James Wood on DFW

It seemed strangely fitting to get punched by a hideous man in the solar plexus as I was on my way to see James Wood discuss David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night. The man was bald, with a sebaceous sheen having long replaced any wet shaved droplets from that morning, in his late thirties, walking fast, iPod buds piping what I detected as bland corporate tunes (perhaps David Gray) into his ears, looking to be fighting down, as Bret Easton Ellis once described of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, “the urge to start slapping [himself] in the face.” For all I know, he had just murdered someone or maybe he hadn’t bothered to ask a loved one for a hug. But whatever his emotional paucity, he took it out on me in a New York minute. I was passing to his left in the 42nd Street corridor connecting several subways, and he went out of his way to jab me without reason. No provocation on my part at all. Didn’t know the guy. I imagined that he had just confessed his sins to an interviewer. Like the reader flipping through DFW’s “brief interviews,” I’d never be privy to the questions. And even if he confessed what seemed like a barrage of details to me, it would not be the entire story.

I bring this incident up not to arouse sympathy (none is required), but to point out that DFW’s “hideous men” remain alive and well. Decades from now, you will still find them manipulating women, roasting within their own violent realities and fantasies, and boasting to unseen interlocutors of their sins. On the other hand, if, as some hardcore DFW acolytes believe, the titular Brief Interviews are more reflective of a metaphorical author-reader relationship, something that is strongly suggested by DFW’s inclusion of “Octet” (whereby he presents a series of pop quizzes, only to have the author interrupt halfway through to go on and on about how the piece has failed, resorting to “tired old S.O.P. metafiction”), then perhaps my efforts to fuse reality with fiction begin to dissolve. Of this secondary type of reading (or is it the primary?), James Wood would have little to say, even when asked by an audience member, “How much meta can one tolerate?” (Wood’s reply to this question was that the reader could indeed lose his mind. “Of course,” qualified Wood, “it should drive us a bit mad.”) He would identify DFW as “a very moral writer,” pointing out that, in Brief Interviews, “There are real critiques of unpleasant and self-obsessed people.” But he would neither bring up the book’s elided questions (much less the Final Fantasy-style ellipses, the occasional italicization of the “Q.,” or the even more infrequent double questions represented only by the seventeenth letter of the alphabet, followed by trusted period), nor would he address “Octet.” But he would express a surprising enthusiasm for DFW’s work, often getting a bit giddy over specific sentences and phrases*, and prove to have a greater grasp on the moral weight of this material than Zadie Smith.

jameswood2The occasion for this revisitation, as explained by a competently groomed gentleman (it was his somewhat eccentrically cut beard that caused me to wonder, and even worry a bit, about his grooming) named Bernard Schwartz (who thankfully did not resemble the man who punched me, although he did ramble on about “Mr. McEwan’s only New York appearance,” which, given my regrettable experience last week with Solar, the latest unreadable turkey squawking from the master’s great hand, seemed akin to boasting of Pauly Shore or Carrot Top headlining a standup comedy night of some long-lasting cultural import), was a 92nd Street Y series styled First Reads. Wood then emerged from behind the stage. (It is probably worth observing that all this was preceded by a prerecorded announcement indicating that cameras and recording devices were “strictly prohibited during the concert.” Given the musical connotations of this noun, I was a bit disappointed that Wood did not sing, play the drums, or play an instrument. He did, however, read DFW’s passages in a somewhat Shakespearean tone, of which he later expressed some doubts. And he was careful to qualify — this, no doubt addressed to the pro-audio book bloc within the audience, who was represented through one question on this subject, to which Wood expressed some polite contrarianism, pointing out, “I do like going at my own speed,” and observing quite rightly the fascistic speed (to be clear, the “fascistic” modifier is mine, not Wood’s; there may be additional modest embellishments throughout this report, which I shall do my best to delineate) prevented one from having a say in the manner — that if one insisted upon a precise aural intonation of the material, one could easily find any number of recorded files read by DFW to hear the appropriate pacing. He would also later note that reading DFW’s sentences aloud was akin to “playing a wind instrument.” And indeed, in light of the many layers of footnotes and commentary and protracted clause-laden sentences, there seems a clear justification to confine DFW’s sentences to one’s own head, and Wood is to be lauded for attempting to dissect the text in a way it was probably not explicitly designed for.)

