Thursday, July 13, 2006

Overrated James Wood

A Review of The Irresponsible Self.

"James Wood." "James Wood." "James Wood." That names pops up again and again in the journals of the established literary world-- the man behind the name applauded as our culture's top literary critic in place of ultra-constipated scared-to-make-waves demi-puppets like Sven Birkerts.

Read Wood's book of essays and the emotion which comes to the non-brainwashed person is one of disappointment. "Is that all there is?" A dozen or so nicely-written reviews by a nice person who uses a few nice-sounding phrases and after you've finished reading the book you remember nothing.

I recall the topics. The Catholic writer J.F. Powers is one of them. James Wood pretends to understand Powers's quaintly simple Midwestern priests with their quaintly simple Midwestern congregations; an objective observer standing outside the window.

James Wood is a confidently intelligent commentator in a plush armchair in a wood-panelled study, dressed in silk robe and blue slippers, pondering the intricacies of "Literature" while smoking a pipe. His fans note how old-fashioned he sounds. They're right. The sturdy, competent reviewer. There's comfort in reading him. The world has mutated distorted grown loudly insane around us. Inside the book of essays nothing has changed. It could be 1950 or 1850. Wood is completely out of date.

This is his appeal. His reviews are fenced-in by his limitations. The workmanlike reviewer obediently completing his assignment; an essay of prescribed length, strictly devoted to the problem at hand: the book in his lap. For today's moldering lit-crowd, competence is plenty.

Wood writes well enough not to pass as a mediocrity-- yet no other word better describes him. His reviews are smooth enough not to be plodding-- mediocre in their smoothness-- there's no imagination whatsoever about the format. The rules are strictly followed.

For James Wood, J.F. Powers's tales of parishes and priests are devoid of spirituality, "the opposite of an advertisement for the church." For James Wood, Powers's "priestly heroes are ferociously unappealing . . . Powers is very threatening, and ought not to be easily enjoyed by Catholics. . . ." For James Wood, the mundane lives and settings in the novels and stories is all there is. To James Wood, Powers seems only to mock his characters, without joy; secretly he's angry and depressed.

Is this right?

Powers's "Zeal" pokes fun at an enthusiastic young priest on a train who argues against tipping; a priest who ineptly attempts to keep stray young men and women apart. By the end of the narrative this simpleton has become the hero of the story, "on his feet and trying, which was what counted in the sight of God, not success." A jaded Bishop who observes the priest's zealous actions is changed. The aggressive rock-like blockheaded priest is irresistible.

Near the beginning of the story Powers says, from the Bishop's point of view, "To share the command with such a man as Father Early, however, would be impossible. It would be to serve under him. . . ." The Bishop ends by doing exactly that. To him Father Early has become one of Christ's "twelve legions of angels."

What happened? "I'll tell you a secret, Bishop. When I was in seminary, they called me Crazy Early." Early is a type of Holy Fool made fun of only to be raised up. Powers isn't just someone who writes well, "a delicate stylist" as Wood would have it. Powers sets the reader up for a surprise payoff consistent with the threads of the narrative-- a moral surprise as well as one of plot. The esteemed Bishop humbles himself by helping the young priest with his flock-- in so doing rediscovering the humility of his religion's original message. Powers, who was a devout Catholic, depicts modest victories. In Powers's world their modest, human scale increases their importance. They're parables.

This is true of "The Presence of Grace." Powers spends nine-tenths of the story mocking an eccentric dormouse of a pastor. At the end of the tale the man has become "that Solomon," as Powers celebrates his wisdom. "Life was a dark business for everyone in it, but the way for pastors was ever lit by flares of special grace." The pastor's seeming weaknesses have become strengths.

"And great affirmations!" There is nothing equivocal about Powers's meaning. One wonders how James Wood missed it. Maybe he was speed reading.

The pastor described early on: "But he had no power from his priesthood to deny the undeniable, for instance, that he'd spoiled a good chasuble. When he said, 'S not ink,' nothing was changed."

By the end of the story when he says, in response to gossip about a parishioner (a matter of more import than an ink spot) "'S not so,'" the pastor's stubborn illogic is revealed to be right and just.

In this case the pastor is an example to the young priest serving under him. The pastor represents the contradictions of the Church. Through him it redeems itself. To think that Powers's stories are in any way anti-Catholic, as Wood does, is ludicrous. Behind the bureaucratic snafus and trivialities of Powers's priests lies the core of his religion, hidden but able to be revealed at any moment. Finding spirituality amid the banal is the essence of his art. ("But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise." I Cor 1:27.)

Little morals are sprinkled throughout the works-- often, as with Father Burner in "Defection of a Favorite," (aided by a cat!) nothing more than an acceptance of things as they are; a sudden Buddhist-like compassion for his pastor which leads Burner on a slow path toward wisdom. (Those who strive too hard for something, like "The Prince of Darkness," are usually punished.) There is karmic harmony in Powers's universe which underlies the machinery of the Church.

