particular, seemingly able to encompass both the whole of existence and the precarious lives and moments held within it. Of course he also lived through one of the most terrifying periods of social upheaval in human history, and his thousand-year-old poems ring out clearly against the onslaught of our current news cycle. If you can read his accounts of life as a refugee and still feel indifferent to the refugee crisis, you must be molded from very cold clay.
I didn’t read many new books this year; who knows why. Among the books published in 2018 that I did pick up, Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, a lyrically thrilling account of the history of Oklahoma City, and Your Duck Is My Duck, Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection of short stories, were particular favorites. I read the Eisenberg collection while traveling on my own book tour. I found myself wanting to read her work, instead of mine, aloud at most of my stops.
Mostly, though, I read books I should have read years ago, books everyone else has already read. Imagine, with wonder and pity written starkly on your features, the poor sod who had not picked up Nabokov’s Pnin, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, or Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, or LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues, until 2018! Reader, that sod was me. After scrolling, rapt, through Meg Wolitzer’s recommendation in The New York Times, I finally tracked down a copy of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, a novel so perfect, so funny and heartbreaking and funny-heartbreaking, that I expect to read it again in 2019, if not this weekend.
But I can’t this weekend—this weekend I’m reading Hamid Ismailov’s The Underground, another book I’m years behind on. I look forward to catching up with his new work from this year, along with that of so many other writers I admire, in approximately 2033.
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James Boswell begins his famous life of Samuel Johnson by quoting his subject’s opinion “that every man’s life may be best written by himself.” Saul Bellow would demur. In Mark Harris’s biography manqué, Drumlin Woodchuck, Bellow goes on record that were he to write his own life, “There would be nothing much to say except that I have been unbearably busy ever since I was circumcised.” For such cases, the literary biographer is indispensable. If nothing else, he can add significant nuance to some reticent authors’ productive post-circumcision careers.
Novelists tend to be repulsed by and attracted to the literary biographer, who is both kindred spirit and antagonist, reviver and executioner, exalted Boswell, and the “lice of literature” (to quote Philip Roth from Exit Ghost). The literary biographer is a novelistic double whose diligent quest to flesh out a life mirrors the novelist’s “savage snooping calling itself literature” (again, Exit Ghost); he is also a monstrous interloper whose obsessive search for real-life parallels threaten the sanctity of the work of art, which in a world legislated by poets would be free from the insights — facile or penetrating, doggedly literal of irresponsibly speculative — of biographical criticism.
In her recent study of Philip Roth, Claudia Roth Pierpont notes the antagonistic stance of the famous writer in Exit Ghost as he “confronts a subject that had attached to his later years as inevitably and about as pleasantly as death: biography.” In that novel, Nathan Zuckerman is accosted by a young man, Richard Kliman, seeking to write a biography that will reveal a sensational secret about Zuckerman’s under-appreciated literary hero, E.I. Lonoff. Suspicious of what he calls this “rehabilitation by disgrace,” Zuckerman vows to combat Kliman and become “[t]he biographer’s enemy. The biographer’s obstacle.”
Roth portrays the “rampaging would-be biographer” in conspicuously virile terms; the hulking Kliman has the “tactless severity of vital male youth,” a youth and potency felt all the more by Zuckerman, who has been rendered impotent and incontinent by a prostate operation. But more often, fictional literary biographers are feckless ciphers pestering their elders for details long since forgotten. As noted by Penelope Lively in According to Mark, the “obsessive shadowing of another man’s life was one of the more bizarre ways to spend one’s own,” and such obsessive shadowing leaves little room for the cultivation of a forceful personality. A case in point is the self-effacing narrating biographer of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: “As the reader may have noticed, I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible.”
As the biographer becomes inextricably linked with his subject and surrenders his personality to what Roth calls the “insane rapaciousness of the biographical drive,” Nabokovian elements flourish: doublings, masks, farce, and meddlesome shades. This is an essay about how that drive manifests itself in fiction.
The “biographical drive”: to Eros and Thanatos is added a third (Boswellos? Biografietrieb?) that combines elements of love and death. The ideal literary biography is a creative, exploratory, and near-amorous engagement with an author’s life and work, a dance of “rhythmical interlacements” (Sebastian Knight). But the biography is also an elegiac, foreclosing, and (metaphorically) fatal document: “‘It’s a second death. It puts another stop to a life by casting it in concrete for all time,’” complains Lonoff’s widow.
In Kingsley Amis’s The Biographer’s Moustache, a young literary man on the make identifies a novelist “due for revival,” a term that speaks to the contrary impulses of the “biographical drive.” This “revival” breathes new life into a subject even as it provides him or her with an epitaph; a new life that also seeks to be definitive, that is, conclusive. Sebastian Knight’s narrator considers it his task to “animate” his deceased half-brother; by contrast, Bellow expresses his fear that “‘biography is for the man who is finished…I’m not finished, not done, not fini. I’m still groping.”
At its most basic level, the literary biographer novel plots the compulsion to ward off future intrusions of a “gossipy form,” as A.S. Byatt calls it in The Biographer’s Tale. Novelists expel their anxiety by satirizing those in thrall to the biographical drive, even deriving a small measure of sadistic satisfaction at turning the merciless biographer’s gaze back on himself. And thus in a series of satires, Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Lively’s According to Mark, Amis’s The Biographer’s Moustache, Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding, and to a lesser extent Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (though that novel’s dominant tone is elegiac rather than satiric), the biographer himself is dissected, sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes stingingly. (Hollingurst’s biographer is of the latter variety, a “fantasist” and conniver who is subjected to a series of small humiliations and rebuffs all the while convincing himself that his presence is welcome.)