As I indicated before the last digression (and there will be more of them, I assure you), Wood emerged from behind the stage, dressed in unpretentious jeans and quickly divesting himself of his coat, and rolling up his shirtsleeves as if he was about to deliver a stump speech (I should probably note, at the risk of making this sentence needlessly long, that Wood’s position w/r/t DFW reminded me very much of the hard compromises reached by the Democrats to pass the health care bill, in the sense that he did not bring up irony at all — an ineluctable quality when considering DFW at any stage in his career — but was careful to note that here was a major author; and as I implied earlier, the gentlemanly Wood was very good on Monday night to move beyond the “moral fiction”/”realism” concerns that he has been saddled with, wishing to judge the text for what it was, and he even brought up Beckett (handouts of Company could be found on chairs, along with an excerpt from DFW’s “The Depressed Person,” giving this correspondent the minor sense that he had accidentally stumbled into a classroom and was going to be ejected, perhaps punched without reason as he had been earlier that evening, by unknown administrative heads who would declare him a fraud, an impostor, a charlatan, a quack, an uncredentialed blogger (although he was credentialed for this event), an unthinker, and countless other nouns I could bombard at you but won’t, but this minor sense, which some readers may identify as either neurosis or paranoia, was swiftly obviated by Wood’s polite and invitational quality to engage with the text as he had) and David Markson, and the citation of these more experimental writers suggests very highly that Wood is not straitjacketed by the “hysterical realism” charge with which his critics have pegged him; so that watching Wood was a bit like smiling at the Democratic achievement the night before; it was not the ideal bill, but it was a good faith step forward, and, if one is to imply a binary value, a bipartisan effort between us (assuming the reader falls into my camp, the pro-stylists) and Wood (the realists), and the reason that this report must be so long is not in homage to DFW (although some will assume this report to be a desperate parody: if so, fuck ’em), but because there is, to my knowledge, no essay in the works in which Wood will memorialize his statements; ergo, your digressing and wisecracking correspondent’s ramblings on the subject). Having removed his carapace, and having placed his arms upon the cherry cedar lectern (where he would sometimes shuffle from one arm to another over the course of the next eighty minutes), Wood then proceeded to clarify Mr. Schwartz’s suggestion that he had “kindly agreed” to take questions from the audience. He said, “Indeed, I have graciously agreed to take questions.”

Wood noted that the series had been some time in the making, taking two years to get off the ground, and that the delay had been caused by “the David Lodgian reason of not having to admit” that one had not read a certain book (the reference here is to the game Humiliation, found within Lodge’s very funny novel, Changing Places, in which a professor ends up confessing that he hasn’t read Hamlet). But Wood, having established that he had read Infinite Jest, Oblivion, and “not read much else, except of the journalism,” indicated that DFW was “a writer I wanted to revisit anyway.” He was careful to clarify that “I don’t in any way present myself as a Foster Wallace expert.” He then noted, right off the bat, “what an extraordinary ear Wallace has,” and began to read numerous passages, most of them from the titular Brief Interviews. Perhaps Wood may wish to confirm this in the comments (if he’s even read this far or even cares what I have to say), but the sense that this correspondent had was that Wood was not only fond of Wallace’s numerical categorization (he seemed to enjoy saying “B.I. #30”), but of specific phrases. I have noted in the footnote below that he liked “chicken pesto.” But he also praised the repeated use of “blow out” in B.I. #31. After reading a passage, he said, “And when you read something like that, you think he’s got something.” He observed “the particular unpleasantness of that phrase,” noting its use as a builder’s term. He then spoke highly of “reciplicate” being used in “reciprocate.” And during these readings (again qualified with the footnote below), he would often say, “I’ll repeat that,” and read a specific sentence again.

