Monday, August 18, 2008

Wood on Lit, Kirn on Wood

I was a little nervous to pick up James Wood's How Fiction Works. As I said a few posts ago, I don't love Wood's book reviewing, though I respect his intelligence and erudition. But there is something seductive about How Fiction Works...the physical artifact itself is quite beautiful, with its retro text-only cover printed on matte stock, and the text tightly situated within generous margins. It looks and feels like it might well be a small gem.

It pretty much is. It a smart, entertaining, rather haphazard guide to reading and writing fiction, filled with great quotations from Wood's copious bookshelf, and spangled with surprising personal touches, such as his description of a debate he has with his wife at a concert, or his memories of being read Beatrix Potter as a child.

This isn't what I expected. Wood is famous for disliking things--Don DeLillo for instance, and postmodernism--but here we find him, for the most part, in a rather jovial mode. The book is ninety per cent praise, and the big news here is that Wood is much better at praise (for Flaubert and Chekhov, especially) than he is at criticism. When something raises his ire here, he tends to overstate his case (David Foster Wallace's "hideously ugly" language, Roland Barthes' "murderous hostility" to realism), and he has an unappealing tendency to enclose concepts he finds distasteful, such as Amazon "reader reviews" and creative writing "workshops," in quotation marks. But when he likes things, he is eloquent, charming even: "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins with him." Or, during a discussion of metaphor: "In New York City, the garbage collectors call maggots 'disco rice.' That is as good as anything I have been discussing."

In his book reviews, Wood seems always to be constructing himself a literary Alamo from which to fight his losing battle--he is dour in his defense of realism. I wish he would let his guard down more often, as he does here. People's complaint about him seems to be that he is a snob, but what of it? Wood is trying to uphold certain standards, and this is an admirable goal. Personally, I find his taste rather narrow (I happen to find Wallace's language beautiful), but the stuff he knows, he knows the hell out of. In How Fiction Works, his knowing is a force for good. I recommend it.

I hardly know how to begin to address the subject of Walter Kirn's review in this past Sunday's NYTBR, however. Like me, Kirn is bothered by some of Wood's nastier turns of phrase, and, also like me, he could have done without the book's condescending introduction. But after that, Kirn loses his cool. The review is a diffuse, embarrasing rant that seethes with professional jealousy and class paranoia. He openly mocks Wood's erudition, as if it's a bad thing, and tries his best to make Wood look like a pampered pussy. "He flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket," goes a parenthetical aside, "whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic."

Kirn, who, according to his Wikipedia page, went to Princeton and married the daughter of a movie star, really ought to get down off his low horse. I don't understand what his problem is--he's probably the most-read book reviewer in the entire world. Yet his review bristles and spits, and collapses into an anti-elitist screed, like a John McCain campaign ad. Read the review if you must, but don't let it stop you from enjoying the Wood book, which is a welcome addition to the canon of popular literary criticism, a genre I feared was dead.


Matt said...

Good insights. I read the NYT review yesterday - in spite of the critique, I was still compelled enough by what I read to want to read Wood's book, if only for the arguments.

Anonymous said...

Between yours and Newsweek's review, I think I have enough of an argument to go down to the local megastore and pick this up.

Anonymous said...

What did Newsweek say?

Anonymous said...

I read Kirn's car wreck of a review with fascination -- it makes you wonder what's up with Kirn, who's managed to reveal a lot more about his own anxieties and preoccupations than anything about Wood's book. I agree -- he really does need to get off his low horse!

I liked your review, by the way -- and I ordered Wood's book on the strength of it. I LIKE the flash of plaid, the references to the Iliad, the nod to Henry James, and even look forward to finding out what these things have in common with Peter Rabbit.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, that snooty professorial shit is just the ticket. I mean, the man wants to be a self-styled expert, I am happy to let him. And if it sounds sometimes as though he thinks he's smarter than me, well, perhaps he is.

All that said, the book really is not stuffy--it's accessible and entertaining, and the fact that Wood goes out of his way to let you know that he's trying to do this, in my mind, doesn't detract from my enjoyment.

I'm sick of intelligent people pandering to conventional tastes and morals. Wood says what he thinks without giving a damn how insufferable he might be, and I respect him for it.

Anonymous said...

I strongly agree, JR.

Regardless of what you think of Wood, you have to admire the strength of his convictions. He wrote a fine book. It outlines the fiction he considers good, and - in plain, clear fashion - explains why. His arguments are cogent, and the examples used to back these arguments are very well selected.

He's also provocative, almost pugilistic.

Kirn's review was embarrassing. He acted the part of the baffled dignitary stuttering with outrage seconds after being slapped with a riding glove. I think it'll take a few weeks - if not longer - for the good stuff to make print.

Personally, I can't wait for DFW's response. I wonder if others - Delillo, Updike, Roth - will weigh in.