Boris Kachka: The Inspector Clouseau of Cultural Journalism

“He said that, as a literary biographer, he’d been asked to talk about Peter’s literary interests, which of course was absurd in a mere seven minutes: Peter deserved a literary biography of his own, and maybe he would write it — anyone with stories to tell should see him afterwards, in strictest confidence, of course. This got a surprisingly warm laugh, though Rob was unsure, after what Jennifer had said, whether he was sending himself up as a teller of other people’s secrets.” — Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child

In more than a decade at New York Magazine, Boris Kachka has displayed a limitless knack for bumbling inquiry, suggesting an easily played and incurious rube who hopes and believes with every desperate palpitation of his hypoplastic heart that constant proximity to disinterested players will reveal some grand Talmudic truth.

Kachka is a “reporter” who has seen faux import in an osteoporosic Sally Field climbing fourteen flights of stairs in a midtown hotel. Mere months before Romina Puga, Kachka bombarded Jesse Eisenberg with vapid invasive questions, attempting to read sage significance in Eisenberg’s monosyllabic discomfort and leading one to wonder if Kachka had written his superficial queries on his palm in some headlong campaign to read the future. In April, Kachka visited Claire Messud and James Wood and, unable to spark it up with these two charming and gracious minds, littered his simpering copy with eight desperate New Journalism “[BARK!]”s (one sans brackets) and dwelt more on Wood’s mien than his thoughts.

At New York, Kachka established himself as a diseased mongrel who could barely push his debilitated legs off the porch to work his beat. He has littered his work with portentous phrases like “anomie of Lipsyte’s generation” and “Park Slope’s popular freelance perch,” and it all smacks of a desperate burnout raiding the low-hanging lexical fruit that hadn’t already been plucked for some “Talk of the Town” piece at a more august publication.

Kachka’s new book, Hothouse, comes out on Tuesday and purports to chronicle Farrar, Straus & Giroux with all the lapel-grabbing furor of Jacob Riis investigating the New York slums. Despite “more than 200 interviews,” the result is a dry, listless, tendentious, sexist, blinkered, and preposterous book which regurgitates insignificant facts, latches onto third-hand rumors, and fails to comprehend the way the publishing industry really works.

Yet Kachka’s insufficient history has inexplicably captured the imagination of a few gullible and unquestioning boosters, including Heller McAlpin at the Los Angeles Times and Carolyn Kellogg at Bullseye. Perhaps Hothouse has received a fair pass because journalistic standards have collapsed well beneath the lowest notches on the limbo bar. Or maybe these literary cheerleaders cannot comprehend that hearsay, which is impermissible testimony in a courtroom, is not acceptable in any work purporting to reveal the trajectory of an uniquely influential business.

Much like Leonard Zelig or, perhaps more accurately, Being There‘s Chauncey Gardner, Kachka has been allowed to commit solecisms for years, yet there’s an inexplicable hubris attached to his bungling, the telltale traits of a more famous Peter Sellers character. Kachka’s approach to the truth involves relying on inference without respect for person or underlying fact. Helene Atwan, now the Director of Beacon Press, leads Kachka to believe that FSG intended to change Peter Høeg’s last name to “Hawk” for the release of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and Kachka laps this confabulation up so that he can grill Roger Straus III on this incredulous matter. Kachka specializes in the bold uncorroborated inference, writing like a man who isn’t getting any action at home: “By the early 1960s, [Roger Straus] was probably sleeping with three of his female operators.” Probably? The scuzziest TMZ reporters are more committed to accuracy. (There are, of course, no endnotes upholding this claim.)

If Kachka feels as if his subjects aren’t giving him the answers or the access that he believes he is entitled to by rightful decree of the tottering authority in his feeble delusional mind, or the quotes don’t match the story he believes he already knows, then he will burn them with his cheap prossy pen. Here, for example, is Kachka’s first description of Jonathan Galassi in Hothouse:

Galassi, on the other hand, is a patrician only by training, a bon vivant only by necessity, but a nerd through and through. He invited his fourth-grade teacher to his ninth birthday party. He seems to have learned the bold body language of an alpha male, but never quite vanquished his low, slightly nasal voice or downcast expression.

Instead of being curious about Galassi’s intriguing background, Kachka sees Galassi as a cartoon to be mocked. Kachka cannot be arsed to get his source to trust him. He is clearly not Richard Ben Cramer talking baseball with George W. Bush to get a stubborn man to open up. And stacked next to fellow New York journalist Robert Kolker (author of the recently released and well-received Lost Girls), he’s a total embarrassment, especially when he pursues an Oliver Stone-like trail suggesting that Straus had a secret telephone line and was working for the CIA. Had Kachka more time to push his plodding connections, he most certainly would have spotted Straus on the grassy knoll.

