James Wood – The Fun Stuff
Ex cathedra pronouncements on the state of literature are gratingly at odds with the democratic spirit of modern Western culture. An Arnold or a Leavis would find themselves on the back foot, in a climate in which the Canon has been disparaged and dismantled by the academic soixante-huitards, and to contend for the intrinsic elitism of art is to confess to one's political bias. A fuzzy left-liberal consensus has made the expression of value-judgements somehow, at best, suspect; a matter of reactionary tendencies and ill-concealed disdain for the popular accessibility of the arts, creeping unbidden into neutral debate. As if to argue that some works will inevitably be better than others amounts to a self-betrayal, letting slip clues to a High Toryism of the spirit. (No coincidence that this wholesale enfranchisement of literary culture has portended the non-appearance of another Lionel Trilling, say.)
James Wood emerged as precisely the kind of heir-presumptive to F.R. Leavis at precisely the moment when the distrust of the critic-as-aesthete had become so rooted in cultural discourse, that he seemed almost wilfully retrograde. Marxisant scholars like Raymond Williams and politically engaged savants of the sort best exemplified by Edward Said had among them contrived to make any discussion of culture that wasn't au fond political appear faintly absurd. Criticism was to be a perilous negotiation with power structures, a demarche in the extra-literary sphere. Whereas 'traditional' criticism - hidebound, reactionary - was reduced to a mazurka of mendacities. Said, for one, could elucidate the rhetorical and narratological strategies of Conrad as deftly as Lionel Trilling; but this was in the service of a broader political vision. A critical reading uninflected by some form of political emergency was fluff. Moralism of the Leavisian stripe - involved in an examination of what constituted a good life well-lived - yielded to a more expansive theory of literature, founded on principles drawn from the radicalism of the sixties, progressive, disaggregrative, angry.
A refusal of this fundamental orientation seemed perverse, ideologically unsound. But James Wood wrote out of the rejected mode. The Broken Estate, his first collection of essays, was written under the sign not of political activism, but was theological in its complexion. Its seriousness gestured not towards a horizon of revolutionary violence - or even Comtean social melioration - but towards an idea of literary fiction as the disjecta membra of a universe from which God had been summarily evicted.
That fiction at its highest pitch could reinstate the meaningfulness and purposiveness of the human enterprise - when such an earnest had been forsaken with the death of God - was the ground-bass to Wood's critical arias. His concept of Realism was given point by a curiously secular faith: there was something 'miraculous' in the capacity of a writer to convey intelligibly the hazards of experience, in the artful contrivance of recognitions. The novel could plausibly tack between antinomies - and gently teased the reader into a state of 'belief' that rehearsed or shadowed the belief of the religious adherent. Its manoeuvres were those that drew on the same psychic attitudes adopted by the believer. Fiction - because it doesn't commit us to the doctrinaire, can say 'Yes, but..', can aid us in spanning contrary experiences of life (meaning modulated with meaninglessness) - is the preeminent art-form: a complex fugue of granite and rainbow. Wood read, in The Broken Estate, through the mesh of a reluctant agnosticism - like a phantom limb, the religious impulse is still obscurely preserved in us; we still turn heliotropically to a vanished source of light. There could be no doubt that Wood wished to be taken au serieux - these essays are gristly with earnestness. They invited us into the cathedral hush, the contemplative stillness that serious art requires of us. In The Broken Estate much of Wood's energies are given over to illustrating, as with Virginia Woolf, that the "novel acts religiously but performs sceptically." (This from the Introduction to the collection: possibly a post hoc rationalisation - as, arguably, the succeeding essays don't quite fulfil it.)
Contra the po-mo theorists and practitioners, for Wood it remains an article of faith that the novel can lead us back to reality. We've grown so accustomed to the conventions of the novel - plot and character chief among them - that we need to be reminded that something essentially uncanny is at work when we offer ourselves to the virtual staging-ground of the novel. The attentive reader moves silently through a tenement of occupied rooms, a spectral guest, in a kind of espionage; the novelist having brokered this delicate relation between the woman reading and those peopling the work. 'Ensouling shadows', Hilary Mantel called it somewhere. And when fiction too obviously displays its pneumatics - as in the immaculately crafted but sterile work of Ian McEwan - James Wood will flag up the failure of the effect. The novelist, 'that free servant of life', must steal a march on the hardening of literary form into convention, as Wood reminds us in How Fiction Works, must be latitudinarian in her use of the familiar toys of the craft, and always be primed to swerve away into 'lifeness'.