Inside the comedy of Catholicism Powers finds kernels of truth and wisdom-- the message of Christianity from the start, which was founded on failure. ("I believe because it's absurd," said an early Christian.) J.F. Powers is explaining the religion, not mocking it. The well-paid New Yorker book reviewer James Wood wasn't sharp enough to notice.

Why not? Despite his smooth prose, James Wood is an imitation of an old-fashioned book reviewer. His book is a just-built 50's-style malt shop designed for tourists. It's not the genuine article. He's faking it.

(Questions Wood does raise, such as why Powers doesn't portray his priests sex lives, are so beside the point they're goofy. They ignore context, the 1950's Midwestern setting of the writing and the goals of the writer.)
"Harumph!" comes from the armchair. (Maybe the gentleman needs something more in his pipe.) The truth of the famous James Wood analysis doesn't matter as long as it sounds reasonable enough to con his audience.

He keeps the Powers review going just fast enough to keep you reading-- twenty-five miles per hour with no sudden noises, bumps, or detours. When you finish you say, "That's nice," close his book and drop comfortably to sleep.

James Wood is a speed-limit driver. He was respected and esteemed in his early 30's, maybe at age 20, because he sounded like the machine. He always drove the speed limit. Staying within the orange cones, never knocking one over, has earned Wood a teaching job at Yale and regular reviewing job at The New Republic.

Just as Jonathan Franzen the Mechanical Man is put forward as a manufactured facsimile of a great novelist, James Wood stands-in for the role of great critic. The staus quo has to have one! Anybody around? Yes. An ambitious careerist standing to the side with accreditations of conformity wants the part. That's him putting his hand up. He's not very good-- has no outstanding strength of character or courage of voice-- but seems to know the words, at least the poses. More than anything he's eager to please the stuffy rich folks and critics in the boxes. He's sober and predictable. That'll do! His fans feel he's deep, but then, most are robots.

They celebrate his ambition. James Wood takes on writers like Dostoevsky with whom he has nothing in common. The Russian author's unparalled passion, his chasms of yearning, emotion, and soul to Wood are abstract qualities to be analyzed in a jar.

James Wood reviewing Dostoevsky is an ant contemplating a forest fire. He seeks simple explanations of Brothers Karamazov; distilled into a phrase: "Christ is not an idea." There you have it! The mysteries of Karamazov have been solved by Professor Wood. There was no real depth to the book after all. The robots can rest peacefully, unchallenged. Any rumblings of unease brought about by reading the novel have been removed.

Wood tries to explain the unexplainable; to measure and quantify Dostoevsky's huge universe. He misses the humanity of the situations, the characters, and the stories. The true subject of Wood's logical ANALysis shouldn't be Fyodor Karamazov or the underground man-- but the relief they throw on bourgeois society, on "The Clean and the Saved" in the drawing rooms who respond to the characters with horror. What is Dostoevsky's message, really? What is he saying? That we're human beings, outrageous and flawed; the trick in life is to not be embarrassed to be yourself. (Which really IS a simple explanation.) What bursts from every page of Dostoevsky is the sheer gross vibrating humanity of it all; the vast sympathy for the characters; a sympathy, vibration, life missing from the logical analytical writing of James Wood. He's hardly been touched. He sounds like a programmed android whose computer banks inform him this writing is something about which he should be moved-- there's no passion in his response; he remains dry and logical. Upper-crust British, I guess. Cambridge and all that rot. "We laugh," reading Saul Bellow, he assures us. "We delight in the curling power of invention whereby" etc etc., but these are assertions. Wood is unable to transfer these emotions to us; his prose is so crafted it's hard to buy that he believes the assertions himself.

The man in the silk robe and slippers may as well be reading stock quotes from the Wall Street Journal.

It's about assurances, of maintaining everyone's self-image. The uptight audience members at Miller Theater during the "Howl" reading were there to assure themselves that, despite the utter bourgeois conformity of their comfortable money-and-possession-oriented lifestyles, they are very much like the Beats; they really are! The intrusion of the ULA shattered the illusion.

Wood's readers want to know they're as full of life as Augie March, even if they're not. "We laugh," Wood tells them. "We delight." He's done the experiencing of art for them. Affirmations of humanity among automatons. "Self-convincing," Wood would call it.

This is book reviewing for the upper-middle class. James Wood well knows his audience.

The great irony about James Wood is that his criticisms of the priests of J.F. Powers apply to the inhabitants of the established literary order:
-"They are full of ambition-- but only the ambition to go from curate to pastor."
-"too conventional" -"courtiers of compromise"
-"The parochialism and claustrophobia of their minds and conversation, for all the sour prosperity of their businesslike approach, has a naivete, a complacency, a closedness. It is shop-talking with nothing to sell. They may not be worldly enough, in fact. Their worldliness may be that they are too easy inside their own little world." (These quotes from James Wood.)
Of course, for the literati, Wood's failures are redeemed by the "fine artistry" of his prose. Which means, watch for the explosions of "fine artistry" coming as from a man inside a stall at a public washroom:

"the dry ground of their souls is moistened by the author's gentle laughter."