Like the despicable gossip peddler Paul Bryant in Alan Hollinghurst’s excellent novel, The Stranger’s Child, Kachka seeks any vaguely salacious angle to throw into his preordained template, whereby FSG is a “sexual sewer,” male employees fuck anything that moves, and Mad Men parallels snap into place like a smooth sudoku puzzle. In Hothouse, Kachka claims that, because someone may have seen long black strands of hair in a borrowed apartment, Susan Sontag and Straus were having an affair. He then spends the majority of his book calling David Rieff “an illegitimate son” to shove this unsubstantiated carnal connection down the reader’s throat. When Kachka finds former FSG assistant Leslie Sharpe, who tells him, “Everybody was fucking everybody in that office,” the reader feels the extremely unsettling aura of Kachka’s cock hardening at the news. But of course, Kachka has nothing reliable in his notes on the many affairs he claims went down. Any man close to the age of forty who wags his dry tongue for scuttlebutt scraps is a pathetic figure indeed.

Hothouse evinces how little Kachka understands wealth by pointing to “starter dachas,” opens chapters with journalism cliches (“If Jonathan Galassi didn’t exist, FSG would have to invent him”), and squeezes out strained efforts at Tom Wolfe-style savaging against agent Andrew Wylie:

It doesn’t help that his face tapers from a broad bald pate to an unshaped brow, icy eyes, and a chiseled, lupine chin, or that his laugh sounds like that of the world’s most cultured hyena.

Can a face taper? Is Wylie a hyena, a wolf, or a jackal? Given all the mixed metaphors, I don’t think Kachka even knows.

Kachka lacks one of the competent reporter’s primary skills: pretend to like a source you loathe (or, more ideal, find something to like about someone you despise). He’s long past the point where any true observer can feel sorry for him, although the pity blurbs accompanying his cotillion ball reveal a few noteworthy mensches who should be commended for their kindness. Still, Kachka is not significant enough to be put out of his misery with a pink slip and a peremptory blast in the human resources office. He trudges on, a bearded penguin known to harass people with multiple phone calls at 6 AM (including yours truly many years ago on a matter pertaining to Zadie Smith) and getting people so thoroughly wrong that one wonders if he has even read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.*

Roth, like John McPhee and Edmund Wilson, was wooed by FSG without an agent. An assiduous journalist would look into whether or not Roger Straus, a notorious cheapskate (a man who operated FSG from a ramshackle Union Square West headquarters for years and a man who did not contribute a sou to Susan Sontag’s breast cancer fund), actively pursued writers who did not have representatives to protect their interests. (Kachka points out that Straus sought to discredit agents wherever he could, but he isn’t robust enough to construct a timeline or a concrete set of governing principles.) Given the sour grapes that developed between Straus and Wylie in the 1980s, to say nothing of the resentment expressed by writers for being underpaid, it is palpably obvious to look into the very business philosophy that permitted a publisher, often sustained by family wealth when times were lean, to subsist as long as it did. It would also seem natural to focus on how New Directions, who worked in the same building as FSG for many years, operated as FSG’s competitor, snapping up the poetry of Thomas Merton and John Berryman before FSG editor Robert Giroux.

Hothouse reveals that Straus was a poor businessman (“No FSG catalog would be complete without its impending announcement,” mocked one wag about the publisher’s long delayed titles), even as it promulgates the false myth that this apparent patriarch had “just enough of a personal financial cushion to keep from falling over the brink.” Nearly 250 pages later, Kachka writes, “The fact is that 1988-vintage FSG could have eaten 1982 FSG for lunch. In the old days, the cash simply hadn’t been there. Roger’s cheapness may have been inborn, but it was refined by forty years of hard, break-even experience.” Or maybe it wasn’t. Kachka is such an otiose journalist that he doesn’t follow the money, except through mere conjecture. He claims that Wilson, Sontag, Carlos Fuentes, Tom Wolfe, and Joseph Brodsky “received financial support far beyond standard contracts,” but provides neither source nor sums for this claim. Why did Straus really sell his townhouse? Is it not possible that Straus sold FSG to billionaire Georg von Holtzbrinck in 1994 because his coffers were light? Kachka lacks the diligence to pursue these questions, in large part because it contradicts his cheap thesis that FSG is the Greatest Publisher of All Time. On the other hand, Kachka is to be commended for inadvertently reminding us that Melville House’s Dennis Loy Johnson, arguably the most hypocritical man working in publishing today, is desperately trying to be a Roger Straus for the 21st century and will surely fail if he continues along the same trajectory.

