Novelist and former Booker judge Russell Celyn Jones’ review of James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (UK Times; behind paid subscription) reads like he tried very hard to find fault before conceding the critic’s brilliance:
Wood shares with William Hazlitt an imposing contentiousness that is so inflamed at times that he turns his readers into pugilists. What makes me put on my gloves is the yoking together of so many writers under one banner. Some satire does make us laugh, for instance, despite his claim to the contrary. Monica Ali’s “anti-style” is what makes her voice rather flat. Conspicuous by its absence is any reassessment of Martin Amis’s recent fiction, and conspicuous by its inclusion is the essay on J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – a seriously unfunny book. His lament that Coetzee’s “intelligently starved” novels are not expansive enough also reveals how Utopian this critic is. Perhaps with a few more novels under his belt (he has published one) he will be more forgiving. Great writers cannot be more than what they are.
For the most part his textual readings are inspirational, but sometimes his statements (“If religious comedy is punishment for those who deserve it, secular comedy is forgiveness for those who don’t”) are probably more eloquent than true. And occasional sentences – “Paradoxically enough, conscious self-knowledge makes conscious self-knowledge harder”; “Reliably unreliable narrators…don’t move us as deeply as unreliably unreliable narrators” – are like dogs chasing their own tails.
In the body of the work Wood polices sentences in literature with a good number of exquisitely crafted ones of his own. Take this observation (on Bellow): “… the happy rolling freedom of the daring, uninsured sentences, the prose absolutely ripe with inheritance, bursting with the memories of Shakespeare and Lawrence, yet prepared for modern emergencies”. That adjective “uninsured” is wonderfully typical of him. It is this kind of secure observation that make these essays so engaging and ultimately puts this corrective missionary critic on the side of the secular angels.