• James Wood vs. Steven Augustine. I hope to have more to say on Wood’s review of O’Neill later, once I have thought more about why it rubs me the wrong way. It is not, in this case, Wood’s customary championing of realism above everything else, but rather the manner in which he articulates his position. Some of the generalizations that Wood has unearthed from O’Neill’s book (“This is attentive, rich prose about New York in crisis that, refreshingly, is not also prose in crisis”) are as troubled as the assumptions frequently attached to litbloggers: that they generalize and make obvious points about literature. In the paragraph I am citing, there is the illusion here of careful dissection that comes with the strained voice of sophistication (“one lovely swipe of a sentence”), rather than a passionate and more specific dissection. I suspect this is a case where what Wood writes is different from how Wood thinks. But some hard editor should have demanded more clarity. I wouldn’t go as far as Augustine to declare Wood “a middlebrow theorist using highbrow language to communicate his theories.” But I can certainly see why Augustine can come away with this conclusion.
  • Funny Farm is a disconcerting but enjoyable distraction for those fond of association that will easily take away hours from your life. You have been warned. (via Waxy)
  • Bob Hoover is quite right to point out that memoirs show no sign of slowing down, despite recent controversies. The one regrettable side effect about the whole “memoir” rap is that good old-fashioned autobiographies have fallen by the wayside. Which is a pity, because this means that books like Anthony Burgess’s two volume “Confessions” or Kinski: All I Need is Love couldn’t possibly be published in this environment. Can there not be more fluidity to the form? (via Slunch)
  • We shouldn’t be asking ourselves the question of “Who killed the literary critic?” A far more intriguing line of inquiry would have involved the question, “Who killed the human?” Has the role of the human become obsolete in an age of boilerplate “intellectualism,” belabored points, and predictable sentences? Is passion still possible within such a stifling climate? A new book, The Death of the Human, says no, and argues that there are still reasons to believe that there are, in fact, humans who do populate this planet. There are some humans who still partake of rollercoasters, ice cream, and occasionally let loose a raspberry in Carnegie Hall.
  • And there’s a lot more from Mr. Sarvas that should keep you busy.

[UPDATE: I have emailed James Wood and he has confirmed with me that he sent Nigel the email.]


  1. Ed:

    If that *really was* a letter from James Wood, I’m baffled that it should “sound” suspiciously like a Wood-loving Litblogger citing old Wood articles to smack at a non-believer; also baffled that “Wood” would make the mistake of defending his record as a *cineaste*, since my film references (in the offending comment) were *metaphorical* and unconcerned with Wood’s actual take on Godard, etc. The metaphor was meant to indicate that he doesn’t *get*, for (purely subjective) reasons of aesthetic temperament, say (to grab an example out of thin air), DeLillo’s “Underworld”.

    Now, I won’t go into the complicated internecine wonderments that sparked this surreal snafu, other than to say that A) Nigel Beale’s first post about/against me was, ostensibly, in reference to a comment about Wood’s sense of “reality” I left on his blog *months* (weeks, at the very least) ago.

    In other words: rather a super-non-issue to be calling down the (one-would-have-thought more expensive, by the minute) thunder of Mr. James Bloody Wood. And, B) prior to all this, Nigel himself sent me a “jokey” email, requesting my response to his post about said aging comment, since days had gone by and I hadn’t even noticed it was there. (Email forwarded to anyone who doubts its existence, per request)

    As the lady once said: curiouser and curiouser.

    James: if you’re reading this: I have a few *more* bones to pick with you, as well…


  2. Nigel:

    How seriously would you like me to take either you, or Mr. Wood? The “answer” to both of you (however “real” either of you happens to be; there is some doubt in both cases) is posted above. If neither of you can find what you’re looking for in that statement, I have to wonder what it is, exactly, you’re looking for.

    If Mr. Wood (or your sockpuppet of him) is incapable of grasping my larger point that every bit of fiction works differently in every reader’s mind (therefore the entertaining preposterousness of his attempts to make blanket statements about how far a writer can stretch “reality”…. a word Mr. Nabokov is sneering at, even now, in his grave …), what else is there for me to say? Mr. Wood has to earn a living and I have to remain true to what I know about *my* experience of literature: stalemate. And far from rich with agony.