Kachka does account for Straus’s tendency to skim his titles, but is too much of a milquetoast to probe: “The most common theory, especially among those who saw him lug manuscripts up to Purchase for the weekend, is that he didn’t so much read books as ‘read in’ them, as he sometimes put it — enough to get a nose for them, like fine wines.”

Hothouse is plagued by other contradictory assertions which quickly out Kachka as a squirmy journalist who cannot be trusted. He claims FSG as an innovative publisher, but confesses that Robert Giroux was not an especially edgy editor:

But though he was still approaching the peak of his professional power, he was no longer, if he ever really had been, at the vanguard of taste. By the sixties, even the Beats — most of them too extreme for Giroux — were old hat.

In other words, FSG was hoary from the get go. And it took careful line editors like Lorin Stein, progressive-minded editors like Sean McDonald, and gutsy publicists like Jeff Seroy to turn it into the publisher it is today. But all that happened under a German congolomerate’s watch, not Straus’s.

But what ultimately makes Kachka such an unpardonable scumbag is the way in which he wallows in the very sexism he tries so hard to expose. Aside from perpetuating a fantasy that publishing was a “gentleman’s profession” with “Roger and his publicity girls,” Kachka undermines Margaret Farrar (along with her barely mentioned husband), claiming that the woman who created most of the rules governing crossword puzzle design merely “enriched one publishing house.” (Later, Margaret is dismissed as “the crossword-puzzle creator and sometime editor.”) He introduces FSG supplies manager Rose Wachtel as “a prematurely elderly-looking woman.”

Peggy Miller, Roger Straus’s secretary of several decades, tells Kachka that she refuses to answer questions about whether or not she was romantically involved with her employer. But that doesn’t stop Kachka from deracinating her dignity by suggesting that she’s “a living homage to Straus” and claiming that she and Straus were a “couple,” with rampant fucking during their annual trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Compare this with Ian Parker’s 2002 description of Miller as “a tall, chic, ironic woman.” In fact, save yourself the $28 on Kachka’s junk and just subscribe to The New Yorker to access Parker’s piece.)

The most prominent example of Kachka’s sexism is his deplorable depiction of Jean Stafford, a distinguished (if troubled) FSG writer. Kachka pits her husband Robert Lowell’s accomplishments over hers and has no sympathy for her nervous breakdown even as he points out that Lowell and Gertrude Buckman “spent unsavory amounts of time together headed for an affair.” Kachka’s vulgar and misogynist suggestion is that Jean Stafford should have suffered in silence. But he doesn’t stop there. Boris Kachka, a man who will never be a poet or a novelist or a journalist of any renown, actually has the temerity to write that “Giroux patiently endured broken deadlines,” as if Stafford’s great difficulty with a mentally unstable and philandering husband was some commonplace household task. It was likely that the pressure to produce in these conditions led Stafford to bolt to Random House, but the doltish Kachka actually writes this sentence: “It’s difficult to tell exactly what drove Jean Stafford away.” One can easily hear Peter Sellers speaking this line in a French accent.

Does Kachka stop embarrassing himself? Not at all. In 1963, A.J. Lebiling, Stafford’s third husband and the man who she experienced the most happiness with, died at the early age of 59. This premature death crushed Stafford and made it difficult for her to write fiction. But don’t tell that to the clueless and insensitive Kachka, who neglects to mention any of this when writing about FSG’s 1967 author compilation:

Giroux used it as a chance to prod another of his flailing depressives, Jean Stafford, to finish her autobiographical novel “A Parliament of Women,” only to receive the reply: “There is no book and I don’t know if there ever will be.” There never was.

A flailing depressive? Is that all she was? Never mind that Stafford would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Stories — an FSG book. Kachka does not mention this Pulitzer at all. Nor does this sexist pig point out that Stafford was good friends with Roger’s wife, Dorothea Straus. How many author-publisher relationships did Dorothea salvage? We may never know, because it doesn’t fit into Kachka’s “gentleman’s profession” template.

But Hothouse‘s greatest folie de grandeur is the notion that FSG willfully positioned itself as the most distinguished American publisher under Straus’s watch. Many of the Nobel winners that FSG published in the pre-Galassi days emerged by accident. Indeed, the publisher then and now has stayed alive publishing blockbuster authors like Scott Turow, Thomas Friedman, and Tom Wolfe. But the big tell that Kachka is writing for a lonely audience of one is when he shakily assesses FSG’s stature based on its spine:

The Farrar, Straus logo is so engrained in the consciousness of savvy readers that seeing it on sixty-year-old Noonday compilations provokes cognitive dissonance. To say that FSC simply appropriated the logo is not enough.

