To Wallow Is the Only Way

In the Birnbaum interview, Wood says:

…when you write a novel, of course it is a private form. It comes out of you and so on. But it’s public in the sense that you launch it, you push it off, and you know that it must be free there for people to make what they will of it. So you might be lucky to get a letter from someone, as I did a couple of weeks ago, saying, ‘This meant a great deal to me because I was dealing with my own father’s death at the time that I read this novel,’ and it’s nice to get that, but it’s a slightly skewed response. That’s someone wallowing in subjectivity.

To write a novel is to wallow in subjectivity; to read and respond to one, no matter how erudite your approach, is to do the same. There is no other way to read and respond to literature.

Laura Miller’s Salon article about the latest offerings from critics James Wood and Dale Peck is more than just an article about the latest offerings from critics James Wood and Dale Peck – it is a neat exploration of the fact that there is no way to disentangle the personality of the critic from his or her criticism.

Miller argues that “Criticism’s task is to articulate that subjectivity so that even those who don’t share it can see it in three dimensions.” She believes that while Wood’s criticism is strangely humourless, narrow, monkish, old-fashioned, and vestigially religious — reflections of his own personality and experience all — he is able to do just that. I agree with Miller –- Wood is beautifully articulate. The problem for me, though, is that his tone is just so goddamned and convincingly authoritative.

To his credit, in the Birnbaum interview, Wood briefly admits that this authority can only ever be rhetorical:

That’s part of the problem of writing about fiction. That you are continually taking—that’s actually a good description of the dilemma of the critic—whether in praise or in dispraise. You have only rhetorical authority. People who don’t like me sometimes send me letters, “I can’t stand your air of authority.” I don’t reply to them generally but what I want to reply to them is, “It seems like authority but, of course, it’s only rhetorical because it’s made there, freshly in each piece.” It’s a judicial argument in that sense. You can only win by persuading readers by rhetorical parries of your own and quotation. And the danger of any quotation whether in praise or dispraise is that the reader will say, “You didn’t convince me. I don’t think that’s a good bit of writing. I don’t think so much of what you have quoted.”

But in her article, Miller points out that Wood does seem to have a stake in an objective notion of “aesthetic success”:

In disdainfully surveying Jonathan Franzen’s essay about the difficulty of writing a novel that “engages with the culture,” Wood explains that such a book shouldn’t even be attempted because it could never be any good: “The only success is aesthetic, and the ‘culture’ will never validate aesthetic success, will never ‘engage’ with that.”

The notion that there is some objective, impersonal way to measure the “aesthetic success” of a literary work is a hallucination. And that hallucination is what seems to underlie Wood’s high tone. I know that tone comes out of the academic tradition of formal debate but that doesn’t make it any less grating or preachy. I can’t stand the way it seems to assert the inherent rightness of what can only ever be a personal response.

While I’m not particularly invested in reading what Wood calls “hysterical realism” –- although I’ve greatly enjoyed a number of the books he derides — I am certainly strongly invested in the existence of literary diversity. Because Wood is so clearly brilliant, so clever and convincing, and his criticism is so revered, I am afraid his views are bound to unduly influence publishers and the reading public, not to mention writers themselves. And that’s too bad because Wood’s personal tastes are very narrow – and narrowness is one of the enemies of creativity.


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