    As for you, Nigel: I marvel at the fact that it escapes you that this fragment from the, ahem, “quotations” on your recent post on “reality” supports my very point:

    “…no truth is more certain, more independent of all the others, and less in need of proof, than this: that all that is there for the knowing – that is, the whole world – is only object in relation to the subject, perception of the perceiver – in a word, idea.”

    And each mind will process this “idea” *differently*; no less so with the “spooky” miracle of fiction than with the apparent evidence of all our senses. Mr. Wood is free to hawk his faux-certainties to a certainties-addicted era and I am free to read as I read, and not how Mr. Wood presumes to know how I do so. In other words, “How Fiction Works” is very clearly up to *me*. Can’t be intimidated on that one, regardless of masthead.

    (Not that I don’t think that Mr. Wood is very good at illuminating his treasured texts, or arguing his *purely subjective* preferences).

  3. On what basis do you folks believe that the email is fake? James Wood has left comments on litblogs before. I see no reason to discount this email, unless you provide concrete evidence that it is NOT James Wood. Failing that, I will be happy to perform some independent corroboration.

  4. Also, my research informs me that James Wood did indeed review “Leaving Las Vegas” for the New Republic, referring to “poshlost,” in the December 25, 1995 issue.

  5. Ed:

    I consider it a fake because it’s hard to believe that Wood would come up with such a lumbering rejoinder, honestly; concentrating on his bona fides re: cinema? My comment used cinema as a *metaphor* (I even used the bracketed phrase… unless Nigel has since edited it out…”to extend the metaphor”…to hammer this distinction home in the comment): any close reader can see that. Cinema was not the point. References, in Wood’s supposed email, to Wood’s old film reviews are either examples of bad counterfeiting or… astonishing.

    And, Ed, just as you researched that old “Leaving Las Vegas” review of Wood’s, there’d be no problem for a Wood fan to do the same. If the burden of proof isn’t any higher than that, I understand the lure of Identity Theft.

    But, perhaps we need a little context for this wonderfully improbable escapade. You know the “whole story”, Ed, but do your readers?

    A few days ago, I posted a comment over at Dan Green’s place, praising your “Human Smoke” roundtable as the kind of thing that Online Litcrit does best; lest anyone think I was arse-licking, the truth is, I’ve also posted critical comments hereabouts, yes?

    But the Nick Baker roundtable was wonderful, and I contrasted it with an example of the kind of thing I find less than marvellous on Litblogs: slapdash (or sophomore) classics blogging. Before the brushfire breaks out again: I’m not saying nobody should do it; I’m just saying that I, more often than not, find the results less than inspiring; embarrassing, even. I had a particular example in mind, but I didn’t mention the blog by name.

    The offending/offended blog was Nigel Beale’s Hamlet roundtable. When the dust was settling over at Dan Green’s place, I received an email from Nigel, *inviting me to comment* on a new post he’d put up, criticizing a *very old* comment of mine. The tone of the email was jokey indeed, as he didn’t want to tip me off to the fact that he planned on devoting his day to railing against me.

    Fair enough, I thought, and I posted a comment about his comment on my comment, expecting a response to my comment, naturally, to appear in the comments thread (larf). Well, no: Nigel put up a *second post*, criticizing my comments on his comments on my original very old comment (which he clearly resurrected just to have an excuse to revenge my oblique critique of his Hamlet over at Dan’s). Who knew this was intended to be a penny-ante battle of the (not) titans?

    Now, the only bit that *irritated* me was discovering that Nigel had *edited* the first round of comments I’d left in response to his comment on my comments (pfew…) in order to make himself come off a bit better (removing a reference to the fact that he’d invited me to comment; in other words, I’m not buzzing around the internet all day, looking for places to attack James Wood).

    Beyond the fact that I wasn’t about to spend a whole day making futile arguments against James Wood’s critical approach on the site of a Wood fanatic, the fact was that Nigel could no longer be trusted. In any case, the point of the exercise wasn’t generating new ideas, the point was taking a revenge whack at me, which anyone is free to do, of course, but that no one should expect me to help with (yes yes: insert zinger here).

