June 17, 2005



I love your take on Krauss' book, TEV, and I consider myself a fairly devoted Woods fan as well (even read his only so-so novel last year), but he's as purely fallible as anyone else and obviously on the wrong track about this imperfectly wonderful book, which I read in galleys and have been recommending to any and all since then. And hey, Laura Miller got it just as wrong as Woods did in that air-headed thing she wrote about it early on.


A very interesting post. I found that Claire Messud's take on A History of Love was more accurate than James Wood's. Part of the point of Krauss' book is that Gursky is such an anachronism, a person so out of kilter with the world that he acts in a stilted way. I found him believable, even if I was frustrated by the (lack) of relationship with his son and neighbor upstairs. He is damaged goods. Krauss' opening pages with the description of Gursky are some of the best I have ever read.


Thanks, Mark. You pinned my main trouble with Wood's argument, the plausibility/"people really aren't like that" line of critique. Mainly, because as you say, I can think of many, many amazing books where people don't behave realistically (from Rushdie to Wodehouse).

My other objection was that Wood never moored the argument with a discussion of the author's intentions regarding realism: Was she trying to write a realistic book? It doesn't seem so, she seems to me to be working in a different tradition, and so it seemed odd when he started picking around those "it's not realistic" type charges.

That said, I thought some points — like that Leo's card is unpunctuated and child-like yet he's said to have written a fantastic novel - were fair enough. Even if a novel is fabulistic it should stay true to its own universe.

Krauss is an exciting author, and I'm so glad to see her admirers stand true.

I am curious about your thoughts on sentimentality in literature as my own take is that there is a fairly large group of writers now in their 30-somethings whose work is now rather awash in sentiment and a clear desire for rapture, and that at least some of the work suffers as a result. (I would say — and I should say first that I'm a fan of his - that Dave Eggers' work is frequently marred by an outburst of sentiment cum rapture that overwhelms the writing, as is Foer's, and others. Don't make me name names. :-)) I privately call this "Going all Molly Bloom" though it doesn't always manifest so directly as "yes I said yes I will" ...

It strikes me that if fiction were in a dialectic, the cool (Carveresqe?) emotion of the 80s and 90 has been giving way to the excessive-emotion of the late 90s and 2000s, and that now there should be a synthesis ahead, where people can write with emotion -- as you say -- without losing the reins.

Those have been my own thoughts. But I'm eager to hear the take of others.

Outer Life

If I want realism, I'll just open my door and walk outside into the real world. When I don't, I read.

And when I read I'm willing to give my head completely over to the writer, permitting him or her to manipulate it at will, turning my emotions on and off as he or she pleases, provided, of course, that the book engages me.

But engagement requires characters that are believable, at least at first. I have a hard time identifying with cartoon characters, for instance, hardly caring what they do in a book. Perhaps that is Woods' problem with the book, his inability to see the Gursky character as anything other than in ineptly-drawn cartoon character, a distraction that prevents him from engaging with the book. I haven't read the book but, from Woods' description, it sounds like I too would have a hard time permitting a book that contained such a cartoon to take me anywhere meaningful.

So I guess I'm a realist after all.


OL, I don't think Leo is a cartoon - it may be that Wood hasn't spent enough time in shul to realize that ...

Carrie, it's funny that you mention Eggers. I don't really think of him as sentimental because, like DFW, everything he does is so shot through with distancing irony that it feels a bit like a cheat anyway - something Wood accuses Krauss of in the full review.

My own feeling is that the generation you're referring to is much more prone to the same sort of cool, ironic detachment and veers anxiously away from displays of emotion. (I think it's important, perhaps, to distinguish earnestness - which rampantly afflicts said generation - and sentimentality.)

But what do I know - I'm just a big sentimentalist ...


