wood and the text


IT is not unusual, post-Foucault, to observe the decline of God as a source of meaning in the West since the Enlightenment and the subsequent diminishment of the power of the Bible. Nor is it unusual to point out that this occurred side by side with the rise of the novel.

In fact, in The Art of the Novel (1985), Czech novelist Milan Kundera makes an even bolder claim on behalf of the novel, as not only an expression of the 17th century’s dawning humanism, but as one of its chief enabling technologies. By creating stories and characters that require the suspension of authorial judgment in order to come fully alive, Kundera argues, the novel is a form that is per se sceptical, and that makes us think beyond the boundaries of any religious dogma.

But in his reviews and two books of critical essays, The Broken Estate (1999) and The Irresponsible Self (2005), British literary critic James Wood makes an even more extravagant claim for the novel. Wood’s critical practice is based on the idea that fiction at a certain point took over the cachet and power of the sacred. For Wood, the best novelists combine the humane scepticism of the novel form with a quasi-religious drive to improve it.

At the bottom line of Wood’s writing is a conception of the novel that is almost kabbalistic.

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