“James Root on How to Read,” a Whitehead lecture

Colson Whitehead’s Wow, fiction works!, a parody of James Wood’s How Fiction Works, is so light-footed and deadly, it makes most rebuttals in this genre seem plodding.

Christian Lorentzen forwarded a link to the piece as I was leaving work, and I laughed so hard while reading it on the packed train home that even the pervy guy inched away nervously. Here’s an excerpt from the opening:

We each come to literature in our own way. For some, the gift is bestowed by a helpful governess who guides our fingers over the letters in a primer. For others, a private tutor first enlightens us to the majesty of the written word. How you arrive is immaterial. What is important now is that you forget all that and learn to read anew. In my literary criticism, I have become known as a champion of the eternal verities and a scold of the trendy and the fashionable. I have essayed to instruct your writers in how to write correctly. Now I will teach you to read correctly.

When we see a word, we must ask ourselves foremost, What does it mean? This is the first step in comprehension. When we have accomplished this, we can proceed to the next, and so on. In due course, we have read the sentence in toto. By returning to the beginning of the sentence to perform a close reading, we unlock its essence. I learned this skill at university. Although born in the States, I journeyed abroad for my education and underwent my intellectual coming of age at Oxford. I remember when the first dispatches of Dirty Realism made their way across the Atlantic. I pored over each latest issue of Granta as if it contained the Holy Word. And perhaps it did. One of my favorites from that time has always been Raymond Carver, in particular his affecting tale “Leave the Porch Light On, It’ll Be Dark.”

There is a line in that story that has remained with me. One might say it left the porch light on — in my psyche…

Governess image taken from the BBC’s Children in Victorian Britain slideshow.

Update: I don’t believe any of this has prejudiced my enjoyment of the piece, but since I’m being cited, I’ll go ahead and note that I’ve mentioned my admiration for Whitehead’s work in the past, before and after putting together and hosting an event featuring Whitehead and Calvin Baker. I’ve also written about James Wood’s criticism, most recently here.


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