Can't comment on Krauss' novel but -- When does emotion become sentiment? Maybe the two never meet at all? -- Perhaps sentiment is just the cheap easy simulation of emotion -- the gestures and poses of emotion -- but empty at the core, because nothing real has been built there, no real sense of character or what is at stake or what has been lost or gained. Sentiment is smoke and mirrors -- or, as Hamlet put it, words, words, words. Sentiment is on-the-nose writing; sentiment is false because it is generalized -- a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie. Emotion is specific to the character and situation being demonstrated. Emotion is evoked through careful and multilayered use of craft. Sentiment is shoved in the reader's face. The reader might even be happy to choke it down, but (let's hope) won't respect him/herself in the morning.


SPOT ON, TEV. I love the Krauss book and I am all for big and open-hearted and emotional writing and think that's a much braver approach to fiction than the irony machine that seems to have flattened all the fiction and music and film that my generation seems to be turning out. (In fact, when I saw "Garden State" last year I couldn't stop recommending it to people not because it was the best film I'd ever seen but because I was so impressed, shocked, and relieved to see something so irony-free and emotionally immediate come out of a writer/director my age.) Just getting through every day in this hyper-culture dulls me sufficiently that I crave emotional immediency in my art to remind me I'm a person, not a girl-bot.


I know the distancing devices of which you speak, dear TEV, but that isn't what I meant. What I'm trying to describe are little raptures that erupt on the page, where the story is completely given over to "oh my god yes yes" -ness. It's easy to drop Eggers' name as that's how he ends AHWOSG (though it's more a furious rapture than an orgasmic one, and too bad as some of the writing that precedes it is so magnificent in its controlled fury and grief) — but I've seen it done by many other writers, enough to start wondering about it. Is it the cathartic release of someone regaining touch with their feelings? Or the sign of an exhausted author giving way to a crest of emotion? I dunno, just think it's interesting, and certainly a reaction to ... something.

Related to it is the appearance in some stories of emotion wrapped in cuteness, or feyness, which may be a method, as you say, to distance the emotion by dressing it up (here in a whimsical cleverness instead of in irony). Or maybe it's an attempt to work in the vein of Lorrie Moore, who is so good at showing how the very sad is often very funny and I think is (quite rightly) looked up to by a lot of 30-something writers. Again, I don't know — the reason is probably different author to author. But this does sometimes come off (for me, at least) as an easy kind of sentimentality as opposed to an honest declaration of emotion. Thin line, isn't it?

Thanks, Mark, for opening up such an interesting line of discussion.


Yes, thin line, indeed. That's the hardest and most maddening part. For example, in my main post, I note that Max Tivoli was considered by detractors to be sentimental - and I even conceded the possibility of some truth there. Yet when I apply it to Justine's excellent definition, then I don't think it's sentimental at all. The book feels honest, heartfelt and earned.

It ends up feeling so arbitrary and subjective ... earnest=bad but heartfelt=good or ironic=bad but sentiment=worse ... I think what it boils down to for me is that too many young novelists have abandoned the terrain of the heart in favor for much of the noise and stimulation Wood complains about. But I've been accused of being a bit retro in my preference for the quiet over the frenetic ...


Oh, amusing aside. I am, it has been noted, the world's worst Jew - or at least most ignorant one. So it's kind of hilarious to me that, since reading HOL and having my head filled with Gursky vernacular, I now hear the line from DMB's "When the World Ends" which goes:

We’re gonna dive into the emptiness

as "We're gonna daven to the emptiness ... "


D. Johnson

I think this critique of Wood's review is bit off though very interesting. It isn't the realism or lack of realism as such that Wood is objecting to. A lot is made of James Wood, the defender of an absolute realism, but there’s also James Wood the lover of Dickens, Quixote, and Hrabal.

All of Wood's criticisms aren't of the things Krauss has written, what he's saying is that she hasn't done it. That, in fact, one COULD do these things--if one were a better writer than Krauss. And (somewhat circularly) that a better writer than Krauss could have navigated the implausible more fluently, anchoring it, modulating it, in short—making it real.