"It is a sad and affecting story, whose placement at the end of this often ebullient and warmly comic book bathes what has gone before in grave twilight."

"At times one wishes that he had hoarded that writerly autumn less jealously, and daubed his characters more generously with his complicating dapple."

"But it grandly exuberates with more diverse elements-- lyricism, comedy, realism, vernacular-- than any other contemporary English prose, and in America it deserves more praise than Bellow's now elderly canonicity perhaps encourages."

One cringes at such artistry, washing hands quickly and hurrying out of the room.

Maddening superior torpor unending smugness and snobbery passing as wisdom; chapters of layers of sentences going through the motions of pretended knowledge from academy ivory towers, plaudits for the man who captures the rhythmns of the stacks.


Savior of the lit'ry pack:
James Wood.
Determined that he's not a hack,
James Wood.
Bags of bluff that others lack!
James Wood.
The man who'll bring our lit-world back
James Wood!

A Coming Big Event.

Establishment icon James Wood has gotten so big on the lit scene it's decided to give him a Big Award bigger than the National Book Sham or other awards he's been a finalist for, excuses for black ties swanky tables rich people but, you know, Big, a BIG award emphasis on BIG wheelbarrow-needed-to-bring-it-on-stage-sized BIG. No hotel ballrooms for this affair. No. A big enough venue to hold Wood's reputation. Carnegie Hall!-- no. Madison Square Garden!-- no. The Hollywood Bowl! Organizers settle on a soccer stadium in Brazil which holds 200,000 people. This, maybe, will be big enough. The day is set! Literary celebrities to be flown in from all corners of the globe. Rushdie with bodyguards. Cynthia Ozick wearing sunglasses. Wood's almost-friend Jonathan Franzen chosen as presenter. The day has come! The gigantic stadium is filled. Usual last-minute problems. Franzen won't make it-- he boarded the wrong flight and has landed in Alaska. No matter! Fossilized novelist John Updike arrives as replacement. Two hundred thousand flashbulbs as night falls; a fanfare of trumpets backed by timpani and symbals of a full orchestra: an original composition, "Tribute to James Wood." The Big Award is placed onto the stage by a monstrously big 80-foot crane. (Meanwhile storm clouds have gathered. Organizers worry it's going to rain.) John Updike propped and positioned at the microphone has started to speak. At a corner of the stage waiting for his big moment is Mr. Wood. From the perspective of the high rows of the stadium he appears tiny. Big screens magnify his image, to Biggie size, almost as big as his reputed ability. Suddenly clouds break last second thunder sounds downpour audience scrambling literary celebrities soaked James Wood crying big missed moment climbs into rented limousine driven away vast stadium drowned empty except for immoveable soggy-suited John Updike forgotten on puddled stage enunciating carefully to nobody to the wet air his precisely written speech.

The most hilarious and sad apart of the James Wood book is that this paint-by-the-numbers reviewer is regarded by the sheep of the literary world to be at the extreme edge of recklessness-- which says a great deal about themselves.

"Sparkling with electric energy"; "the strangest literary critic we have"; "polemical"; "terrific intensity."

These people live in a safe and narrow world. Hand the book to passengers on a bus and they'll soon be sleeping. In the cloistered world of Literature it's the latest thing. "That Mantovani sure does rock." Refined stiffs snapping their fingers to Tony Bennett or Harry Connick.

A "literary eviscerator" mannequin Elissa Schappell calls him. No, Wood is more of a pampered kennelled guard dog hanging around the aristocrats at the chateau. They toss a stray steak his way and watch him bound. "Isn't he just the best?" the ruffled fops affirm. One day the mastiff steps off the grounds, where packs of untamed wolves roam, and is seen no more. "Whatever happened to good old Woodsie?" one of the aristocrats thinks to ask. "He was so true and loyal." Others say tut-tut, as the sky darkens, the air chills, and curious movement rustles the shadows outside the well-trimmed hedges.

The James Wood kind of book reviewer is obsolete, superceded by bloggers able to be more lively, immediate, personal, expansive, and real. I had total freedom as a zeenster in the 90's. I maintain total freedom now. If I care to insert a not-very-good poem into the midst of my random speculations and rants I'll do so. The structure-- this blog has one-- is akin to the structure of Jack Saunders's novels. You can't see it but it's always there.

The Underground Literary Alliance has broken further out of the barriers of the box by introducing literature into the actual world through our living persons. Our criticism of the decayed aristocratic words of a Rick Moody or Elissa Schappell has been very direct! We want literature to live-- the only way it'll attract the general public.

IT WAS ASKED inside the ULA if it was wise to show me, Frank Walsh, and others drinking before our "Howl" crash. Yes! We revel in our humanity as writers. For us there are no hierarchies or walls. We welcome other writers to sit down with us. Literature is the fundamental art and belongs to everyone. This is the ULA message.


Tim said...

James Wood is a gorgeous, moving writer.

King said...

He's a critic. I find his ideas wanting. I also think this Brit doesn't understand America or American literature well enough to pose in such high reputation-- though he does a good job of representing the elite opinion of Harvard!

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