Apart from its defensive aspect, the literary biographer plot seizes on the messiness of the endeavor: the struggle between a biographer’s passive surrender to another writer and the intrusive combativeness of a biographical reading; the necessary critical distance from and equally necessary absorption in the subject; the literal-mindedness of a researcher looking for parallels between real and fictional worlds; and that researcher’s fanciful or creative reconstructions.
The airiest work in this tradition is Mitford’s Christmas Pudding. A humorless young man of rather “weak” character, Paul Fotheringay pens a deeply felt sentimental novel, only to have the public view it as an uproariously funny satire. Branded as a comic author, he turns to the high seriousness of biography. Now to find a subject:
It would be hard, in fact, to find exactly what he wanted, which was a woman of breeding, culture and some talent, living towards the last half of the nineteenth century, who was not already the subject of a “life.”
Comic logic being what it is, Paul soon finds a poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin, who precisely matches this description and also happens to be his “affinity” and “ideal heroine.” Hatching a plan to gain access to her diaries by disguising himself as a school tutor, Paul embarks on the biography, which he deems an “ideal medium for self-expression.”
Mitford means this as a joke, but like most jokes there is an element of truth in it: Lady Maria Bobbin is as insipid and as unintentionally hilarious as Paul is. Her diaries mix mawkish tributes to her infirm dog (“As I write poor Ivanhoe lies at my feet. Dear faithful beast…how dreary, how different this house will seem without the feeble, friendly wag of his old weatherbeaten tail…”) with reminders to chide the cooking staff for disappointing her gourmand husband, who eventually dies from chronic over-eating. Lady Bobbin is a subject as convenient for the picky biographer as she is revealing about him. Both she and Paul strive for pathos and so remain mired in comedy.
The comedy in The Biographer’s Moustache is darker. A young, mustachioed literary man, Gordon Scott-Thompson, determines that Jimmie Fane, an older, snobbish novelist with a slew of ex-wives, is due for a biographical treatment. (This despite being a “frightful old arse-creeper of the nobility,” a “toffy-nosed old twit,” and a “massive and multifarious shit.”) The aged roué sees the “irreducible gap in [their] respective social groupings” as a means to experiment on his middle-class biographer — possibly even goading him into an affair with his wife, which gives new meaning to the phrase “unprecedented access.”
The ensuing war between biographer and subject, sometimes passive aggressive, sometimes outright aggressive, involves a skirmish over whether or not to shave the titular moustache, an overdetermined symbol that brushes up against class, sex, and the biographer’s urge towards self-concealment.
An equally adversarial relationship is found in Penelope Lively’s According to Mark, in which the biographer comes to believe that his subject is “meddling in and manipulating the lives of others from beyond the grave.” Adhering to Bellow’s definition of biography as “a specter viewed by a specter,” Lively playfully gestures towards the ghost story, as does Nabokov in his similarly haunted tale, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. “Blundering biographer” though he is, Nabokov’s narrator, V., is buoyed by the “secret knowledge” that his half-brother’s shade is trying to be “helpful,” guiding him along a “private labyrinth” which V. is half following and half constructing himself.
Sebastian Knight, Russian émigré and playful English novelist, is a particularly friendly ghost, “laughing alive in five volumes” and looking down on his half-brother’s investigations into his curtailed life with amusement. Though he has up till then written “one or two chance English translations required by a motor-firm,” V. nonetheless resolves to write Sebastian’s biography in his brother’s adopted English language, the first in a series of attempts to mimic his subject.
Predictably, Nabokov smuggles the most into the literary biographer plot. Sebastian Knight is a Künstlerroman; family drama; treatise on exile and national identity; parody of detective fiction; benign ghost story; aesthetic tract; “biographie romancée;” critical exegesis; and a very funny account of professional rivalry and the narrator’s “clumsy efforts to track down a ghost.” As these strands converge, the distinction between biographer and subject ultimately disappears: “I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian’s mask clings to my face.”
Stuffed as it is with games, the novel is not without feeling. Like Sebastian, Nabokov “use[s] parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion.” V.’s quest is motivated in part by nagging guilt: “Why had I kept away from him so stubbornly, when he was the man I admired most of all men?” Part of the answer is revealed in a disarmingly candid revelation near novel’s end. Opting to take a train rather than buy a plane ticket to attend his brother’s death-bed — an economy which makes him miss Sebastian’s passing — the narrator explains: “I took the cheapest opportunity, as I usually do in life.” Nabokov’s biographer-clown must make this damning and affecting confession of emotional, artistic, and spiritual stinginess before fully losing himself in his new persona.
Alan Hollinghurst is hardly Nabokovian in style, but The Stranger’s Child is as shade-haunted as Sebastian Knight. Hollinghurst’s novel illuminates the erotic aspect of the biographer-subject relationship, the sensual thrill of coming into contact with any trace — marmoreal, photographic, or graphical — of one’s subject. Paul Bryan, the biographer, is actually “turned on” when he first sees a statue of his subject, Cecil Vance, a “first-rate example of the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many greater masters,” and comes to recognize Cecil’s handwriting as if it were that of a lover.
The Stranger’s Child begins with the erotic immediacy Hollinghust does so well — depicting a burst of sexual and creative energy as the satyr-like Vance, seducing men and women alike, descends upon a family before the First World War. In the late 1970’s, Paul embarks on a life of the poet at a time when “outing gay writers was all the rage.” Hollinghurst reverses the standard investigative process of literary detective stories. He presents us first with the full splendor of the novelist’s feast — Vance’s “mad sodomitical past” as depicted in detail during the opening section — then shows how biographers labor mightily to gather up the meager scraps.