Hrabal and Dickens populate the world with the absurd. Krauss uses the absurd but doesn't populate with it. "Populate" would mean embodying the absurd in people and there are no people in this aesthetic. Just two-dimensional Singer knock-offs.

Foer and Krauss are both authors whose connection to what they depict is largely literary. These are authors who don't admire Singer, they take him for the world. Even when they look at the world, they say, look at that—it’s just like in Singer, let me write that down. That's a bad sort of influence. Their aping has a put-on feel because there's nothing behind it but another author, a better one.

Which makes me wonder what he thinks of Foer, both novels, books that seem to have taken the indictment in "Hysterical Realism" as a blueprint.

And more than the Zadie Smith, look at the distinction he makes in why Kafka works and Toni Morrison doesn’t in the Morrison essay.

(I often wonder what Wood would think of Murakami's better work, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle say, a book where the relentlessly absurd is grounded in the relentlessly mundane through the lived experience of the characters and then all spun out into a thriller.)

The crucial passage for this distinction is in the set-up at the beginning of "What Chekhov Meant By Life" when Wood objects to a production of Ibsen's The Doll's House--and then cites Chekhov's objection to Ibsen, Chekhov saying something like "in life it just isn't like that". He's not saying that WHAT Ibsen is writing is implausible just that Ibsen doesn't make it plausible in HOW he writes it.

As for sentiment, the same distinction goes, it’s only sentimental if it’s bad writing. It’s not possible to be sentimental in good writing. Hard-core ironists are hiding the fact that they can’t manage sentiment. But that isn’t the line Wood is taking. Again, he’s saying she’s made a hash of it, rather than she shouldn’t have done it.

Jacky Treehorn

Wood hit it on the nose. In a rush of sentiment, which may come from an honest place, the author loses readers who feel her characters have not earned it. Unfortunately this is all to common in 'quasi-religious' writing. TEV, in your remarks you say Wood has not sat Shul enough..?




This is an interesting post and rebuttal, Mark. I confess I read Wood's review with a growing sense of dread, though. In the novel I'm working on now there is a section where one of my characters falls in love, and I've been trying to convey the emotion without giving in to sentimentality. The toughest part is to do that without allowing an internal editor dictate how it should be written. If the character is real, if the world the writer creates is real, the most appropriate "amount" of feeling will follow.

Justine: I think your point about emotion vs. sentimentality is spot on.


Where the very thin line on emotionality vs. sentimentality lies is totally subjective as far as I can tell. If, like Woods, you can't get past a certain aspect of a character, then the emotion in a book is going to be sentimental no matter what. If you buy totally into the characters, their lives, their world, then it will be emotional. I always found what everyone calls the cool lack of emotion of the 80s realists very emotional, even heartbreaking at times (of course, the work of that era is what I grew up on, what got me into reading and writing for the love of it). Emotion is everything when I read. I absolutely have to be moved or why bother -- even poetry, often all about language only works if its moving.

I've been extremely moved by wildly diveregent types of books. All of the craft contributes, language alone can carry things pretty far, and mastery of tht can make me believe in a far fetched character that I otehrwise wouldn't if the language weren't so well handled, making me trust the author. Where it all comes together is different for everyone. As writers we desperately want to know where that line is and be on the right side of it, emotional but not sentimental, but I think making the world and characters of the story believable in its own closed system is the only way to do it. Magical realism works despite the magical realism, because you know going in that magical things (things Americans don't seen in real life) are going to take place. You suspend belief. If you can't then you won't be moved. This is a fascinating subject to examine, but I don't think there's a real answer. It's going to be different for every matchup of book and reader. Even things I thought were very emotional when I was younger, read now like sentimental crap. So even within myself this stuff changes.


Dan Green

"it may be that Wood hasn't spent enough time in shul to realize that..."