Who are these savvy readers? Can they be found in Washington next to the savvy insiders? FSG survived not through loyal readers adhering to the brand, but because it gobbled up profitable publishers. But Kachka is so blind to his invented mythology that he calls Walker Percy “a true Giroux-Robbins team effort,” even though his best-known book, The Moviegoer, was published at Knopf, where editor Henry Robbins merely “had some input into Stanley Kauffmann’s heavy editing of the manuscript.” (Robbins was to flee FSG only a few years later under extremely difficult conditions. Kachka is not especially interested in investigating the high turnover among top editors, but he cannot resist inserting any moment where Straus barks, “You’ll be back,” to an FSG employee fleeing to stabler pastures.)

Perhaps Kachka’s inherent squareness and his lack of adventure, seen with his hilarious suggestion that pot passed around a publishing party was dangerous or his equally pathetic fear of legitimate 1960s actvism (“acts of protest bordering on personal threats”), is to blame for this turgid book. The title is surely no accident, given how large chunks of this book are as dull and as boring as the smooth jazz Bruce Hornsby album of the same name. If Kachka is foolish enough to continue with his floundering career as a book writer, it is almost certain that, like Hornsby, he will celebrate every 4th of July just a little tamer than most of the rest of us do.

* — During the last BookExpo America, I attended a party in which a marvelous woman I hadn’t seen in a while kissed me. Kachka stood next to her and looked at me: his small mouth agog, a pathetic paralysis infesting his slapdash bearing, a hilariously pointless anger in his insignificant eyes. He didn’t even have the balls to introduce himself or call me an asshole to my face. Some years before this, Kachka proved incapable of recognizing a clear case of performance art by telephone voicemail. He really seems to believe that it’s still the 1990s. He’s clearly not going to blossom on the clock. But I’ll be the first to buy him a drink if he does.

8/7/13 UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, prompted by a Twitter discussion of Boris Kachka’s book involving Alexander Nazaryan and Kera Bolonik, Boris Kachka told me to “go fuck yourself,” as seen in the screenshot below.


Kachka’s tweet was quickly deleted. I responded to Kachka with this reasonable reply:


Kachka replied:


So Boris Kachka, unable to refute any of this essay’s charges, prefers to take the low road — a fitting path, given how his book is so obsessed with the vulgar.

Loving (Modern Library #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Midnight’s Children)

Reading Henry Green’s Loving is a bit like going through a valise that a hardcore neat freak has spent many years packing for your once-in-a-decade vacation. You need to extract the chinos for that last summer blowout, but will your unseen friend berate you if you rustle the crisp blue oxford shirt from that fixed and implacable perch just above those promising pants? What Green has given us is a delicate book, difficult to unpack in a thousand words. It is so marvelous that you could spend a lifetime talking about it (certainly many have spent lifetimes teaching it). On the other hand, compared to Finnegans Wake (a Modern Library obligation so massive that I have started reading it early, devoting a Tumblr to my ongoing annotations), Loving may as well be a Parker novel.

We know from the outset what we’re in for. The book’s first four paragraphs alone introduce us to Eldon, Ellen, Miss Agatha Burch, Charley Raunce, and “Bert the yellow pantry boy” (a phrase almost suggesting a new band to argue about on Brooklyn Vegan) — all hired help within the sprawling confines of Kinalty Castle, a manse manifesting upstairs and downstairs shenanigans that is situated about a hundred miles from Dublin and carrying on during the early days of World War II (when Ireland was neutral). There is also an Edith and a Evelyn, perpetuating Green’s affinity for character names starting with the second vowel. And not long later, we meet another Bert who arrives at this estate. We learn that the IRA possesses two interpretive acronyms.

This perceptive flexibility within names is matched by a perceptive flexibility within sentences, many divested of commas: “Then one morning while they were at their dinner in the servants’ hall that telephone began to ring away in the pantry.” Green’s style suggests a fixed quality, but what kept me reading was the possibility of disorder and transgression. Miss Burch, the martinet-minded head housemaid, tells us, “Take someone out of their position in life and you find a different person altogether, yes.” And, yes, as peacocks and rings disappear and as couples are discovered in flagrante delicto, we learn that no amount of order, whether through style or action, can disrupt life’s inevitable antics. Different people are indeed revealed when they hew outside the hues with near farcical commitment. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Green has given Charley Raunce, the head footman pushing forty, eyes of differing color (“one dark one light which was arresting,” nearly matching the mysterious red and black notebooks containing shady business correspondence and creative accounting that Raunce is trying to make sense of). Raunce, a character who I liked a great deal, is sometimes good at tricking his employers (he refuses to go by the name “Arthur” upon taking Eldon’s post and offers additional demands to his masters, who are equally dismissive of Raunce and his peers out of earshot) and is sometimes a bit cruel (especially in relation to Miss Burch). But like any of us, his words and actions are understood, justified, and humanized by his love. He sends money to his mother and urges her to purchase an Anderson shelter. He is concerned about a sister who works in a gun factory. He confronts his love for Edith and the manner in which he proposes is strikingly diffident:

