February 8, 2013 7:41 pm

Critical mass

James Wood’s judgments have literary merit of their own

The Fun Stuff and Other Essays, by James Wood, Jonathan Cape, RRP£18.99/Farrar, Straus and Giroux RRP$27, 352 pages

 

Great critics are rare; much rarer than great novelists. James Wood was acclaimed right from the start of his career as an exceptional literary reviewer and essayist. At 26 he was appointed chief literary critic at the Guardian, a post he filled for four years before decamping to Washington and the New Republic, where he was a senior editor. Now he teaches at Harvard and is a staff writer on The New Yorker. The Fun Stuff is his third collection of essays and is dedicated, like all his books, to “CDM”, a reference to his wife, the novelist Claire Messud. He has also written the primer How Fiction Works (2008) and one novel, The Book Against God (2003), not nearly so well-received as his critical work.

Wood is a better observer than cheerleader. He hovers, hawk-like, “at the level of the sentence”, and lingers over passages others might skim. His pitiless appraisals don’t necessarily make you want to pick up the authors under review. Though Axel’s Castle by Edmund Wilson, one of the subjects here, sounds like a must-read at first, by the time Wood notes that “one’s admiration for him both expands and contracts” I was starting to wonder. But Wood as a critic stands apart from the mechanics of bookselling. He takes the long view.

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How is his own writing “at the level of the sentence”? He regularly flings out wonderful flourishes and joyous metaphors, for example Wilson’s “need to whale his correspondents with his learning” (my italics) or his observation on the success of Atonement: “its multi-sectioned form allows a little air into McEwan’s usual narrative vault.” How beautifully that evokes the creepiness and mustiness of Ian McEwan’s work, yet the final impression is one of subtle denigration. “He writes excellent prose,” approves Wood in his customary Olympian fashion, “but is fond of a kind of thrillerish defamiliarisation.”

The negative reviews are the most lively and entertaining; he picks apart the later work of Paul Auster, quoting without mercy, and takes a firm line with Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. “Hollinghurst can spin yards of this soft stuff practically in his sleep,” he scoffs, quoting Larkin to cutting effect. The novel is “randy for antique” like the visitor in “Church Going”; “I hope its successor, like its predecessor, is randy for the present.”

That, of course, is a snappy journalistic sign-off and reveals this book for the collection of commissioned pieces it actually is but, unlike most such books of “essays”, Wood’s bear rereading. As for his own tics and foibles, he tends to over-quote and by his own report he is careless, or callous, about plot-spoilers (we shouldn’t be so easily manipulated by writers, he thinks).

The lovely title piece is a spirited assessment of Keith Moon, The Who’s wayward drummer. Moon “was the drums ... because his many-armed, joyous, semaphoring lunacy suggested a man possessed by the antic spirit of drumming”. The filler, the flourish in between keeping the beat, is “the fun stuff” for a drummer. “Keith Moon ripped all this up ... It is all fun stuff.”

The sober critic and the lunatic drummer; it’s an odd contrast, but just as thinking about novels is “the fun stuff” for most of his readers, for Wood it is life itself. It’s another snappy journalistic sign-off to say that we’re lucky to have him. But we are.

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