James Wood: read before you trash (post updated)

Not long ago James Wood’s review of Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love — “Tides of Treacle” — sparked some passionate discussion at The Elegant Variation, where Mark Sarvas (a great admirer of Wood’s criticism) took exception to the review and to Wood’s approach.

(Like Sarvas, I was impressed with the Krauss novel. My own thoughts are haphazardly expressed here, here, and here.)

At the time the debate raged, I suspected, based on a prior, similar chastisement sent by Wood to Dan Green of The Reading Experience, that Wood was the author of a comment (signed by “Blank Frank”) berating armchair critics for failing to read his entire review. Here’s the relevant remark:

A reader writes: “By the way, if anyone would like to read the review in its entirety, please drop me a line and I’ll email you a copy.”

That responsibility is never “[b]y the way.” It is the only way. In an online discussion based on excerpts from a review, we have a scrumptious instance of careless channel-flipping: a continual and forcible montage making the original less audible through nth-generation analog hiss.


A reader writes: “How ‘real’ does it have to be? How much heart is too much?”

This “real” vs. “heart” contest is rigged. Did cyborgs take over while I was sleeping? I felt sure that I’d dreamt the whole thing, and that we could continue to distinguish the real heart from the plastic palpitations of the Jarvik-Seven. Come on, junk sculpture, turn back into junk. I would like nothing better than to be a tuned-in om-shanti machine-gun sweetie-pie; but I can’t help snarling when intelligent readers misconstrue mawkish simulacra as the “terrain of the heart.”


A reader writes: “Perhaps the best test is whether you find a line like ‘Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering’ moving or sentimental.”

Or whether you find you must defecate or vomit before you’ve reached the final period — not because you don’t like to kiss, or to answer questions; but because you have been in love, and you feel that experience merits a non-laxative, non-emetic representation. Perhaps the best test is whether, when Wood writes, “[t]he result of all this childishness, emphatically so in Krauss’s case, is a novel that is not a grown-up book for grown-up readers,” you suspect he’s addressing you.

I lack any evidence, other than the well-turned language used, that Wood wrote the comment. A J.D. Daniels has since stepped forward to claim the remark. So much for my detective work.

Today a Wood-signed admonition against commenting on a review without doing the proper reading appeared at The Reading Experience. “Now you weigh in on my review of the new McCarthy novel,” Wood says, “but I’d bet a hundred dollars that you haven’t read the novel itself.” This comment turns up in response to a post on Wood’s consideration, in the latest New Yorker, of McCarthy’s place in the U.S. literary canon.

I find the McCarthy piece generally nuanced and well-articulated — although my opinion is almost certainly irrelevant since I would not qualify, under Wood’s bright-line Krauss test, as a “grown-up reader” — but Dan Green argues that it adds nothing to what he sees as Wood’s usual “go psychological realism!” cheer. “I don’t need to read the book to know your review is bunk,” Green, in effect, responds.

(Thanks to Tingle Alley for the pointer to the most recent Reading Experience comment.)


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