“You have it any way you want,” Raunce explained. “I thought just to mention her that’s all, Mrs. Charley Raunce,” he announced in educated accents. “There you are eh?” He seemed to be gathering confidence.

From passive explanation to “educated accents” to a nervous “There you are eh?” to prototypical confidence. Words, in some instances, are no match for living. Unsurprisingly, this was something that Green thought about a good deal. As he wrote in his memoir Pack My Bag:

Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone, and feelings are not bounded by the associations common to place names or to persons with whom the reader is unexpectedly familiar.

In a 1958 Paris Review interview, Terry Southern suggested that some people had referred to Green as a “writer’s writer’s writer.” And it may be this commitment to the unexpressed and to the unbound that has made Henry Green a tricky and needlessly neglected writer, despite his well-earned presence on the Modern Library list.

Weeks ago, I asked a savvy friend, who was rightly chiding me for my wine-infused malapropisms, over dinner if she had read Loving. She confessed that she had and that she had not understood it. And I must confess that it took me three attempts before I was in the right mood to finish Loving, with the final and fortuitous push occurring as I was housesitting in the Hudson Valley.

But my efforts were worth it. Because once you slow to Green’s pace and begin to understand that nearly every sentence contains some insight, Loving reveals itself in interesting ways. Just before proposing to Edith, Raunce says, “But it’s not the truth that matters. It’s what’s believed.” This paraphrase of Goebbels had me wondering if Raunce’s shyness had anything to do with invasion anxiety. When Mrs. Tennant loses her ring and, after considerable misunderstandings, confesses, “It’s not the money I’m worried about, the thing had memories for me that money couldn’t buy,” I had to ask why Mrs. Tennant couldn’t cleave to the memories inside her own head. Was the wild goose chase to find the ring (along with the wild peacock chasing seen elsewhere) merely an effort to fill a void?

And what are we to make of the unusually sensuous foot massages and naked frolicking beneath the eiderdown that Kate and Edith practice in the small room they share in the attic? This is especially interesting (and not the way you’re thinking), because Edith later discovers Mrs. Jack in bed with a man who is not her husband (“two humps of body, turf over graves under those pink bedclothes”) and, shortly after this startling discovery, Edith is drawn more to Raunce. Did Edith seek out a “normal” arrangement with Raunce because she was exposed to the naked truth of a dissolute marriage? (Does this also explain why Kate devotes herself to cleaning and grooming the dim and uncouth Paddy?) I spent some time poring over what scholars had to say about Loving over the years, and I was somewhat surprised that this development had not been remarked upon all that much. Was Green somewhat ahead of the curve on lesbian relationships? Or were Kate and Edith’s topless adventures yet another “loving” galvanized by innocent efforts to get through the day?

These intriguing uncertainties are mirrored by the limitless illusions contained within the castle. We encounter “a large map of the country elaborately painted over the mantlepiece,” part of a clock that Raunce needs to rewind. Outside the castle, we discover “the complete copy of a Greek temple.” And when Raunce becomes (love)sick, he contains his neck in a scarf, with Miss Burch quipping that “he makes out the glands are enlarged.” These descriptive facades permit us to understand that the castle is a trompe-l’oeil for human connection. No hard schematic will suffice. And yet look how much we think we know when presented with such precision!

Some of Green’s grandest groomsmen don’t quite understand this point. In How Fiction Works, James Wood appraises the moment when Raunce notices Edith’s dark eyes, which catch the light “like plums dipped in cold water.” He suggests that because this “metaphor is not explicitly tied into character,” it is a successful example of a metaphor that “has been newly painted before our eyes” or “the kind of [poetic] metaphor that this particular character or community would produce.” But this snap of the key doesn’t quite undo the lock. Wood doesn’t observe that Raunce has been laughed at by his fellow footmen for the hued duality in his eyes, and that this moment of beauty, cadged during a stray moment, connotes some common eccentricity that is both within the world and shared between Raunce and Edith.