    I sent Nigel a scorchy email to let him know (profanity was involved and no regets) that I wouldn’t bother commenting further, or even reading his site, an activity I had new and improved reasons to consider being a waste of time.

    Sorry to any reader who now realizes that that’s exactly what all *this* is, but it happens to be the truth (well, along with interesting allegations that Nigel plagiarized texts to fortify some of his rants against me, but that, as they say…)

  6. Hi Steven,

    I had no idea you’d trashed talked Hamlet. Better go over to Dan’s and see how bad it was.

    re: rants etc. This is nothing personal, simply a wish to question some of the erroneous and slighting remarks you persist in making about a literary critic I happen to think is the best we have. Instead of hurling unsavory remarks around why don’t you stick to the text, and use your mind and energy constructively.

  7. Cross-posted from a blog called “Books, Inq.: The Epilogue”:

    “I also see no reason to doubt that the email is genuine.”

    With all due respect (and being somewhat involved) I see at least two:

    1) Are we to believe that Wood is naive enough to have been duped by a relatively unknown Litblogger into scoring points against another relatively unknown Litblogger in a petty *flame war*? Does Wood, with no small fund of credibility at stake, go dashing into flamewars, or wherever bloggers have the temerity to disagree with him (in otherwise courtly language, I might add) , fighting battles for Litbloggers running blogs boasting content on a level he’d otherwise sneer at? Strains credulity.

    Occam’s Razor would indicate a hoax, though I’m far from claiming that James Wood is not human enough to have done something pointless.

    2) The tone and quality of the letter itself: is this document really the work of (arguably) America’s foremost literary critic? Michiko K., sure: I could see her writing something like this (before an added pass or two through the vernacularizer). But *James Wood*?

    Before I go into that email, here are the two comments (unedited) I posted on Nigel Beale’s blog, when I still believed it was a casual blog and not a creepy space rigged for unintentionally amusing revenge:



    (Thanks for the heads-up about this post; I was right on the verge of foreswearing blog-comment-jousting for a few days to get some work done and there’s a good chance I would have missed this until it showed up the next time I self-Googled-larf).

    So…you quote Uncle Jimmy thus:

    “Everything flows from the real including the beautiful deformations of the real; it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy dream and so on,” but no, fiction is real only “when its readers validate (my italics) its reality.”

    First off, Wood’s use of the word “reality” is meaningless (and therefore useless). Even if I’m in a coma and imagining all this and you’re a blue donkey in a rakish cap, Nigel, that’s “reality”-based, as it flows from my mind which is as real as anything else in the universe. Is there *anything* that can be imagined that doesn’t refer to “reality” in some way? Are “unreal” thoughts even possible?

    Therefore, please, can you (or Uncle Jimmy), establish a meaningful distinction between that which is “real”, and that which is not? Of course you can’t (and, if you can, you win a prize, since Nietzsche couldn’t do it and neither could Plato). So, out goes Uncle Jimmy’s decorative argument (he’s good at those).

    I’ll have to trust brainy old hands at novel-writing, such as DeLillo, Updike and Kundera, to know exactly how far to go in framing a character’s “reality” (and thereby delighting the keyed-to-it reader in doing so) over the opinion of a clever little critic who’s managed, thus far, to write one mediocre novel. If Wood has superior knowledge of the novel’s proper “reality”-range and general mechanics, why couldn’t he put it to practical use and write a masterpiece of a novel?

    But common-sense questions like that are glossed over, because there’s not quite enough razzle-dazzle in using common-sense, is there?

    —second comment (submitted within a few minutes of the first)–


    Uncle Jimmy tries to explain why Wolfe’s use of the Wood-prescribed character-appropriate-stream-of-consciousness-voice doesn’t work when Wolfe tries it: ‘Everyone is scrawled with the same inner graffiti,’ he says, rendering Wolfe’s characters flat, indistinguishable from each other…” And that’s utter nonsense.

    I’m no Wolfe advocate (I find his novels, as you know, too much like what everyone would be writing if they obeyed Uncle Jimmy), but Wood either hasn’t read more than ten pages of a Wolfe novel (try “Man in Full”) , or he’s indulging in a little bad-faith, theory-supporting truth-twisting, because one thing Wolfe does *well* is character-particularizing. “Charlie Croker” and “Peepgas” and “Roger Too-White” and “Conrad”, et al, are vividly constructed, with a craft-fair-doll-maker’s attention to detail.