Nonfiction accounts of the biographical drive are arguably more dramatically charged than fictional ones. Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow is the more sensational narrative of embitterment, but Mark Harris’s earlier Drumlin Woodchuck is a quiet marvel that is at once a sneakily incisive critical study of Bellow and a ruefully comic portrait of the artist as would-be biographer. In Drumlin Woodchuck, the novelist Harris recounts sacrificing his friendship with Saul Bellow to pursue his biographical ambitions. The memoir is a paean to Bellow even as it mercilessly chronicles his endless “woodchuck” tricks, that is, his skill for evasion, beginning with Bellow’s refusal to acknowledge a letter in which Harris announces his plans to write his friend’s life. (The title refers to a Robert Frost poem, the wily creature of which is never without an unobstructed path to safety: “I can sit forth exposed to attack / As one who shrewdly pretends / That he and the world are friends.”)
By his own admission, Harris comes off worse than his resistant subject. Arriving in Chicago (a “very big meadow”) and unable to find Bellow (“an experienced woodchuck”), Harris tracks his quarry to a steakhouse, where he has him paged; he impersonates him on the phone to his three-year-old son; insinuates himself with Bellow’s wife, from whom he has just separated; and fantasizes about having his subject cornered in jail, where he will be forced to answer his questions definitively.
Many scenes take place in cars — Bellow chauffeuring Harris, Harris chauffeuring Bellow, Harris speeding toward Bellow, Bellow speeding away from Harris — which is to say that Harris’s memoir literalizes pleasures and perils of the biographical drive. Of one night out in Chicago: “Well, this was more like it. This was it — riding along with my biographee. Things were at last going right. Off to a party together, talking, rambling around from topic to topic, joking, gossiping, interrupting one another with opinions, expressing prejudices.” Bellow soon ditches him.
“Biographers,” a friend tells Harris, “cannot be choosers.” The remark refers to the biographer’s duty to avoid becoming disillusioned with his subject at the first discovery of a moral blemish, but the epigram also captures the sense of irresistible compulsion in the visceral attraction that spurs a fellow writer to examine another’s life so assiduously. These subjects alter their biographers, influence them, toy with them, or absorb them. It is a game of possession, to echo the title of A.S. Byatt’s famous novel of literary detection. But if literary biographers are possessed by their subjects, they also possess their subjects in turn. As Nabokov beautifully puts it, “any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations.”
Unfortunately even writing that sentence makes me feel uneasy. Enough people already like James Wood; enough people hate him, too. And while there are instances of novelists who admit to being influenced by critics – the most famous recent one is probably Michael Chabon deciding to expand the scope of his work after Jonathan Yardley praised his gifts but criticized the narrowness of their use – there’s something unsavory in that reversal, something suggestible and therefore at odds with the single-mindedness and determination that I associate (perhaps wrongly?) with good fiction.
Still, there’s the truth to deal with. When people ask me about influence I don’t think of the living writers I like best – David Lodge, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Rush. As Jonathan Franzen pointed out, by the time they reach maturity most novelists have moved beyond the stage of direct influence. What I think about instead is James Wood: his emphasis on precision in language, his (implicit and brave) rejection of the intentional fallacy and consequent belief that he can ascertain an author’s aim, his rejection of vague or lyrical cant.
But that uneasiness! I feel it. And therefore maybe it would be best to start with an inoculation – the things that are wrong with James Wood. I’ve compiled a list in my mind over the years.
James Wood has a terrible sense of humor.
Here’s a passage that Wood describes as “sublimely funny,” about how a character in Hardy called Cain Ball was named:
O you see, mem, his pore mother, not being a Scripture-read woman, made a mistake at his christening, thinking ‘twas Abel killed Cain, and called en Cain meaning Abel all the time. She didn’t find out till ‘twas too late, and the chiel was handed back to his godmother…She were brought up by a very heathen father and mother who never sent her to church or school, and it shows how the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, mem.
Only a deranged person could find this sublimely funny, even using the least general definition of the word sublime. It’s maybe faintly amusing in the donnish, ironic, humorless manner of a letter to the Economist. But the simple fact is that Hardy wrote a century and more ago, and humor is the least durable form of human communication. Someone is being born out there right now who will find it bizarre that I consider The Forty-Year Old Virgin funny, and in all but the most exceptional cases, P.G. Wodehouse for instance, comedy fades after ten or fifteen years.
So to conclude, I’ve read a lot of James Wood, and whenever he finds something funny it’s a sure sign that it’s not funny.
James Wood seems naïve about art.
One of the interesting little ghosts in the James Wood machine is his sophisticated and perceptive love of music, which was the subject that earned him a scholarship to Eton.
But his intermittent mentions of art are embarrassing. There are a few examples of this (including one nails-on-a-blackboard invocation of Andy Warhol) but the worst for me is in an essay on Laszlo Krasznahorkai, in which he describes a series of paintings as “exquisite and enigmatic.” What the hell is that? It’s unlike Wood to use such uninteresting words, the words a docent at a regional art museum might use, but there they are in print. “Exquisite,” in particular. It tells us nothing about the pictures, and worse, it implies that beauty is the metric by which to judge art. In an essay about one of the least stylistically beautiful (and one of the most stylistically interesting) writers alive!
James Wood is obsessed with character names.
Or of a character named Adam Morey in The Privileges, a book about, unsurprisingly perhaps, privilege, he says “the name suggesting both ‘money’ and ‘more’ of it.”
Oh, thanks James Wood!
So there you have it – I’m out now. I guess he sometimes chases the strong, vibrant language that he so admires in novelists. He can be unattractively dogmatic.
But the most honest thing to say is that the way he sees fiction has changed the way I see fiction. Whether he’s funny doing it or not.