He also admired the way that DFW had twisted Victor Frankl’s Search for Meaning in B.I. #46, pointing out that the perspective started off as “fairly normal,” until a rather peculiar moral interpretation of Frankl began to emerge throughout the text. He liked DFW’s distortion of the Nietzschean axiom (involving the carrying of a whip when you are around a woman) with the character noting “you have got to be careful of taking a knee-jerk attitude about violence and degradation in the case of women also.” B.I. #20 (near book’s end) contained one of Wood’s favorite phrases: “Nevertheless nolo to the charge that I spotted her on the blanket at the concert and sauntered carnivorously over with an overtly one-night objective.” To Wood’s mind, this conjured up a feeling of local pleasures and he offered an interesting comparative phrase from Norman Rush’s Mating: “This jeu maintained its facetious character, but there came a time when I began to resent it as a concealed way of short-circuiting my episode of depression, because he preferred to be merry, naturally.”

These were signs, Wood continued, of the “good American tradition” of capturing speech and consciousness. And DFW’s work was very skillful in capturing the “helplessness of the self.” To this end, going back to B.I. #31, Wood noted the way that “little lady” revealed a telltale condemnation, pointing out that the interview subjects’s inability to forget specific details was entirely the problem. To this end, he cited the blind character within “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (XI),” noting that “even a little story like that” was enough to “think about the entrapment of solipsism.”

As I indicated above, Wood clearly relished reading these passages. “It’s a wonderful bit of writing, isn’t it?” he said, following one read. He noted that DFW’s stories were “funny and intolerable” and that these dual emotions likewise “entrapped you into two languages.” He compared this approach to Lydia Davis’s “intolerable spillage of the self,” as well as Thomas Bernhard, who was “also brilliant” with this approach. He then brought up Beckett’s Company (the aforementioned handout), which he used to compare against DFW, pointing out that DFW was carrying on in the tradition of “withholding and repressing what we would actually want to know” and that Beckett and DFW both depicted “a painful defense to not allow something to get into the text.” And he cited the language in “The Depressed Person” and “Signifying Nothing” as examples “very like Beckett” in the way that “artificial stiff language was holding back on the traumatic.”

But while Wood had many positive things to say about DFW, he criticized DFW for “sometimes playing his hand too obviously.” “Instead of being enigmatic like Beckett,” continued Wood, “Wallace spoils them by giving you the key.” To this end, he complained about the end of B.I. #46, where the subject says, “…and what if I said it happened to me? Would that make a difference?” And while Wood’s criticism on this small point is valid if one reads the “brief interviews” strictly with a literal realist narrative in mind (a perfectly valid approach, but one, I think, that underplays DFW’s achievement here), this perspective fails to consider that these interviews may represent the author-reader relationship, perhaps with the hideous man standing in as a fictional construct for DFW. Let us not forget that what the subjects in these “brief interviews” are saying is fictional, that what they declare may be boasting or may not, in fact, be true.

During the Q&A period, I attempted to signal Wood to address him on this particular angle. And when the session was over, I ran into the delightful Martin Schneider (of Emdashes; he has offered his own report), who had offered his own question concerning DFW’s tricks (I would highly advise reading Schneider’s report if you are interested not only in Wood’s response, but the exceedingly polite way in which Wood answered questions from the audience, including one bald gentleman, unrelated to the guy in the subway who punched me and not as well-groomed as Mr. Schwartz, who went on and on and on about Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” before the patient Wood found a pocket of time with which to quell this bald guy’s relentless Fidel Castro-like expatiation), I then approached Wood in the adjacent room, after carrying on an excitable and jocular conversation with Schneider and Sarah Weinman, hoping to get Wood to answer on this point. Wood, ever the deft and polite time allocator, diverted his attentions towards Schneider. The question was not answered. Despite waiting until the last possible minute to approach Wood, there were still people behind us who wished to shake his hand. But perhaps the issue might be taken up at a later point, due to the surprising detail and unanticipated length of this report.