John Updike was a big fan of Henry Green, especially impressed by how “the spaces between the words are warm, and the strangeness is mysteriously exact, the strangeness of the vial.” While it’s very easy for any impassioned style geek to lap up Green’s exactitude like an eight-year-old let loose in a candy store (and let me be clear on this: I certainly did), it is important to remember that Green’s fiction is, first and foremost, about the invitational qualities of inexplicable existence. Or as Raunce himself says, “It’s human nature you’ve got to keep count of.”

Next Up: Jack London’s Call of the Wild!

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.

Solving the Literary Critical Crisis

Nigel Beale points to some startlingly reactionary remarks from Salon’s “Internet Killed the Critical Star” article. Now that I’ve read this “discussion” a second time, Nigel is right. Why would anyone go to the trouble of reading a literary critic if there is “no intention of ever opening books they tout?” Is Miller really so recalcitrant a reader that she’s incapable of picking up a book that James Wood has liked and deciding for herself whether it’s any good? Is she seriously suggesting that there isn’t a single work of fiction overlapping her tastes and Wood’s tastes? This strikes me as a sad, incurious, and mononuclear existence. Perhaps Miller prefers a supplemental relationship with literature, as opposed to something that involves the book itself!

Here is my solution to the literary critical “crisis”: To ensure that those practicing literary criticism still maintain some passion for books, I think that all literary critics should be asked what they read for fun. Not a list of the greatest books. Just the last thing they read for fun. If the literary critic cannot name a single book that made them laugh, filled them with joy, or otherwise caused them to get excited over the last year, then the guilty literary critic should be banned from writing for any newspaper or periodical for a six-month period until they can truly embrace a love for literature. This should weed out the dullards and the dimwits and the humorless individuals who transform the promising pastures of literary criticism into soporific fallow.


  • 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.]

The Irresponsible Self

“A genre is hardening. It is becoming possible to describe today’s ‘big, ambitious novel.’ Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens.” — James Wood, “Hysterical Realism.”

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Both of these opening sallies conjure the ominous, sharing a rhythmic persuasiveness that holds the reader’s attention hostage. Both too vibrate with the sincerity of deeply held belief. They exemplify what Northrop Frye has defined as High Style: sentences that seem to come from inside ourselves, as though the soul itself were remembering what it had been told so long ago, unmistakably heard in the voice of an individual facing a mob, or some incarnation of the mob spirit.

Both men argue against dehumanization: Marx in commerce; Wood in literature. Here again is Wood, attacking the mob; outing the enemy:

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, and these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Such recent novels as Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, DeLillo’s Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges.

The conventions of realism are not being abolished, he continues, but are exhausted and overworked. “Such diversity! So many stories! So many weird and funky characters! Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation… props of the imagination, meaning’s toys… The existence of vitality is mistaken for the drama of vitality…Connections are merely conceptual, rather than human. It is all shiny externality, a caricature.”

So smells the skunk Wood loosens upon contemporary (and primarily American) novelists. There’s no mistaking its odor. In his essay, “Anna Karenina and Characterization,” we learn, with equal clarity, what he prefers: Tolstoy’s characters, and the comfort with which they move and live in their own skins. As with Shakespeare, “they feel real to us in part because they feel so real to themselves, take their own universes for granted.” Tolstoy starts with a description of the body which fixes a character’s essence, says Wood, essences that are referred to repeatedly in the novel. Wood uses Tolstoyean characters as yardsticks throughout the rest of his essays to repeatedly beat the Dickens out of novels that lack human detail and dynamism.

Writing about German author Wilhelm Von Polenz, Tolstoy himself suggests that the greatest novelists love their characters and add little details which force readers to pity and love them as well, notwithstanding all their coarseness and cruelty. Chekhov, whose name is also invoked throughout Wood’s oeuvre, is repeatedly praised as an exemplar of such an author, one who resists conclusion, and loves his characters from afar.

Wood tells us with precise, bold, and often unbelievably beautiful artistry exactly what is good, and how and why it’s good. Isaac Babel’s “atomic” prose is unique because of its discontinuities and exaggeration. “If his stories progress sideways, sliding from unconnected sentence to sentence, then the very sentences vault forward within themselves at the same moment.” J.M. Coetzee’s distinguished novels “feed on exclusion; they are intelligently starved. One always feels with this writer a zeal of omission.” “Bellow’s writing reaches for life, for the human gust.” “…it is Bellow’s genius to see the lobsters ‘crowded to the glass’ and their feelers bent by that glass –to see the riot of life in the dead peace of things.” Henry Green’s “fine determination not to prosecute a purpose…creates an exquisitely unpressing art, unlike any other. “

Wood’s essays typically start with pungent, seemingly incontrovertible axioms. “Fury, a novel that exhausts negative superlatives, that is likely to make even its most charitable readers furious, is a flailing apologia.” “Tom Wolfe’s novels are placards of simplicity. His characters are capable of experiencing only one feeling at a time; they are advertisements for the self: Greed! Fear! Hate! Love! Misery!”