Wood's militancy - a severity that occasionally calls to mind Leavis - has drawn fire from various quarters. His negative manifesto 'Hysterical Realism' strafed the literary practice of a group of writers for whom energy and a hurtling headlong Tiggerishness was the prize; and Wood found this all so much indiscipline, self-indulgence, a scouting of the responsibilities of the art. Rather, patience and considered judgement must invest the novelist's endeavours, a steady authoritative attending to the sometimes near-illegible signatures of motive and action. Wood was coming to seem Master of the Rolls, inhabiting the pages of the tonier literary magazines: as Salman Rushdie sniped from his memoir Joseph Anton, Wood was a Procrustes, mutilating the novels he criticised the better for them to fit his preconceptions of what the form should be.
Both The Broken Estate and its successor The Irresponsible Self were assemblies of book reviews published elsewhere. Few reviewers carry sufficient heft - in terms of the unity of their concerns or stylistically - to justify such consecration: most are vaguely in hock to publishers' PR machinery, and the copy itself is a spumante of critical cliches. One hopes that Wood has a book-length critical study in him; but his collections are distinguished by a binding coherence and common interpretative emphases, marbling these pieces with what we might gingerly term a metaphysical patina. Characterisation in the novel bears a decided share in this, for Wood. Those moments in fiction when a character suddenly slithers from under the net of authorial control, when the representation of self to the self locks into brilliant focus; agency depicted as richly and fluidly as we ourselves experience it; and an Emma Woodhouse emerges as a self-reflective being, in all her contrariety - those moments are the dividend of cleaving to literary realism. Wood identifies Shakespeare as the great innovator here, casting aside the stiff brocade of stage-rhetoric and permitting his personae the full dignity of self-awareness; such that we meet them as autonomous selves, by turns opaque and translucent, clean-edged and blurred, governed by discernible motives and bafflingly motiveless. The realist novel took instruction from Shakespeare, grasping that within its scope should come the portrayal of persons as ragged hives of impulses. The 'irresponsibility' that Wood talks about - prompted by his reading of Coleridge's reading of Shakespeare - announces itself in the 'drift' of a literary character into her own kind of self-appropriation: not as the mannequin of the novelist, nor as a cipher of the novel's overt concerns; but as an entity imbued with something close to awareness - crucially, though, to which the reader is privy. Technically, the most effective device for this eavesdropping is free indirect style, in which the character's perceptions and the stipple of thought are rendered, so lightly as not to mar the image. It permits a moment of unflawed communion with the character, possibly one whose strangeness might be rebarbative. Here the ethical implications of Wood's critical stance are at their most emphatic. In the literary parlour game of briefly "inhabiting the wilderness of another's soul", we're tutored in the often taxing business of empathy. We must give the otherness of others its due, however it may unsettle our own self-regard.
Other readers of his new collection The Fun Stuff have detected a slackening or lowering of pressure. But the title of the book - which may have given rise to this supposition - is more a wistful acknowledgement of Wood's own limitations; more about what he cannot do, and where he cannot go, than programme notes for the book at large. "For me, this playing [Keith Moon's exuberant drumming] is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong." To be less buttoned-up, less diffident, and to attempt something riskier, creatively: but the musician in his ecstasy of self-forgetting remains for Wood the figure from a daydream. The critical beadle is back on duty in these essays, not quite so unforgiving, but with his accustomed sharpness of eye and the glinting panache of his prose. Odd that Wood should write of lacking confidence, when he can collar Cormac McCarthy for a tricksy dalliance with theodicy that never quite comes off, never convinces. Or can mildly chide Alan Hollinghurst for slipping into the register of a cheap novelette. Indeed, the essay on Keith Moon that opens the book – where you might take it as a keynote to the rest – seems not, in fact, to orient the reader toward the themes of the remainder at all.