Despite this minor caveat, Wood’s willingness to find passage into DFW, a writer he has previously expressed some reticence about, demonstrated to me that the First Reads program was a success. Certainly the audience of approximately seventy souls — ranging from those overfamiliar with the text to those who simply desired an answer about what “Datum Centurio” was about — all seemed to appreciate the talk. And I hope that the good folks at the 92nd Street Y (whether they be bald or well-groomed) will set up aesthetic oppositions of this ilk (setting up further surprise revelations) for future installments of the series.

(RELATED: Martin Schneider’s report. There is also another account at The Daily Snowman.)

* — He particularly liked the “chicken presto” dish found in “Signifying Nothing.” He also very much enjoyed reading sentences twice. Indeed, of the thirty-five minutes or so that he allocated to “discussing” DFW, it is safe to say that Wood spent much of the time reading, even repeating numerous sentences so that the audience could take in DFW’s magic.

Wooden Disposition

jameswood2It is difficult to respond to James Wood’s remarkable misreading of Richard Powers’s Generosity without giving away the ending. As someone who respects a reader’s sense of discovery and who therefore stays mum on “spoilers” — a term that I suspect Wood is unfamiliar with — I would not dare give up the ghost. Needless to say, as I anticipated, Wood has again demonstrated his predictably vanilla failings with idea-driven novels. He is once again hysterical, starving and naked in a sad but interesting way, about a novel that is not always intended to be explicitly realist. Wood is certainly a fine literary critic and a giddy finger drummer. He’s been leveled with many needless generalizations about his aesthetic tastes and sensibilities, including Colson Whitehead’s puerile parody. But this latest New Yorker essay simply does not reflect his apparent good faith efforts to adjust his own opinions and prejudices.

To wit: Surely the many fades closing Generosity should have offered Wood a clue as to what was going on. Here is a novel that not only depicts why we are drawn to fiction, but why we are seduced by information. If Wood hasn’t been trawling along the edges of social networks in the past few years, then he’s missed out on some of the more pointed potshots on online authority. If only Wood had familiarized himself with Technorati’s definition, he might have understood some of the metrics at work here. (And indeed, Generosity‘s greatest flaw is that it may not date very well.) Surely the clear pisstake of Oprah Winfrey, with the novel’s stand-in given “the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language” should have registered in Wood’s brain as goofy, but nevertheless true hyperbole. Surely the extended sequence when the power shuts off in Chicago, written in a sincere and melodramatic tone, should have clued Wood in that here was a novel in which narrative dichotomies were intended to fuse. Wood has read this book so without care that he makes no reference to the “author” who frequently jumps into this book to announce his presence. “Forgive one more massive jump cut,” this mysterious narrator says early on, revealing what happens to Tonia Schiff. “I have her flip up her window slide and look out the plastic portal,” concludes the passage. And we wonder whether the creative nonfiction here is written by Thassa or by the “author” of the book. If this is all about boxes within boxes, has Powers authored another author? Or is this him? Who’s being generous here? Certainly not Wood.

richardpowersThis life of the mind is fun stuff, as Powers has suggested to us throughout his work. But Wood is simply too married to the idea of characters as distinct individuals to smile. From How Fiction Works: “Even the characters we think of as ‘solidly realized’ in the conventional realist sense are less solid the longer we look at them.” The problem here is that Wood has failed to look long enough to see what Powers is up to. As Edmond Caldwell suggested some months back, Wood’s narrow definition of “negative capability” means that we are never permitted to forget that the terms themselves are limited.

