Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Man of the Hour

Apparently, there is a finite number of books one can expect to read in one's lifetime, provided that one lives to seventy or eighty. This makes reading seem entirely pointless. There isn't enough time to read every good book out there, or even the guilty pleasure books - and what about re-readings? And the fact that literature is constantly, endlessly being produced? "The whole world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great dearth" wrote Montaigne in the sixteenth century; how much more true is this today?

I have found the solution to this dilemma. Being James Wood. Acknowledged as the best critic of his generation by Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and others, Wood is which the Harvard Crimson writes "criticizes with purpose and insight." He writes essays, he writes books, writes book reviews, is on staff for the New Yorker and a professor at Harvard. I'm sure he travels. As a friend said, Wood can go anywhere - anywhere in the world. He just shows up and says "I'm James Wood" and people will say, "We've been waiting for you. We will pay you money to just read and be yourself."

Of course I understand that, like many other noble ventures, literary criticism does not pay especially well unless one is a Superstar Critic like Wood or Harold Bloom or Michiko Kakutani. I also know that there are a slew of talented literary critics both amateur and professional that don't reap the rewards of being a Superstar Critic, but still engage literature and criticize with both "purpose and insight." It is a discipline that must be less glamorous than it appears on the outside - but only slightly less. (Books in the mail, submersion in literary conversation, working from home, writing in coffee shops...)

James Wood's book, How Fiction Works, was a treat. I bought it with my birthday money last year. Not only was it beautifully designed in both hardcover and paperback, but written passionately and concisely. Even more impressive was the intimate disclosure that he only used examples from books he had in his personal library.

My question is: how does one become James Wood?

This is how Wikipedia notates his career path:
a) born to a professor (of zoology)
b) attended good schools (eg. Eton) because of singing voice
c) Cambridge
d) prizes
e) literary reviews (New Republic, Guardian)
f) more literary reviews
g) novel, essays
h) Harvard (Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism)
i) New Yorker, staff writer

Hmmm... I have obviously screwed up on the first two. Also, Wood is British, which lends him authority in American letters. Can't be helped.

Gregory Wolfe, editor and founder of the Seattle-based literary quarterly Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion (more to come on Image), mentioned that he went to Oxford to teach himself the process of criticism. This intrigues me - how does one learn the art of criticism? Why are there not as many books on the art of criticism as there are on the art of fiction? (Fiction interests a wider community of readers, I suppose.)

As with other disciplines, it is a practice involving both imitation and innovation: being immersed in preceding criticism, and responding to it. It is for this reason that I picked up a copy of Henry James' literary criticism and Virginia Woolf's Common Reader a few nights ago, hoping both will rub off on me.

1 comment:

newpsalmanazar said...

Reading Wood is a pleasure, even when you think he's off or just plain wrong. He's obviously brilliant. Better than How Fiction Works, in my opinion, is his collection of essays on fiction and belief titled The Broken Estate. Pick it up if you haven't yet. There's enough in there for any dedicated reader to enjoy and wrestle with for a long time.