What makes James Wood great? One thing is his willingness to quote at length, and it seems only fair to grant him the same courtesy. Here is the long first paragraph of his review of The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, a review that I think should be handed out on the first day of every MFA program.
Most of the prose writers acclaimed for “writing beautifully” do no such thing; such praise is issued comprehensively, like the rain on the just and the unjust. Mostly, what’s admired as beautiful is ordinary; or sometimes it’s too obviously beautiful, feebly fine — what Nabokov once called “weak blond prose.” The English novelist Alan Hollinghurst is one of the few contemporary writers who deserve the adverb. His prose has the power of re-description, whereby we are made to notice something hitherto neglected. Yet, unlike a good deal of modern writing, this re-description is not achieved only by inventing brilliant metaphors, or by flourishing some sparkling detail, or by laying down a line of clever commentary. Instead, Hollinghurst works quietly, like a poet, goading all the words in his sentences — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs — into a stealthy equality. I mean something like this, from his novel The Line of Beauty (2004): “Above the trees and rooftops the dingy glare of the London sky faded upwards into weak violet heights.” We can suddenly see the twilit sky of a big city afresh, and the literary genius is obviously centered in the unexpected strength of the adjective “weak,” which brings alive the diminishing strata of the urban night sky, overpowered by the bright lights on the ground. The effect is paradoxical, because we usually associate heights not with weakness but with power or command. And the poetry lies not just in what the sentence paints but in how it sounds: there is something mysteriously lovely about the rhythm of “weak violet heights,” and the way the two adjectives turn into a plural noun that is really just another adjective; the sentence does indeed seem to drift away into the far distance.
This is not a particularly original passage of criticism – for one thing re-description sounds an awful lot like defamiliarization. But it has two qualities I associate with Wood. First, it’s absolutely correct; he’s a great reader, whether you like him or not. This passage is itself a re-description of a sentence one might easily have passed without noticing. Second, it’s a close reading that is attuned to the significance of language within fiction.
The second point is the significant one. In the last ten or fifteen years precision of language has become the password that marks out serious writers of fiction. (In this respect, though in fewer and fewer others, John Updike’s influence remains enormous.) There aren’t many literary novelists at the moment who are content to be plainspoken, and those who are, Kazuo Ishiguro for instance, have clear narrative motives for the choice. Instead, when you open almost any well-regarded novel today it will have long passages of precisely poetic prose, full of surprising and carefully curated language.
I attribute this generation of writers’ embrace of non-narrative and extra-narrative observation at least in part to Wood. From his first days at the Guardian he’s been a persistent and sometimes lonely advocate for Hardy and Lawrence’s brand of language-based realism. (The writers he’s criticized over the years – Richard Powers, A.S. Byatt, Paul Auster, this last to devastating effect – often have an element of magic in their works, and a fair criticism of Wood might be that he restricts his affections to books that even when they are fanciful make total sense, which sounds like a fair metric until you think about it.)
To pick out language for special attention might seem like an affectation in a critic of fiction. Language is important in a novel, obviously, but less so than in poetry, where the sense of distillation makes it overarchingly vital. Novels should have room for mess and digression, the way life does – and in my opinion they should also have some speed, which precious language can check.
But what seems to me to make Wood such an important critic is that he doesn’t care about language simply for itself, even when he cites its beauty, as in Hollinghurst’s case, but, crucially, as an indicator of a novel’s quality of thought. That seems to me to be his central insight: that since language is our only point of access to a writer’s intentions, its care or carelessness is the first test we ought to take of a book’s merit, and more than that our greatest clue to the quality of their thoughts. “Intelligence is not mere ‘smartness,’” he writes at one point, “but an element inseparable from the texture and the movement of the book.”
This – the division between smartness and thought – is where Wood’s brain began to work on my own.
In the spring of 2011 I was living in Oxford, doing halfhearted work on a doctorate (its subject was false genealogies in the work of Edmund Spenser; film rights still available) and working intensely on the final third of a novel about the city, where by then I’d lived for nearly three years. One day I read that Wood was going to be in town, to deliver a series of six lectures on fiction at St. Anne’s College.
I went to all six, excited to hear him speak. They were intermittently terrific; it seemed to me that he was strongest in his readings of contemporary writers, where the weight of academic thought had yet to settle. In particular his lectures on Melville and Woolf were perceptive in parts but also seemed less persuasive in that academic setting, and I was reminded that in a very real way criticism is journalism, a first, delible draft of literary history. That was Wood’s strength, I thought: getting a living writer just right for a literate but not professional audience. His opinion of Orwell seemed less vital to me than his opinion of Ben Lerner.
Around the same time I read How Fiction Works, his short guide to (truth in advertising) how fiction works. Though that book was genial company it made very little impact on me, probably because I was already aware of the existence of free indirect speech, which Wood discovered in the same way that Columbus discovered America – long after it was settled terrain. Combined with the good-but-not-great lectures, the effect of the book was to lessen his importance in my mind. It wasn’t as if he was the only critic I liked, anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever read a word Zoe Heller wrote that I didn’t love. Dwight Garner was never boring.
Then a funny thing happened.
By June I had finished my novel about Oxford. It was under contract to a publisher and I took some time away from it, two or three months, because I wanted to return and edit it with fresh eyes. When I went back to it late in the summer I felt pleased with the book from sentence to sentence, and with its characters. But I started to have a terrible, itchy, and at first seemingly irrelevant thought: James Wood would dislike this book.
This was truly stupid, I thought at first. You might write for yourself, or some ideal reader, but never for a critic.
But then my thought clarified into something worse: James Wood would dislike this book and he would be correct.