While Wood is certainly qualified to write about realist and modernist books, he cannot have the orderlies loosen the straps long enough to understand that Generosity is, like all novels, a fictive construct. In his review, he shows his contempt for books outside his natural affinity by misconstruing “enhancement” for “entertainment.” And Wood’s failure to comprehend that Generosity is a postmodernist con about our present information age’s indignities and expectations — a con that is somehow fair and respectful to the reader, but a con nonetheless — says much about his critical and perceptive limitations in this piece.

Among Wood’s complaints: In one passage, “Thomas Kurton is sketched journalistically, as David Brooks might glance at him in an Op-Ed column.” But how we know Kurton through the written word — in this case, through a laundry list of biographical details — isn’t necessarily how we’d know him in person. And since Generosity constantly reminds us of the novel’s form, the journalistic sketch is part of the point. How can the written word convey all the complexities of life? And why are we constantly demanding more of it? After all, one can say something sincerely, but it may read as hokey when written down.

Wood falls into the trap of generalizing about Powers’s work. All of Powers novels, Wood writes, are double plotted, with the secondary plot “almost always boy-meets-girl, in which protagonists connected to the first plot meet and fall in love or lust.” Would that include Gain‘s secondary plot of a woman suffering from ovarian cancer? As Tom Bissell has noted, Plowing the Dark is more concerned with the inverse relationship between shifting ambition and young love. That hardly fulfills the “boy-meets-girl” proviso. Wood makes no mention of The Time of Our Singing in his essay, and the love contained within is hardly generic. Has Wood even read it?

Wood also points to Powers’s ambition for clarity, and he is right on this point. But he cannot seem to understand that those who inhabit the grand realm of ideas, whether Powers the author or his often brainy characters, are also contending with raw emotions. The day-to-day shit that is subconsciously tied to an active mind. Archimedes’s principle — or, rather, the principle behind the principle — means living a life to come up with an earth-shattering idea. In Archimedes’s case, it was discovering buoyancy while resting in the bathtub. And so it is with Powers’s fiction. This dichotomy is only difficult for the reader if he is morose enough to believe that the quotidian is low voltage. The scientists in Powers’s books talk like scientists because they are presented with the danger of a life with nothing but ideas and vocation. Thus, it is close third person description that reveals the sympathies behind Dr. Stuart Ressler’s nascent problems in finding that fused point, with Gerald Weber experiencing similar dissonance. He kisses his wife while studying the brain. Of course, he’s going to look for generic reference points. But will the reader find the unity before Weber does? The commonplace stuff of life also includes lines like “I’m not yelling” in Gain. Wood’s failure to understand these connective points suggest a critic who is afraid to be taken out of his comfort zone, a man who, despite his mostly dignified engagement, is too suffocated by the realist straps in his straitjacket.

UPDATE: James Wood responds:

Thank you for that sensible response to my review of Richard Powers’s new novel. It is absolutely not true that I am hostile to ideas in fiction — but if you think the “ideas” in his latest novel are worth much, then we do indeed have a real disagreement.

Of course I noticed all the metafictionality buzzing around the novel — Powers fairly hits us over the head with it. I’d have to be moronic to miss it. But it is very hard to read, let along forgive, a novel that has lines like: “Thassa is twenty-three years old, give or take an era,” or talks about the “travelogue aromas” of her Moroccan cooking. Every page has hideous sentences. Your position amounts to forgiving this kind of atrocious writing on the basis that Powers decided to write the entire novel self-consciously, as if with the pen of a very bad writer who is not himself. I guess it’s possible, and that thought did indeed cross my mind as I read the book. But it would be a pretty stupid thing to do, no? And then one goes back and looks at the much less metafictional earlier work, and finds equally atrocious writing (”mocha locks of hair,” and so on). Perhaps they are all written by alter egos of Richard Powers, programmed by him to write badly?