This seems to me the heart of the matter. Exactly what makes Wood an expert on what is properly "Jewish" and what not? Does Wood have a better idea of what "Jewishness" consists of than Nicole Krauss? Perhaps it's James Wood who's read too much I.B. Singer.

Wood says he does not "believe Krauss when she tells me. . . ." But Krauss doesn't tell him anything. Her book has a narrator who relates a story. Even the narrator doesn't "tell" him anything. Perhaps Wood finds this narrator unconvincing, but the passages you cite seem awfully ad hominen to me. He gives the impression of being personally affronted by the author.

D. Johnson

[Wood says he does not "believe Krauss when she tells me. . . ." But Krauss doesn't tell him anything.]

The phrasing is an attack in itself and intentionally so. It is never necessary to say, "I believe writer x" when writer x is successful, the question never arises.

Surely you've had the experience of coming to the end of a paragraph and saying, "no. I don't buy it." The review is suggesting that the author is much more present (more real) than her creations, that the reader feels spoken to by the author rather than by the book. When this happens, you know that whatever else is happening- good or bad- the novel is failing on some level.

Wood is dead-on on the depiction question as far as I'm concerned, but not as dead-on as Adam Begley in the NYRB. For me it's the quaint factor that's so jarring.


I don't subscribe to the LRB, alas. But I have a major problem with this:

"Krauss fervently believes that Gursky is Jewish. But he is not Jewish. He is a literary idea of Jewish. He is the pampered notion, the precious dream, of his overdetermined literary parentage, all the Singer and Babel that Krauss has been reading."

Who the hell is Wood to determine what is Jewish and what isn't? Perhaps Gursky is not Jewish to Wood's perspective, but he may very well be Jewish -- either in a tertiary or direct sense -- to other readers. This strikes me as a bafflingly literal interpretation of a novel, which at its best might work in some abstract sense, much like emotions themselves. (There's also the troubling component of a "literary idea" not being able to take on a visceral life of its own, which is also a limited and debilitating way to look at literature.)

I suspect that Wood is banging his head against the wall of his own limited view of literature -- in other words, anything that isn't "treacly" or "hysterical realism." In the Wood universe, a novel is either realist or it isn't. A Jewish character is a Jewish character. A muffin is a muffin. A door is a door. And apparently there can be no wild fusion of the many elements (in other words, emotions) that not only speak of the human condition, but profile it all of its ambiguous emotional and imaginative truths.

Well, personally, I'd rather see an ambitious writer dare to bare her soul than produce yet another uninteresting middlebrow novel about a middle-aged, middle-class protagonist.

D. Johnson

And I say again- read the review.

By saying Leo is a literary idea of Jewishness, Wood is saying that Krauss fails to make him seem more than this.

He isn't saying Krauss shouldn't do x. He's saying Krauss FAILED to do x. That it's a bad book. Not a wrong book.

Hanging the "realism" thing around Wood's neck avoids the question. Read Wood on why Kafka works. Why Morrison doesn't. Why Hrabal works. Why Rushdie hasn't worked lately.

Dan Green

"By saying Leo is a literary idea of Jewishness, Wood is saying that Krauss fails to make him seem more than this"

But this implies that Wood knows the difference between a "literary idea of Jewishness" and the real thing. How does he know this?

D. Johnson

For one thing Krauss certainly dances with a very "quaint" notion of Jewishness. All the things that are cited in the quoted sections of the review are just the beginning. It isn't that these things disqualify--but what if they are not added to, not augmented, not deepened in any way?

Stereotypes prepare us for types and types can be deepened into characters. If they are not, then the stereotype must stand on its own and must take its lumps.

Wood knows what he says he knows the way any reader knows or does not know it. He has read other depictions, he has walked around in the world, he has read this book. He then compared the three.

What other way would there be to arrive at an opinion?