    Which is the heart and limitation of Wolfe’s minor art (minor art is useful, too, of course: consider porcelain-making vs Cubism): his novels “says” pretty much what they appear to be saying at first glance by generating characters it’s very difficult to misunderstand doing things it’s very difficult to misinterpret. Hard to imagine re-reading a Wolfe novel (after chucking it in the airport waste bin) because you “get it” the first time through.

    I’ve been through “Underworld” gods-knows-how-many times and the intellectual pleasure remains fresh *because* I haven’t nailed the thing down yet. Ditto “Sabbath’s Theater” and “Libra”and “Vineland” and so on.

    Same with great movies: is Marcello, in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a shallow arse, a trapped artist, a victim of or collaborator-in his subculture? Is the movie a paean to a certain kind of postwar, wistfully decadent beauty, or a savage attack on it? Is it about plenty or deprivation? I’ve seen it 30 times, probably, and will see it again. Versus some well-intentioned movie (with absolutely unambiguous themes and characters) like “Shine” or “Ray” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” for which once is enough, thanks.

    I’m saying that Uncle Jimmy is a middlebrow theorist using highbrow language to communicate his theories, and, aesthetically, he’s sort of a “The Talented Mr. Ripley” kind of guy. He has no real idea what to make of Godard, Fellini, Cassavettes, Visconti, Pasolini, et al (to extend the metaphor) and his *inability to grasp* the aesthetic becomes a (defensive) mission statement.

    Wood’s disavowal of Wolfe is pretty funny, really, and an important forensic clue (a bit like, you know, closeted politicians who Gay-bash).

    (I certainly hope I’ve given you your money’s worth, Nigel!)


    Well, those were the comments. I’d like to draw the jury’s attention to A) the casual tone (ie, I was not writing an essay for a lit journal, I was leaving a profanity-free comment on a litblog) and, B) the importance of the “cinema metaphor” to the overall point of the comments (ie, not very) and, C) the importance of Wood’s use of the word “reality” in the quote my comments took exception to… and (as a treat), D) the amount of “ignorance” on display in my comments (we’ll come back to that one).


    If that Augustine-excoriating email really was from James Wood (and not concocted by one of Nigel Beale’s more literate friends), it shows an amazing grasp of flamewar technology (while falling somewhat short on metrics of good-faith and reason): the first thing “Wood” does, in his “rebuttal”, is avoid the *heart* of my criticism and go right for what he must have considered my comment’s softspot: that jokey metaphor about his taste in film.

    Clearly, the metaphor was *really* about his taste in literature, which I consider to veer a wee towards the conservative. I don’t give a damn whether James Wood has seen “120 Days of Sodom” 1,000 times and knows all the dialogue by heart and dresses for the occasion; what I was, rather obviously, expressing was my sense that novels that flout naturalitic effects (unnaturally), doing away with old-fashioned sops like “moral” along the way, seem to zoom right over his head (or between his legs). Again (and again and again): I cite his (imo) wrong-headed dismissal of DeLillo’s preternaturally witty, sobbingly-beautiful “Underworld” as an example of one gap in his literary sensors large enough to fly an 827-page masterpiece through.

    I treasure “Underworld”, Wood doesn’t. Is one of us wrong? Sadly, no. Is one of us a(n) (apparent) “square”…? Well…

    When I pegged Wood for a “Talented Mr. Ripley” fan, I didn’t mean it literally (how the hell would I know, and why would I want to?): I was rendering visual my estimation of his literary taste-range (which I even have the plutonium balls to suggest was very possibly confirmed in his recent review of “Netherland” for the New Yorker).

    “Wood” goes to extraordinary lengths (was he charging Nigel by the letter?) to attack my “ignorance” of his bona fides as a lover of cinema… pointlessly. But, again: that was the most convenient portal of entry (flamewar 101: flamewar is a war of attrition: never attack an argument’s strong points).

