The Critic

“Contemporary British and American writers are in love with what might be called irrelevant intensity.”

“Writers and literary academics have never been closer, and never further apart.”

“There used to be something thought of as ‘a Booker novel’ – a big, ambitious balloon sent up to signify seriousness and loftiness of purpose.”

The literary critic James Wood, responsible for all three of the above quotations, is nothing if not a serious book reviewer. He lectures at Harvard and writes mainly for the LRB and The New Republic. The first sentence comes from his unkind outing at the expense of Zadie Smith’s second novel. The second is from a rather more thoughtful review of The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. XII: 1960-2000: The Last of England? The third is from his mixed-bag musings on D.B.C. Pierre.

So, Wood is serious – and, refreshingly, not coy about being learned. (“Shakespeare would probably have read earlier versions of the psalm, such as those of Miles Coverdale and the Geneva Bible, which the King James translators adapted very closely and in places word for word,” Wood notes in this New Yorker piece about the making of the King James Bible.) A serious man who is seriously concerned about the state of contemporary letters.

But is he on the right track? Two views:

A very flattering piece on Wood by Adam Begley of the New York Observer, entitled “Lit Crit as It Ought to Be: Open-Eyed, Recklessly Committed.” Begley argues that Wood is “the most promising young critic around, but now that he’s pushing 40, let’s drop the qualifiers and say it loud and clear: He’s the best.”

A case against Wood from John Reuland, the Editor of Bridge Magazine Online:

“Wood is a critic in the wilderness. He’s unconcerned with things of this world, and his spiritual authenticity gives us faith in his judgments. Those judgments, we presume, issue from a belief system that’s transhistorical, never anachronistic because it doesn’t belong in time. Yet Wood’s problem as a critic is exactly that he is so principled. Just as some theologians claim we have a priori knowledge of God, one could easily claim that Wood had a priori knowledge that things don’t get any better than the nineteenth-century novel. Wood wants novels that chant the creed of his orthodoxy. He dismisses the art that shakes his faith, which raises the troubling question of whether faith that admits so little doubt is faith, or mere prejudice.”

Reuland’s full essay is here.