There were two levels to this realization. The first was the level of language, and I experienced it as I edited from line to line, like those fibrillations you feel in a muscle just as you’re falling asleep: I would pass by a sentence and then startle back toward it, realizing the fatal slackness of its language. Where I thought I had been precise I had been quick, where I thought I had been quick and free I had been inexcusably careless. (Wallace Stegner put it so well – hard writing makes for easy reading, and the reverse.) I began to edit much more fastidiously, not in accordance with what I thought Wood would like (I wasn’t that far gone) but with what sounded like the truth. If, for instance, I had a character “crunch through the snow” in my first draft, now I would stop and think. Was there any vitality left in that word, “crunch”? Where had I received it? Was it the best word I could think to describe the sound of shoes in the snow? What about the little shreds of wisdom (“fail better” was one I can recall cutting) that had been hollowed of meaning by familiarity?
The second level of that Woodian realization, and the less agonizing, more liberating one, was about a subtler idea: withholding.
That is one of Wood’s own words, an attribute he values enormously in a writer. Reticence might be another thing to call it. In his assessment (one of his most profound to me) of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, he writes:
And throughout the novel, present but never spoken, never written – it is the most beautiful act of Sebald’s withholding – is the other historical name that shadows the name Austerlitz, the name that begins and ends with the same letters, the place that Agata Austerlitz was almost certainly “sent east” to in 1944, and the place that Maximilian Aychenwald was almost certainly sent to from the French camp in Gurs, in 1942: Auschwitz.
As I read through The Last Enchantments – as my book was and is called – I began to see how catastrophically little I had withheld. Partially this was a fault of using the first person, a choice that I began to look on with dismay. My narrator analyzed every gesture of the people around him, and was constantly checking in on his own thoughts. He also explained the emotional significance of all the interactions he had, as if he were writing for a child.
So I began to cut as ruthlessly as possible, and just as importantly to elide plot, to remove connective tissue, to cede control of the book to the reader. As with the language, it wasn’t a slavish choice, taken in obeisance to James Wood’s critical opinion. Instead, it was that he had, as in the opening to his Hollinghurst review, illuminated an idea I already understood in my mind – that the best texts are writerly, per Barthes – but had never cared all that much about, until I relearned it through his gift for instantiating abstractions through criticism. How rare that seemed to me at the time, and seems still, in a critic.
I spent that whole fall of 2011 cutting and rewriting my novel. By the end of it I felt nearly sick with anxiety over the process. Still, I forced myself to take another few months away from it, and when I returned again I realized, with a tremendous exhalation of relief, that it was a better book now. When I finished reading the last draft I was sitting in a coffee shop in New York, and I can remember, though it sounds bizarre, thinking of James Wood – and feeling grateful to him.
Also, and not irrelevantly, on that day I remember thinking that even after all of my changes he would see the book as a failure. A few months away from publication, I still do, for reasons I’ll describe now.
Of John Updike, whom I mentioned earlier, Wood has written, “he is not, I think, a great writer, and the lacuna is not in the quality of his prose but in the risk of the thought.”
The risk of the thought. That phrase has settled in my brain. The Last Enchantments is a relatively conventional story about an American abroad at Oxford, where he makes a break with his past life, meets new people, and falls in love. These could be the elements of a radical book or a safe one, a good one or a terrible one. I don’t personally think it’s terrible, but it may be safe. The fact of the matter is that language and elision – the lessons that James Wood reshaped and renewed for me as I was editing – are important, but they’re still not as important as conception. As I look upon my book as a finished object, preparing to exchange it for money with people out in the world, I can’t help but feel its conception risks too little. (I should say I don’t think risk means formal radicalism – Alice Munro, to me, is a far riskier writer than, say, John Barth, because her stories rely on her perception of human psychology, which when written falsely is disastrous.) The Last Enchantments seems to exist too much within the contours of books that I’ve loved in the past, both long ago (Brideshead Revisited) and not that long ago (The Line of Beauty). That may sound odd, since at the outset of this essay I specifically disavowed the direct influence of other novelists, but I don’t mean that the books were influential on my own. I mean that I accepted the terms of other writers too easily – their view of the world. My own book is new, in the sense that I feel very sure it’s written with my voice, but I now I wonder if perhaps it’s not new enough.
Of course this is a common tactical retreat. Every writer must feel his last book is the worst one ever, and I don’t know how I’ll come to judge this one when I’ve traveled farther away from it. I’m working on something now that is riskier, or feels riskier to me, but it could be that I’ll look back on it with far greater regret than I do on The Last Enchantments. At any rate it’s certain that I’ll look back on it with regret. It seems impossible to me not to. Iris Murdoch said it best: every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.
This returns me to James Wood. Almost no subject on earth has more nonsense mysticism attached to it than writing. I think perhaps in the end what he has given me is the feeling that any real work of literature is underwritten not by inspiration, or genius, but by actual thought – actual work – actual choice. In every line of his criticism, Wood searches for the real work that an author is doing, rather than the most generous possible reading of its brilliance. No wonder his highest praise for Lydia Davis is for her “relentless control” of her work, which “gives it an implacable Beckettian power.”
The fact that this praise gets right is that writers live within the borders of their choices. That is the lesson I owe James Wood for teaching me, better than I was able to teach it to myself. Critics should never determine what a writer should write, of course. But writers shouldn’t be proud, either; they should take their lessons where they can find them. Read with the craft in mind, Wood can give a writer who pays attention the wherewithal to write with greater care, to take greater risks, and therefore ultimately to – one more time, why not – fail better.
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2013 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 154 novels on the list, nominated by 120 libraries in 44 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2011 (including translations).
Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary tendencies of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.
Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least seven libraries.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (15 libraries representing Australia, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (9 libraries representing Belgium and the United States)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (9 libraries representing Canada, Ireland, and the United States)
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (9 libraries representing Austria, Ireland, Norway, and the United States)
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (7 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, and the United States)
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (7 libraries representing Belgium, the Czech Republic, England, Greece, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States)
You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:
In Canada, Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
In Australia, Autumn Laing by Alex Miller
In New Zealand, The Conductor by Sarah Quigley
There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:
From Iceland, The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma
From India, The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
From Jamaica, The Goat Woman of Largo Bay by Gillian Royes
From Mexico, My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
From Sweden, The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson
Daniel Mendelsohn’s Manhattan apartment is quiet, classy, tasteful. It is a symphony of stillness and neutrals in stark contrast to the constant motion, precise convictions, and easy chatter of the man who inhabits it. He apologizes for having nothing to offer but ice water, but is generous and forthright in his conversation. Mendelsohn is the author of two memoirs, The Elusive Embrace and The Lost, as well as a translation of the poems of C.P. Cavafy, a scholarly book about Greek tragedy, and two collections of critical essays, How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken and the just published Waiting for the Barbarians. Previously the book critic for New York magazine, he is now a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He has a Ph.D. in Classics and is a professor at Bard College, and there is the air of the scholar about him. Yet his lean freelancing-and-grad school, ramen-eating days remain a favorite topic, as do current movies and TV shows.
I‘ve come to talk to Mendelsohn about that vexed and suddenly trendy topic, the current state of criticism. A piece he published on the New Yorker blog Page-Turner, “A Critic’s Manifesto”, in late August described his love for the New Yorker critics of the 70s and his views on criticism, so it seemed like a good starting point for our discussion, which covered that piece, both of his essay collections, Mad Men, Grandma’s noodle kugel, John Cheever, cultural mushiness, and Battlestar Galactica.
The Millions: I read “A Critic’s Manifesto” and thought, “Oh no! You wrote about all of the things I was going to ask you. There goes my thunder.” But I thought we could spend some time talking about the piece and what prompted you to write it.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Well, there was this flamboyant review of Dale Peck’s novel which I think people had mixed feelings for because Dale Peck has specialized in that theatrical kind of criticism. I don’t think many people were shedding a tear for him. Then there was the Alex Ohlin piece [both negative reviews in the New York Times Book Review]. Then there was this great outpouring in the literary community. The New Yorker emailed me and said do you want to weigh in on this? And I did. I thought the way the discussion was trending, should negative reviews be published, seemed so egregious. It’s like saying should I use half of my brain? But I wasn’t planning on writing 4,000 words. I just wrote it in one white hot sitting.
This is very important to me. I do a lot of different kinds of writing, and I’ll be doing an interview about one of my books and they will be talking about my criticism as a day job. And I laugh, because this is not a day job. This is what a lot of my mind inhabits. I thought there was something that wasn’t being said about what critics are or can be or what criticism is or isn’t and how it functions.
TM: There is a formula for criticism in the piece which says that knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment, with an emphasis on meaningful. What makes a critique meaningful? As you point out, a lot of people have opinions who are not really critics and there are lots of people who are experts on subjects who don’t write good criticism. If everyone is not really a critic, where is the magic?
DM: It’s a very interesting question. It is magic, it’s a kind of alchemy. We all have opinions, and many people have intelligent opinions. But that’s not the same. Nor is it the case that great experts are good critics. I come out of an academic background so I’m very familiar with that end of the spectrum of knowledge. I spent a lot of my journalistic career as a professional explainer of the Classics—when I first started writing whenever there was some Greek toga-and-sandals movie they would always call me in—so I developed the sense of what it means to mediate between expertise and accessibility.
You use the word magic, which I very well might make part of my stock Homeric epithet about criticism. It’s intangible, what goes on. I know a good critic when I read one.
It’s a hard thing to nail down, but that’s why I described it as a kind of recipe. Look, it’s exactly like a recipe. Three people can make grandma’s noodle kugel but only Grandma’s noodle kugel tastes like Grandma’s noodle kugel.
DM: There’s all kinds of intangibles and personality is one of them. Critics have weak spots and strong spots according to their personalities. I think good critics avoid their weak spots, the things you dislike for reasons that might not be totally kosher. It’s not supposed to be some august, abstract, neutral judgment. It’s precisely the opposite. It’s an engagement of a specific persona with a specific work.
What is vitiated in this project of criticism right now is the consumerization of everything. Everything is should I get it? Should I click? Should I not click? That’s not the point of criticism. That’s the point of the shopping channel. I’m not trying to persuade someone to go see a movie or to read a book. I’m talking to someone who is interested in that book about what I thought about it. So it’s very subjective and yet it has to ultimately have a wider appeal than just the subject. It’s very much like being a good judge in the legal sense. You bring a lifetime of experience and in the end it’s very specific to the case.
TM: That’s an interesting metaphor because what do judges write? Opinions. And what do critics give? They give their opinion. And it should be a meaningful opinion, and have something to back it up.
DM: Traction is the word I always come back to. It has to have a purchase on something. I like that idea of the opinion. No judge says this is the law of the cosmos. He says this is my opinion based on everything I know which should be a lot.
TM: Which is why good critics can take on a subject which they didn’t know about before and offer an opinion that ends up being meaningful. You talk about people having strengths and weaknesses but I’ve taken assignments on the basis of thinking, oh, that would be interesting to learn about.