    Whereas the crux of my argument was/is Wood’s use of the word “reality” (both in the quote I originally nutmegged on Nigel’s blog, and in general, in what I’ve read of his), Mr. “Wood” deals with *that* with a flamer’s aplomb:

    “I don’t want to argue with Steven Augustine about reality, because that is a wilderness of mirrors…”

    Ah. Well. Hmmm. Now that James Wood has gotten *that* out of the way, he can get to the shocking matter of my blog-type “ignorance” about his taste in films!

    Inconvenient for me, of course, because that was the core of my point, no? His profligate use of the word “reality”.

    “James Wood” doesn’t want to “argue” with Steven Augustine about Wood’s inaccurate estimation of Tom Wolfe’s ability to craft characters, either, obviously, but that’s small beer.

    Again, here’s Wood on “reality”:

    “Everything flows from the real including the beautiful deformations of the real; it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy dream and so on,” but no, fiction is real only “when its readers validate its reality.”

    It’s Samurai-bold of Mr. “Wood” to try getting away with sweeping my quibble with his use of the word “reality” under the rug. And to invoke Vladimir “When I hear the word Reality I reach for my fountainpen” Nabokov in the same “reality”-asseverative email, piling irony upon irony, is giddy-making stuff.

    When he (or someone) circles back to the matter of “reality”, later in the email, it’s not to address my criticism of the above (twice-cited) quote.

    When “Wood” writes (in this email), “Decomposition like this happens to any long -lived and successful style, surely; so the writer’s — or critic’s, or reader’s — task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced,”…

    …This is nicely put, but it hinges on the same sort of phantom crux (unless the “irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity” are standardized, from mind to mind, or measurable as pi) that his (for me) offending riff about “reality” does. The rather obvious flaw such a gilded argument dazzles us out of noticing is its presumption that everyone being exposed to this “long-lived” style, has the same degree of wear-and-tear on his/her readerly cherry; the same long log of literary experiences; the same mandarin burden of education to overcome in the gleaning of readerly pleasure.

    Wood (or “Wood”) is a master of building rhetorical Alhambras like these on philosophical soap bubbles such as the word “reality”.

    I’ve never stared, gaga, at a lavalamp in my life, but whenever Wood mints proscriptions about how far a novelist is allowed to wander from “reality” before the silvery cord of the reader’s attention/credulity/infatuation snaps, I’m forced to put on my worst Cam-side, Russian accent and demand, “Whose reality?” (or, “Who’s reality?”)

    Is it “ignorant” of me to express this opinion? I haven’t read *all* of Wood (that’d be a peculiar thing to do, being that I’m neither a fan, nor immortal) but I have read, closely, whatever of his that I have bothered to comment on.

    If I know little about Wood, Wood knows *nothing* of me (beyond the damning clue that I don’t hold *his* judgment of the books I treasure over mine) so his wounded plea, “It’s the ignorance I so dislike, sanctioned by that online free-for-all in which quick judgments, based on the thinnest acquaintanceship with the subject’s work, can be prodigally posted,” has rather a hollow ring to it, and a boomeranging echo: what *does* he know of me, or what I’ve read of what he’s written? Is Mr. Wood claiming clairvoyance as a second talent?

    His signal flare of a salvo against “Hysterical Realism” (that word again) was my (contemporaneous) introduction to his work; I found it just in some bits and absurd in others and largely irritating.

    I’ve read, dunno, two dozen essays, reviews, interviews and profiles? (If Wood is offering to hire me to write a carefully-researched, corrective overview, we can discuss the terms; otherwise, I think my various comments, over the years, are not the worst a Wood fan-or-critic could’ve stumbled upon. Actually, there’s one comment, in particular, I thought was rather good… taking him to task for his apparent lack of a viable sense of humor…perhaps I can provide the link later?)

    Anyway: that’s rather a precious pose for a critic to strike, I’d say, if “Wood” (or Wood) is claiming that I’m “ignorant” (in more than the literal sense) because I haven’t read *all* of his work, and have no right to express strong opinions on what I *have* read until I purchase the lot (which may be a brilliant marketing technique…)

    If he did, in fact, write all that.

    Stranger things, as we know too well, have happened. The email was a disturbing graft of the imperious on the vulnerable, if he *did* author it. I’m still not sure if I’d be delighted if it were authentic.

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