Brief plot summaries follow, then close textual reading, reference to a startling breadth of comparable works, insight into specific titles and literature’s larger landscape, and biographical, contextual background detail. The “man” is not separated from the work. Deftly chosen illustrative quotations frequent the page inspiring the reader to run to where they came from.

But it’s not organization that makes these essays so bracing. It’s a wicked combination of unassailable style and blunt, clear judgment; bold aesthetic valuation and invitation to the unknown. Rosso Malpelo represents Giovanni Verga’s greatest tragicomic achievement. The Radetzky March is Joseph Roth’s greatest novel. Too Loud a Solitude is Bohumil Hrabal’s finest book. The best of J.F. Powers’s stories are “surely among the finest written by an American.” There is no academic conditional here, but there is the occasional whiff of pedantry. “Jonathan Franzen’s aesthetic solution to the social novel – the refuge of sentences – is, I think, the right one, or at least one of them, but his reasons for arriving at it are the wrong ones…” If I were Franzen, I wouldn’t be too happy with this treatment.

In his confidence, Wood recalls Edmund Wilson. Both tend to pontificate with an authoritative tone bordering on arrogant. Here’s the latter on G.K. Chesterton, whose writing on Dickens and elsewhere “is always melting away into that pseudo-poetic booziness which verbalizes with large conceptions and ignores the most obtrusive actualities.” In his first collection of essays, The Broken Estate, Wood points out that Thomas Pynchon’s novels have the “agitated density of a prison.” Instead of “agitated density,” Wilson uses “nervous concentration” to describe the vivid colours of Edwin Drood.

which make upon us an impression more disturbing than the dustiness, the weariness, the dreariness, which set the tone for Our Mutual Friend. In this new novel, which is to be his last, Dickens has found a new intensity. The descriptions of Cloisterham are among the best written in all his fiction: they have a nervous concentration and economy – nervous in the old fashioned sense – that produces a rather different effect from anything one remembers in the work of his previous phases.

One could say there is no middle ground with Wood. But that would be wrong. While he lionizes the best — Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and a handful of little read foreign writers — and crucifies the worst — Salman Rushdie and Tom Wolfe — he shows both sides of his hand to the rest. Bellow is his only contemporary hero. He praises and punishes Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and J.M Coetzee, and writes endearingly about V.S. Pritchett, and Henry Green, of whom Elizabeth Bowen once said, “his novels reproduce, as few English novels do, the actual sensations of living.” Green himself, quoted in a John Updike introduction to his works, said that his intention was to use noun, verb and adjective “to create ‘life’ which does not eat, procreate or drink, but which can live in people who are alive.” Little wonder Wood is a fan.

What The Irresponsible Self gives us in essay after essay is guidance and sharp opinion. We also get — and this is what ensures that these essays will stay news — a virtually unmatched capacity to employ cage rattling, sentence-stopping metaphor, and antithesis. These dazzling juxtapositions frequently demand a pause to utter the word ‘Wow!’

“Pride, one might say, is the sin of humble people and humility is the punishment for proud people, and each reversal represents a kind of self-punishment.” “The novel [The Radetzky March]’s formal beauty flows from its dynastic current, which irrigates the very structure of the book.” “Atlanta in the 1990s is a forest of typologies, all of them swaying in Wolfe’s gale-force prose.” “The language is oddly thick fingered – from a writer capable of such delicacy – and stubs itself into the vernacular….”

Two words that Wood uses magnificently have stayed with me since reading. I doubt they’ll ever leave. Of a typical Isaac Babel paragraph, “each sentence seems to disavow its role in the ordinary convoy of meaning and narrative, and appears to want to begin the story anew. And “…Svevo essentially garaged his writing for twenty years.”

Occasionally, however, fancy phrase work trips into the too clever. “Mistress Quickly’s irrelevances, like those of her fictional heirs in Chekhov and Joyce, are sad and funny because they have the aspect of remembered detail but the status of forgotten detail.”