DM: Yes. Because what’s interesting is your mind as applied to different things. As a reader of Lisa Levy I’m interested in the interaction between your specific mind and that specific thing. This is where the other secret ingredient of journalistic criticism—it can be a blog, it can be the New York Review of Books, that doesn’t matter—is you have editors. And I at the New York Review of Books have one of the greatest editors in the history of editors [Bob Silvers]. Very often some of the best pieces I’ve done, or the strongest pieces, to use Bob’s favorite adjective, are things I would have never have thought of for myself. But that’s what great editors do. They match up a writer with a subject. For example, I think one of the best pieces I ever wrote was about The Producers, the musical [“Double Take” in Broken]. I in a million years would never have chosen to write about The Producers. Bob was very insistent. And in the end it was fruitful.
The Mad Men piece [“The Mad Men Account” in Barbarians] was something Bob was insistent for years that I write. For the record no serious critic goes into a job planning to do a takedown. All I heard about Mad Men was that it was great. I watch TV—I watch more TV than most people, trust me. So I was excited. I sat in my bedroom watching with a good friend of mine and we looked at each other after three episodes and I said, “The love is not happening.” Then it becomes interesting. Why does everyone else love it but not me? That becomes the germ of the piece. To pick up on what you were saying before there can be a danger to staying in your comfort zone. It becomes boring. I honestly don’t want to write about many more toga-and-sandal epics. You’ve said what you have to say about a certain range of cultural products. You have your schtick, right? And sometimes you can just not have something to say. Bob wanted me for years to do a big piece about John Cheever.
TM: That’s interesting.
DM: When the Library of America volumes were coming out. And I spent six months working on this piece. I read every word of, about, for, and by John Cheever. For me it’s always a matter of working up a theory. In the end I didn’t have one. There was nothing I, Daniel Mendelsohn, was going to write about John Cheever that a thousand other people weren’t going to write. So I said this is a waste of your money. It just didn’t speak to me.
TM: You mentioned loving the New Yorker critics of the 70s and then elsewhere you named Henry James, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, and Aristotle as critics who influenced you. Is there anyone else you feel like has molded you as a critic?
DM: You’re molded by the first people you encounter. I would certainly say Gore Vidal had a huge influence on me. The best thing about Gore Vidal was even when he was writing about something he knew intimately he never came off as academic. I still remember a piece he wrote about Montaigne. It was always conversational, engaging. It was like talking to a very smart person but someone who wasn’t an egghead. I don’t know how else to say it.
In terms of influences those early people—Andrew Porter, in the New Yorker, I learned more about music from him than I did for the rest of my life. Particularly opera, which is a great love of mine. And [Helen] Vendler. Look, not everyone is a Vendlerite. She has her own distinctive way of reading things and likes and dislikes but that’s not the point. She has a kind of voice. It’s always so interesting when these people who are so august reveal personal flashes. I still remember this thing she said when Jimmy Merrill died which made an incredible impression on me. That’s the kind of thing I’ve emulated. Your first obligation is to do your homework, obviously, read everything, but there is that subjective magic. It’s very important to reveal your feelings if you have strong feelings during a performance or about a person. You’re allowed to say I burst into tears or something. If it doesn’t do that to you, ultimately, why are you in this business?
Those were the people: Kael, Vendler, Porter, [dance critic] Arlene Croce, Whitney Balliett writing about cabaret. They just seemed to have authority. It made that an attractive idea: that if you worked hard enough you could have a kind of authority and speak in a way that other people who were not authorities would find interesting and not threatening. That’s something a lot of academics haven’t figured out. They’re interesting but they’re intimidating or they’re opaque or they’re talking to themselves.
TM: Or they are specialists writing for specialists.
DM: Which becomes a kind of crazy…
TM: Dog eating its tail.
DM: Exactly. It’s like the Cylons talking to each other.
TM: Are there works that you’ve reviewed that you feel differently about now?
DM: Now that’s a good question. That’s a question that should be emailed weeks in advance.
It’s likely to be the case that things I was enthusiastic about…on longer reflection the flaws reveal themselves. But that’s not a terrible thing. For example, I had to revisit Jonathan Franzen when I was writing the piece that’s in this book [“Zoned Out” in Barbarians] about his essays, which I found very revelatory. He is someone who strikes me as a novelist, and these essays are a smaller part of his output. I don’t think it’s where he really lives, and I think that’s a problem. He should be making novels out of them, not essays. I was working on that piece in 2006, but I had reviewed The Corrections when I was book critic at New York magazine which I had very much liked. When I went back to it I started to see things in The Corrections which I hadn’t picked up on the first time around that suggested a worrisome pattern.
TM: What’s the most controversial thing you’ve written?
DM: Certainly the Mad Men thing was just out of control. It took me a little by surprise. But that demonstrated the intensity of the phenomenon I was describing in the piece: that people are attached to this show in a way that transcends formal aesthetic dramatic considerations. It’s deeply emotional. I couldn’t believe how much stuff was coming back to me about it. I found myself having arguments with nineteen-year-old skateboarders in Seattle. But that’s great. If people want to argue, as long as it’s civil and intelligent I’ll talk to anybody about anything. That’s also part of your job as a critic.
Here again I would say my Classics background influences me because when you are a Classicist you are learning how to read a culture through more specific readings of buildings, tragedies, comedies, whatever. In that sense I think it can be your job not just to look at the text itself but to look at the cultural surround, which is why in a piece like that one is allowed to mention the action figures, the Sesame Street episode. This is part of it.
In a similar way I wrote about The Lovely Bones [“Novel of the Year” in Broken]. There’s the thing itself, then there is this incredible cultural event around it. I think it’s legitimate to include that. One of the good things about writing for the New York Review of Books is Bob doesn’t care that much about timeliness. So you can take something like The Lovely Bones—that piece was four months after publication if not more—and that allows you to do a different kind of review than if you were doing it for New York magazine and had to get the word out. I think those reviews might actually have more legs—Greater legs? Longer legs?—because they’re anchored in the longer cultural picture rather than in the moment. I won’t know until I’m dead, but it will be interesting to see if those pieces have a little more edge.