I think Powers is very brilliant, and very talented, in a way. It is hard not to admire the intellectual intensity of “The Gold Bug Variations.” But despite how daring he is with ideas, he is very conservative about the self, in fact (unlike Michel Houellebecq, say). And, technically speaking — I mean, as a writer of narrative — he is like Dreiser attached to the mind of Pynchon. It makes for curiously hobbled texts. And Dreiser, despite being a terrible prose stylist, has real power, which Powers has only intermittently.

NYPL: James Wood & Daniel Mendelsohn

I observed the following on the subway home on Wednesday night (at approximately 10:30 PM):

  • A burly man reading a science fiction novel (spaceship on cover, title and author occluded)
  • A middle-aged woman studying her Playbill
  • A man in his forties doing the New York Times crossword
  • Two additional people (man and woman) studying Playbills
  • A woman reading US
  • A man, approximately 30, reading a wedding magazine (with his bride-to-be reading over his shoulder)
  • A twentysomething reading Metro
  • An MTA worker reading a John Scalzi mass-market paperback
  • A man, approximately 40, reading Newsweek
  • A thirtysomething man reading the Voice
  • A guy who was roughly 30 reading the Daily News with iPod earbuds hooked into his head
  • A woman reading US News & World Report
  • A woman in her 40s reading The Economist (side note: she wore bright golden heels and fiercely turned the pages of her magazine)
  • A bald man in his early 30s, his lower lip upturned into serious intent, reading a Star Wars hardcover
  • A woman in her mid-twenties reading an unidentified mass market paperback
  • A man in his late forties with a strange beret reading The Onion (strangely, he did not laugh once)
  • A twentysomething woman writing in her notebook, her legs folded up, taking up two seats
  • A man with dreads reading an issue of Better Homes and Gardens
  • Approximately 54 people who were not reading, with 24 of them talking with each other, two of them making out like libidinous bandits, and 10 dozing off. This left about 18 people who weren’t reading at all, staring into space or otherwise just waiting for their respective stops. (Additionally, one very attractive woman in her late twenties, observing that I was taking notes, gave me a big smile and unfastened one of the top buttons of her blouse. I presume that she did this because she didn’t have any reading material. I blushed and moved to the other end of the car.)

So here we have 19 people reading on a late evening. Not a bad number at all. And while this data is empirical, this is a bit better than the jejune empiricism rattled off by Daniel Mendelsohn at the New York Public Library earlier in the evening.

“You never see people reading books, magazines, and newspapers on the subway,” said Mendelsohn. He offered this claim because he personally never saw anyone reading on New Jersey Transit. Which led me to contemplate just how frequently Mr. Mendelsohn used the subway and how he arrived at this conclusion. Cavalier instinct, one presumes. What one wants to see, one conjectures further. Whatever the motivations, this was just one of many foolish sentences uttered by Mendelsohn before a crowd. Despite the sold-out audience, the house seemed stacked against the idea that people weren’t reading. And it was a telling sign that even moderator Pico Iyer had to confess to the audience, “You’re almost suggesting with your presence that the book has a future.”

Mendelsohn was there with Iyer and James Wood to answer the question, “Does the common reader exist in our world of spitting screens?” But the words “common reader” — meaning that type of reader I observed on the subway — never came up again during the discussion. As such, the conversation was something of a missed opportunity, with the usual prattle about blogs and literary posterity subbing in for crackling literary discourse.

Iyer lobbed a number of semi-thoughtful softballs to these two noted book critics. He observed that “broken” was in the title of both Mendelsohn and Wood’s books and asked Wood if he wrote about any subjects other than literature. The answer was no. Wood noted that while, for example, he knew about music, he felt unqualified in some way to write about music, and that his energies were now focused exclusively on books. He quoted Kierkegaard: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” He noted that sometimes he could choose books for review and sometimes the books were chosen for him. Talking about his most recent book, How Fiction Works, he pointed out that when he was 20, he wanted a writerly text that served as a general guide to the world. And aside from Kundera’s three critical works on the novel and the more dated E.M. Forster volume, Aspects of the Novel, he couldn’t think of another contemporary book that solved this problem, that provided “the help that one needs.” “One needs company,” observed Wood. But that evening, he did find cheery comrades in Iyer and Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn then said that he wished he had a conscious plan for what he did, but he didn’t. He entered book reviewing because of his training as a classicist. Indeed, “training” was one of Mendelsohn’s key crutch words that evening. He observed that a good critic needed to look at everything that surrounded a book. “You don’t just read Homer and not look at Bronze Age implements,” he said. “You can’t focus on Euripedes and not know about the Peloponnesian War.” As a testament to his proclaimed powers of context, he pointed out how he had played the 9/11 card when writing about Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.