Dan Green

If the characters are stereotypes, that's one thing, although I don't quite see that Wood is saying that, is he? He says he "doesn't believe" various things, that they're implausible according to his version of realism. He says that Krauss is imitating other writers, whose characters are presumably not stereotypes. A "quaint" notion of Jewishness? Who gets to decide what is quaint?


Spinoza is Singer's like hunting caps are Salinger's. Best to just leave him alone.


By the way, if anyone would like to read the review in its entirety, please drop me a line and I'll email you a copy.

D. Johnson

[If the characters are stereotypes, that's one thing, although I don't quite see that Wood is saying that, is he?]

Bringing the term "minstrelry" into his review would seem to bring in stereotyping, wouldn't it?

It's exactly what's he's saying. That Krauss is using borrowed characterizations (and in an uninteresting manner) rather than creating her own.

This "who gets to decide question" is just an old relativist fall-back position. The reader gets to decide. How else could it be? You seem to be suggesting that since EACH reader gets to decide, then no one reader should assert something so conclusive or so damning.

But this is literature and fairness never had anything to do with it. That Wood gets to shout his opinion from the front page of the London Review of Books isn't the product of a decision by committee, it's because a lot of people find his readings interesting and often convincing.

I think he was dead wrong about McEwan's Saturday for example and though he seemed to like Ishiguro's new one, I think he didn't see quite how good it is. But that's not important really.

We are repeatedly told that negative reviews are bad somehow or take away from the debate. I think that this is crazy.

Wood seems to genuinely think that this is a bad book and he has put forward why he thinks so. There has been the repeated assertion that he dislikes the book because it doesn't fit his aesthetic. I think this is misguided.

Wood seems to read and THEN work out what is wrong OR right about a book. That there is a consistency to these views should be encouraging, not a reason to discount them.

Daniel Green

"Wood seems to read and THEN work out what is wrong OR right about a book."

Wrong. Couldn't be more wrong. Wood has a prejudice--for high modernist "psychological realism"--and a given book either satifies this prejudice or it doesn't. Period. If you think Wood reads in the pragmatic way you describe, you're not reading him closely enough.

D. Johnson

That summation of Wood the critic couldn't be more tired--or less complete.

It's easy to say that his readings are programmatic BECAUSE they're relatively consistent.

Have you read his recent review of David Means' very odd book of stories, The Secret Goldfish? Or his piece on Hrabal? Or his positive review of the new Ishiguro (who, as Louis Menand rightly pointed out in the New Yorker, isn't a realist at all), or his praise of Murdoch, his favorable references to Capek? Then there's the championing of Sebald, a writer who isn't really a realist of any sort.

Wood's essays will bear far more weight than you allow them.

"Wood has a prejudice--for high modernist 'psychological realism'-and a given book either satisfies this prejudice or it doesn't. Period."

If Wood really were this critic you describe, he wouldn't bear reading at all. His aesthetic extends from the works you describe but it doesn't end there.

Re-read Wood. I can't find the fellow you're describing, not even in the review above.

Here's a nice passage from his essay on Toni Morrison and why she fails,

"Fiction is threatened by magic (and vice versa). This is why most fiction is not magical, and why the great writers of magical tales--E.T.A. Hoffmann, Gogol, Kakfa, are so densely realistic."

That is, a writer can do anything, can do everything, and that's why it's so boring when he or she does.

It's the coherence that realism provides that thrills Wood, but he's willing to give any means of coherence a read. It's when a book flails about, violating itself, as this one does, that the knives come out.

Coherence. A much better Wood watch-word than realism or modernism or psychological realism. And a fairly good mark of quality.

Read again. It's an austere aesthetic to be sure and not one to follow blindly--but one always to consider. That is to say, it's an austere aesthetic but not a limited one.

Kit Stolz

Fascinating topic. I'll just throw in one observation. A good friend of mine, a Jew and a comic, recounts going to Israel and feeling as if he stepped down a rabbithole and into a cliche world. Jewish people can be annoyingly stereotypic, even to other Jews.