TM: Well, I think you’ll probably know in two years, five years, ten years, to some extent.
DM: Again, as a Classicist, you are used to taking the long view. I was once doing an event and somebody asked, “When you write reviews do you think of the feelings of the writer?” I said that I was trained to think of the writer as having been dead for two thousand years. It’s actually very good because then you focus on the work. You don’t want to be cruel or snarky but to take the work seriously. So that long view is an echo or inheritance from the way I was trained to read things.
TM: I was trained in an English department where I studied eighteenth- and nineteenth- century American literature so I have the same attitude. A certain detachment is welcome when it comes to criticism. And I write a blog called Dead Critics.
One of the themes I saw in reading both collections was a kind of reaction against sentimentality. You brought up the Lovely Bones piece where I think it’s very much present and in the Mad Men piece also, a certain maudlin—
DM: A kind of mushiness…
TM: Right, mushiness, that if it’s not predominant in the culture then that the culture seems to celebrate.
DM: Yes. I think that’s an excellent summary and I think that we are in a culture of a kind of reflexive celebration of everything and therefore you have to dig in your heels a little and resist. Especially if it’s an overwhelming tsunami of public feeling. Then it’s doubly your duty to use your mind, use your tools, and to dissect the object at hand and to look at it not coldly but coolly. You can find that you like it, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a negative or a destructive enterprise. I do think we’re in a sentimental culture and I think it’s making us a worse culture. I really do. Look, I’m a guy who wrote a book about Greek tragedy which is a very appealing form for me because there is no wiggle room in tragedy. You do things, you suffer the consequences. There’s something about the rigor of that that appeals to me.
TM: I’m curious as to what you think some of the other themes are in this collection.
DM: I think that what I call the reality problem is a big one. This idea of reality as subjective—obviously in the memoirs thing [“But Enough About Me” in Barbarians] it comes up and that was of great interest to me as I’ve written two memoirs. Certainly I would say that writing about the self is a big theme in this collection. If I were reviewing my collection a consistent theme—talk about The Producers, this is certainly the theme of that piece but it’s also the theme of the Julie Taymor piece [“Why She Fell” in Barbarians]—is how because of the seductions of pop culture interesting artists end up betraying themselves. Sometimes a disappointment is in an artist that I liked and somehow the work ends up betraying itself. Sometimes the sentimentality, the mushiness can end up making a work mean the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.
TM: It’s in the Alan Hollinghurst piece too [“In Gay and Crumbling England” in Barbarians].
DM: Yes. I think that’s happening to Alan Hollinghurst. It’s not a sinister thing, it just happens.
TM: I’m thinking about some of your positive reviews, like the one of The Master [“The Passion of Henry James” in Broken]. On the whole it is very positive but at the end you have that feeling about Colm Tóibín, that he’s on the verge of doing that. One of the themes that I found running through both collections is about a kind of moral failure, or people who face moral dilemmas and either make the wrong choice or have a failure of nerve. They can’t quite follow through on the promise of the work.
DM: Very few people can carry through an entire career the wonderful, momentous, originary strangeness of the vision that got them noticed in the first place. Hollinghurst is a great example. The Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star are probably two of the most interesting novels of the past twenty years. But you’ve remained you, and the world keeps going. Very few people—and usually they are just very great artists, and I don’t use the word great lightly—are the ones who can just keep going. Picasso, Shakespeare, Balanchine, people who are just beyond time. What happens to most people is they start out, they’re subversive, they’re quirky, they’re interesting, they have a new way of dealing with a subject. It puts them on the map. But then, you know, you win a lot of awards, you have a house in the country…And whatever your edge was, it goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, you keep working. I did not enjoy The Stranger’s Child. Clearly, something had shifted. Art goes on forever but artists are mortal and careers have arcs and you get into a groove. It’s like what we were talking about before. Very few people transcend their position within which the moment that they live. We exist in time, as writers and critics and artists. It’s going to happen unless you are very exceptional. I think that’s an interesting observation about that as a theme. Probably because I’m afraid it’s going to happen to me. I’m sure someone is writing a piece about my book right now saying Mendelsohn has betrayed himself.
TM: One last question. Is there anything or anyone you are dying to write about but haven’t yet?
DM: The great regret that I have is that I would have loved to have written a really major piece about Battlestar Galactica, which I think is one of the greatest things to have ever been on TV. It’s extraordinary. I would love to take that thing apart. I thought it was so exciting and I was just evangelical about it. I think the most interesting thing that is going on in culture right now is television. There’s a whole Classical angle, an Aeneid thing going on, but also the Iraq war. People have discussed different aspects of it but I would come at it whole.
TM: I’ve never seen anything written about it that I thought was great.
DM: I also thought it was deeply philosophical in the real sense of the word. It made you think. It was an existential problem that was established by this genius idea of having these robots be indistinguishable from humans even by themselves. And they milked it. They dramatized it. That was my complaint about Mad Men. I don’t think the issues were dramatized. They were announced or advertised. But this existential, philosophical issue in Battlestar was dramatized. When the first officer [Colonel Tigh] realized that he was a Cylon and there was the scene between him and the captain. That was wrenching! That was drama. Then there is the religious thing, about monotheism and polytheism.
TM: There’s so many things. There is a psychoanalytic thing that is very strong, about are we our fantasies? Are we who we think we are? There’s a nationalist thing—
DM: The whole political angle, the civilian government versus the military government. It’s really gripping. And the acting was so incredibly great. From the minute I started watching it I thought I was going to die, I was so happy. So that’s my big regret. I really think this needs to be done. And I would like to do it.