But if a real critic requires scope, why then did Mendelsohn speak in such an uninformed way about the blogosphere? When Wood and Mendelsohn were asked about how the critical community had changed in the past 40 years, Mendelsohn said that the critics of yesteryear “never had any competition. There wasn’t 30 million people with laptops telling us what they think of Moby Dick.” Mendelsohn, with the finest elitist hauteur that 2004 had to offer, bemoaned the idea of not knowing who to trust. “Now for the first time, anyone can publish.” And while he was careful to delineate that the Internet is a printing press, neither good or bad, he certainly had it in for blogs, declaring that there was no authority and no responsibility. “Why have a thing that’s wrong buzzing for 30 million?”

In fairness to Mendelsohn, I actually do agree with him that we’ve now reached a point where the blogosphere should strive for accuracy. This very issue was indeed a talking point when I interviewed Markos Moulitsas for The Bat Segundo Show. But if Mendelsohn desires scope in criticism, why then was he not so content to practice what he preached? He kept tossing around this random “30 million” number, as if every blog received a mass audience.

“It’s like me opening a blog on brain surgery,” said Mendelsohn. He didn’t believe that what he styled opinions were true criticism. “You can’t just say anything about anything,” boomed Mendelsohn, who then declared that he wouldn’t dream of publishing without rigorous training.

Let us ponder the delicious irony of that last sentiment. Here is Mendelsohn, a man who is trained in Classics, deigning to put forth an opinion on technology. And if Mendelsohn is trained in Classics, does this not then disqualify him from writing about contemporary literature, theater, or Oliver Stone? After all, he is not trained in these subjects. If he is to remain, by his own definition, an authentic critic, should he not then shut his trap when it comes to blogs? Or on any other subject that he is not “trained” in? If by his own admission, he should not write about brain surgery, then surely he should not gab about blogs. But Mendelsohn did point out that he had bought an Amazon Kindle for a relative and suggested, perhaps jocularly, “I guarantee in 100 years, that’s what he’ll be reading on.”

When a question came late in the evening from the audience about whether the critic could truly judge a novel that its author understood better than the critic, both Mendelsohn and Wood agreed that this was a moot point. Said Mendelsohn, “If a critic can’t judge [a film] because he’s not the filmmaker, then how can the audience?” By this measure, if a “trained” critic understands a book as much as an “untrained” critic (a blogger, for example), then should the questions of qualifications even be an issue? Does a critic really even need to be trained? Should not the criticism itself be the thing that matters?

Wood offered some resistance to blogs, but confined his gripes to comments. “There, I think the rule is sanctioned ignorance,” said Wood. And while he outlined a generalized pattern of how people react to a review that I felt fallacious, the difference between Wood and Mendelsohn is that the former was willing to give the format a chance and try to understand it, while the latter was happy to nuke the site from orbit like an uninformed cretin.

There were some notable differences between the two men about criticism. Wood pointed out that when reviews for his novel, The Book Against God, had come out, “I was relatively untouched by them.” He did, however, point out that he took it a bit personally when people read him wrong. He said, “I think you can’t be a critic unless you’re very, very curious,” although he suggested that he lacked that curiosity. He cited Alex Ross as a prime example of a good curious critic. He also observed, “If I’m a slightly sweeter critic than I used to be, it’s because I live with a novelist.”