Dan Green

"If Wood really were this critic you describe, he wouldn't bear reading at all."

This is about what I've concluded. I can almost always guess what Wood is going to say about a particular book or writer before I've read his review. I've seldom been wrong.

Dan Green

"If Wood really were this critic you describe, he wouldn't bear reading at all."

This is about what I've concluded. I can almost always guess what Wood is going to say about a particular book or writer before I've read his review. I've seldom been wrong.

D. Johnson

"This is about what I've concluded. I can almost always guess what Wood is going to say about a particular book or writer before I've read his review. I've seldom been wrong."

More predictable than your posts? I doubt this very much.

As you've retreated from position to position, you've failed to actually discuss a single of your assertions after I've responded to them. As we've gone on your glibness has increased.

Now you've finally fallen back on a baseless and unprovable assertion of your own taste and faultless accuracy. The last refuge? This isn't a discussion at all.

I've made a case. Anytime you feel ready to discuss ANY of what Wood has said (or what I have said), I'd be happy to continue.

Otherwise, I'm tired of discussing an interesting critic's review with someone whose ossified opinions have limited him so completely.

Dan Green

D. Johnson: See this post: noggs.typepad.com/the_reading_experience/2004/10/james_wood.html
There's plenty of discussion of what Wood "has said."


The irony of using I.B. Singer as the poster boy for Jewishness is that if you asked both Yiddishists and more religious types, they'd recount all the ways in which he was distinctly un-Jewish. If anything, many would venture his brother, I.J. Singer, as writer who was both better and more reflective of Jewish life.

Leora Skolkin-Smith

Hi, Mark. I really hesitated to comment but then just couldn't help myself as so much as been allowed to pass on this novel which I feel Wood's was an expert in finally noting and objecting to. I don't think the question at all is one of realism, clearly realism is a major element in great literature and this is obvious. Of course Woods knows this. The issue, for me, was truth. That's a slippery and pretentious term, granted, but when a Jewish writer makes such claim to "truth" about the Jewish sensibility, including claiming past Jewish masters as Singer and Bruno Schulz as inspiration, and then delivers instead an idealization and sentimentalization of that dark history we, as Jews, painfully share-- it can very upsetting. I applaud Wood for noting the spurious and un-genuine feelings this novel seems to drip with, raining down and turning Jewishness soggy . I know I am terribly envious of Ms. Krauss (being a Jewish writer myself) and so perhaps can be discounted, but as the daughter of an Israeli, as a Jewish woman I found this truly offensive to my whole sense of truth, to my whole sense of heritage. I felt relief that a non-Jew defended my upsetness. To speak of the problem Woods had as merely the use of realism is an error, I think. The point he was making is that the novel isn't genuine, isn't really felt but, rather, sentimentalized, soap opera-ish. That is what bothered me, despite Ms. Krauss enormous talent and deft prose. I agree with Woods whom I will continue to admire as a critic extraordinaire.

Patrick Giles

My only question is: WHY is James Wood considered a major critic, or even one of distinction? I once called him "the designated eulogizer," because he spends most of his efforts writing essays about already-canonical writers. And these are not new-ways-of-looking-at-great-writers pieces: they are fairly conventional and notable mainly for the way Wood manages to subvert the raucous idiosyncracies of even the greatest writers to his own muted, decorous, dolorous views.

What makes for a great critic? Proust felt his primary purpose was to recognize and explain new and important works and authors. By this standard, Wood is a dismal failure. He seldom goes looking for new work, and when he does, it is always with a sigh, as if such odious prospecting is an unfortunate, unwanted responsibility to the profession of Literary Gentleman. Wood is not good at new work. Krauss has written a fine novel but not a daunting one: it ain't GRAVITY'S RAINBOW. And yet I can sense the unfortunate Wood quite distressed when paging through Krauss's history, grappling with complexities of diction and viewpoint and ethnicities and historical realities and time-frames none of his steeping in Matthew Arnold ever prepared him for . . . and if Matthew Arnold didn't do it, why should anyone else?