Overall, the quantum of considered thought and the unjargoned artistry with which it is expressed, constitute the strength of this essay collection. Its weakness, if there is one, resides in its introduction entitled “Comedy and the Irresponsible Self.” As Elizabeth Bowen once said, too many prefaces to collections make rather transparent attempts to bind. Wood’s thesis is that modern readers no longer laugh cruelly or correctively at fictional characters, but rather empathize with them ‘gloriously,’ exist with them in the same mixed dimension, share their emotions, and laugh with them through tears. Modern fiction creates uncertainty through incomplete knowledge, which prompts the reader to merge with the characters in order to find out why they do the things they do, or how to “read” certain passages.

This is not a new insight. Socrates saw the connection between tragedy and comedy, as did Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and others. Charles Lamb in the early 19th century, saw laughter as an overflow of sympathy, an amiable feeling of identity with what is disreputably human. In the 20th century, critics have pointed to the inherent absurdity of human existence, namely the irrational, inexplicable, nonsensical , chaotic –the comic. Related to Wood’s incomplete knowledge, critic Wylie Sypher, in an essay written in the 1950s put it this way: “The deepest ‘meanings’ of art therefore arise wherever there is an interplay between patterns of surface-perception and the pressures of depth-perception. Then the stated meanings will fringe off into unstated and unstatable meanings of great power, felt dimly but compellingly. “

Although Wood rides his idea on irresponsibility into many of these essays, it comes up lame. It’s unoriginal, and too weak to bind these essays together retroactively. And if this isn’t bad enough, the examples he uses to illustrate humor just aren’t funny.

Another theme wends its way through the essays quite naturally however, the one labeled Hysterical Realism. Wood hammers the same nail through the whole book, railing against cartoonish, stereotypical characters, and the primacy of information over human emotion. This argument, while better suited to the collection, is itself an old one. E.M. Forster makes it in Aspects of the Novel, “We may hate humanity, but if it is exorcised or even purified the novel wilts, little is left but a bunch of words. And here’s Peter Ackroyd, in The Listener in 1981: “Some of the more recent American novels…seem to me to be hollow, written at a forced pace, preoccupied with literary special effects, and unable to deal with human beings in other than generalized and stereotypical terms…It is too dazzled by such things [contemporary technology] to allow much space in its language for the workings of human agency. It is a language of power, one in which reality is seen as a phenomenon which can be easily manipulated and controlled…American novelists who live within this language, and whose perceptions are determined by it, are uniquely ill-equipped to deal with human motives and responses, and as a result they are also unable to present any convincing account of their own human society.” What does seem fresher, more original, is Wood’s interest in characters who behave consistently, who remain true to themselves, who live and act according to their own rules.

If Wood’s confident tone recalls Edmund Wilson, the cadence of his prose, and to some extent its content, sounds most like Virginia Woolf. Here she is on modernism, and breaking away from the constrictions of providing plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest, an air of probability:

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?”

The essays in Wood’s book appeared in slightly different form in several well known literary magazines. Unfortunately, minor changes were made to his famous Hysterical Realism piece. Instead of “When [Zadie] Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal,” Wood changes “a great deal” to the more sycophantic “almost anything.” The same passage illustrating “brilliant free indirect style” is quoted, but a new paragraph is added after it, starting with the phrase “That is a fabulous bit of writing…” Nothing detrimental to his argument. His direct, unfudged criticisms remain. But it’s just a little disappointing to think that adjustments may have been made for personal, rather than hermeneutic reasons.

Edmund Wilson understood why great reviewer critics are so rare: the pay is lousy, the work Sisyphean. It’s difficult to attract talent under these circumstances, which is why Wilson maintained that it might be a profitable idea for some editor to get a really able writer on literature and make it worth his while to do a weekly column. “He should not be expected to cover what is published, but to write each week of a man or a book. This would prove valuable for the magazine and for the literary world in general.” New Yorker editor David Remnick has chosen to take Wilson’s 73-year-old advice by hiring a really able writer, whose work will now be read by more than a million readers per issue. For lovers of the literary this is to be celebrated.

Wood not only writes ebullient, meticulous exegesis, he’s also an accomplished polemicist. One who has dropped a dirty great big conventional human fart atop the heads of some of America’s best loved contemporary novelists. DeLillo, Pynchon, Wolfe, Franzen, Moody, Foster Wallace — they all just sit there, refusing to accept convention, either incapable of doing anything, or too damned lazy to refute what he’s saying. To date, Wood’s criticisms have gone unanswered save for the odd reactionary calls. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had balls and brains enough to take him on systematically or intelligently?

In The Irresponsible Self, James Wood stakes a position and argues it with serious zeal. He writes with greater humanity, passion and insight than most of the contemporary novelists he is tasked with reviewing. One can’t ask more of a critic. We’ve seen him in action, and we are humbled. His next book, How Fiction Works, will tell us how he does it.