Friday, June 20, 2008


Although I disagree (sometimes fundamentally) with many of the opinions and interpretations in this collection of James Wood's reviews, I found myself reaching the book's end with the wish that it were longer. High praise indeed for a collection of critical essays. Even when Wood is wrong (as he often is!) he's worth arguing with, worth thinking about, and that's the sign of a very good critic, a Kael or a Vidal or an Edmund Wilson (to use the George Steiner tic that Wood so deliciously mocks). James Wood is not an easy man to ignore.

The fundamental problem with Wood's criticism is his overestimation of Jane Austen. Austen is his touchstone for literary greatness (he even compares Gogol to Austen, for pete's sake!), and this greatly limits his ability to appreciate Modern and Postmodern literature. Analyzing Pynchon or Morrison or DeLillo according to criteria abstracted from close readings of Mansfield Park and Emma is rather like judging sportscars in terms of the design specs for horse-drawn carriages. Wood's carriage of choice may be the finest ever made, but its excellence is beside the point when the subject is Ferraris.

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