I gather Wood has a reputation for being "nice" as opposed to the venerable Julevitzian "snarky." It's not an earned reputation. In fact, like Dale Peck (his evil confrere--maybe someone should star them in a remake of OLD ACQUAINTANCE) the project at hand when new work is to be inspected is not how to explain what the new writer has done (and is it worth experiencing?) but, rather, how to demolish the author and novel by turning it into a meager, paper-thin text, and in so doing assert the supremacy of the reviewer.

There is an unfairness to new writers here, a refusal to toleate what the reviewer gladly swallows from those whose greatness he is in proud company of. Wood will tolerate garbage from authors who are his pals or heroes, but go after a flaw in a new, alien writer with all the tact and sympathy of Sigourney Weaver wielding her blowtorch in an ALIEN flick. Remember Wood tying himself in knots to explain the dreadful repetitions and lapses oozing through the late Bellow's RAVELSTEIN? Then the flaws were all part of The Master's Plan, right? Yet Colson Whitehead, in his JOHN HENRY DAYS, got skewered by Wood for a few repetitions and slipups. (Admittedly, JOHN HENRY was not as cohesive and successful as Whitehead's first novel, THE INTUITIONIST. But it didn't deserve to be bludgeoned.) (And admittedly, a lot of people bowed to Bellow on RAVELSTEIN. Interestingly, J. Bottum, who writes for conservative Catholic magazines, wrote the only stinging and truly comprehensive ass-whooping, catching not only the collapsing craft of the writing but the creeping homophobia giving the lie to the entire literary "tribute.")

This leads to The Other Problem. Novel writing has exploded into a worldwide pursuit in our time. You wouldn't know it from Wood's corpse of work. Hre is a guy who can get published all over the place. This is the sort of gig that would be gold to a prospector, a present-day Edmund Wilson foraging the world for new writers, old schools that are new to us, traditions of storytelling and myth-making that we never knew touched the untouchable Western canon. In other words, a critic with some ambition and openness to the miracles all kinds of existences offer could make a hell of a difference to the way we English-language types understand our world and words. This is emphatically NOT Wood's interest: he's a gatekeeper, not a discoverer. Wood gives way too much time to established white writers in little need of further eludication. And he valorizes the Amises and their epigones, who are basically repackaging what Nabokov and others did a lot better (and with little or no precedent) a century ago. On the other hand, when a brilliant writer who wouldn't get past the gate so easily asserts some indubitable talent, the response is swift and merciless. Toni Morrison's PARADISE gets slanged for columns, and the title of the deed (in TNR) was "The Color Purple." That happened to be the title of a book not by Morrison, but of another negro novelist. Was this a joke? Or was Morrison (and Alice Walker, who wrote THE COLOR PURPLE) being put in her place for doing the unimaginable, for flouting centuries of colonialism and proving she could write better books than MacEwan and Amis and Wood himself? Be warned: defenses of Wood by pointing to his writing about Naipaul and Zadie Smith won't work--Wood NOT writing about them would be so obviously unfair and suspicious even the poor guy's gravitas couldn't hold his rep up.

I do understand some of the fanfare over Wood. He makes it easier for us not to think for ourselves. The gentle, assured, yet stern voice keeps everyone in line, and puts at bay unsightly, threatening postmodern energies and situations, wherein the playing field is not only leveled but tilting from all kinds of social and cultural reversals, and the past must be re-evaluated in light of harsh new historical evidence. But Wood does not give value for lullabying us: a critic is not a governess. I can enjoy a soporific sentence as well as the next frustrated writer: a dully-stirred, untaxing observation--or an entire essay of them--can make for a calm few minutes on an otherwise frenetic Internet.