Mendelsohn expressed reservations with the idea that critics are considered “a slightly lower level of life.” “I think it’s insulting if you’re worried about the feelings of the author. The feelings you should be worried about are in literature.” Wood responded to Mendelsohn, “I may feel it more acutely than you do, the hurt feelings of the author,” but he said, “In principle, this is not one’s concern.” But Wood did point to Mary McCarthy’s review of Dorothy Valcarcel’s The Man Who Loved Women, pointing out, “It’s so blithely disdainful in the end.” Weighing the review against Valcarcel’s agonies of producing this book offered a textbook example of what to consider as a critic. Wood also pointed to Hans Keller’s review of Anton Karas’s theme to The Third Man. Keller initially hated the theme, but found it hard to get out of his head. Keller declared, “As soon as I hate something, I ask myself why I like it so much.”

Mendelsohn noted that he only wrote about things that were interesting to him. “Critics write because they love their subject. They don’t care about people.” And yet despite “not caring,” he also pointed out, “I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to put one over on someone.'”

On the subject of literary posterity, Mendelsohn noted that one of Euripides’s well-received plays during his time, Orestes, isn’t read by anyone anymore, “except people like me.” Wood demonstrated slightly more insight into the subject by observing what Andrew Delbanco had observed in his Melville biography: There’s only one reference in the whole of Henry James to Melville, and that’s as a name on a list of Putnam writers.

Wood suggested that the present time was a ripe one for criticism, pointing out that there were numerous outlets for long-form criticism, that when Ian McEwan’s Saturday came out, there were a number of 3,000 to 4,000 word considerations of the novel. But he did not address recent newspaper cutbacks, nor did he consider how multiple reviews of the same book took away precious column inches from other books.

Close to the end of the conversation, Wood noted of the evening’s talk, “Here we have chats easily parodied by Monty Python.” He was also careful to point out that he was not in the best position to judge the state of reading because he was surrounded by literature grad students at Harvard who were excited about reading and writing. He attempted rather clumsily to offer a baseball metaphor, but won a few points from the audience for trying.

Regrettably, Iyer, who truly tiptoed more than he needed to, did not bring up a very important question for these two gentlemen: namely, their preferences for realism and modernism at the expense of genre and postmodernism. Iyer did allude that he had been waiting ten years to talk Pynchon with James Wood, but why didn’t he last night? DFW did come up, phrased through a clumsy question from the audience about whether the suicide represented a “literary gesture.” But the question’s poor framing prevented both critics from answering with any perspicacity.

The conversation suggested to me that Wood had more nuanced thoughts about criticism than Mendelsohn did, but that both men might be better served by expanding their repertoire.

Responding to Tanenhaus: August 13

Sam: Very tepid on your blog. Not hot at all. Am told the men caught another snake nuzzling into Keller’s neck and that the snake responded to your name. Who knew that serpents could colloquize? In any event, a missed opportunity with your latest post. To suggest that only one party can be right in this case is to miss the very particular points that Messrs. Wood and Baker were making. Wood responded to Updike’s passage with an aesthetic eye. Baker rejoined with a clear passion for language. Cannot both be right? To suggest that there is only one opinion on a passage is to have a very limited and incurious mind indeed. Those of us who actually love literature may love a sentence for its feeling while simultaneously loathing it for its bombast. Have adopted this gimmicky Orwell-inspired approach to blogging that I find quite fun, but one commenter lodged his displeasure. Is he right? I would not deign to suggest that I have a superior opinion of my own writing because I happen to have written it. But some may judge it good, others bad. But nobody is “right.” Nobody has the ultimate answer. Did you not learn from Freud, Sammy Baby, that when one presents a definitive codex of human behavior, it will be easily usurped and outmoded in half a century? And have you not learned in your years as editor of The New York Times Book Review that literary criticism or even the casual appreciation of literature is not a matter of being “right,” but of presenting a thread to be picked up by another resourceful stitcher.