But that is not what I expect from a great literary critic. I want then to be told something about reading and writing I have never known before (Blanchot, Benjamin, Josipivici, Barthes). I want an astute mind gleaning connections and missed connections in specific authors and works (Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Fiedler). I want someone coming up with insights so bizarre they are uncannily compelling, hard to dismiss the harder I try to (Bataille, and Paglia, at her best). I want someone who can carry the whole canon around in her head and, in a single observation, assure me there are true connections, living connections, and that those connections make for great art and great criticism (Sontag, and Martha Nussbaum). And I want someone whose love for writing and the regenerative, even redemptive qualities of fiction make for sterling questions and strong, inspiring answers (Hardwick in her SEDUCTION AND BETRAYAL and BARTLEBY days, and Silverblatt, on the radio). Wood has nothing to offer compared to these people except the literary equivalent of Merchant-Ivory films: it's English, it sounds and feels genteel and expensive and old-world . . . but at heart it's an empty exercise in style masked as authority. And it's a slap in the face to those of us who believe literature matters (as the editors who hire Wood apparently think it doesn't), that reading a page of something can change your life and the lives of those around you, by providing pleasure, by offering insight, or by making trouble with the complacencies the rest of your world conspires to cement your imagination into.

Until Wood does more than he does, he's no a critic of any worth, by my standard, anyway.


Leora, thanks for your post and for weighing in. I hope you'll permit me, however, to respectfully disagree. First, phrases like "clearly realism is a major element in great literature and this is obvious" are troubling and problematic to me - partly from the perspective that, as I've suggested, there is much great literature that is not, in fact, terribly realistic; and partly from the notion that anything at all "is obvious" ... I find the game a bit more nuanced than that, and although I'm second to no one in my admiration for Wood, my mystery is why that should be, given he clearly shares some of your preoccupations. (It should also be added that Krauss' book did not offend me a Jew in the least; which probably says more about our respective Judaism(s) than it does about Krauss' treatment of Jews.)

Which brings me to Patrick's stinging but thoughtful post. What is remarkable is that I agree with much of what you say, Patrick. Wood can seem stuck, confined, like a tightrope walker suspended over a pool of sharks that is contemporary literature, and one wrong step and ...

And yet I am still drawn to his work, and need to understand why. A few things I would point out - you never mentioned his review of Brick Lane (one of this rare love letters; although it's true that Ali was a young writer writing a very old fashioned book); and Paradise is an absolutely wretched novel and his take down is legitimate; I also don't think his reputation is at all for kindness - ask Wolfe, DeLillo or Rushdie.

I suspect that part of Wood's great appeal does stem from his authoritative style (which is certainly underpinned by a remarkable amount of reading - he is, in fact, one of those critics you suggest carries the canon in his head); and perhaps part of it might be that in an age governed by noise and stimulus, he does try to direct us to a quieter place. Is that a bit retro and/or conservative? Yes, possibly. But is it understandable to hunger for something that runs a bit deeper and quieter than page after page riddled with scattershot ADD footnotes? For me, it's very understandable. Which makes Wood very much a critic of worth for me. Even as I find the space to admit he doesn't always speak for me.

D. Johnson


A few items.

The only published review of Amis by Wood that I'm aware of is intensely negative. His piece on Amis' The Information. It's as much a take down as any of his other pieces.

His recent review of David Means' The Secret Goldfish was very positive. And Means is an unconventional writer who remains moderately obscure (in the major reviewing venues).

His recent piece on Bezmozgis's Natasha & other stories was also very positive and explained better than any of this writer's other good reviews WHY he was good.

Wood championed Sebald from the beginning. You may or may not like Sebald but Wood does. Saw him as genre busting. Saw him as "new writing"

As for pieces that make connections and explain things better than they have been explained, I would pick (among many) Wood's piece on Henry Green. I think this piece explains better than any I've read the particulary genius of Green's sentences, some of the most interesting in the language.

Reading your piece I'm convinced that your resistance to Wood is inevitable. I think he opposes most of what you admire in writing. I would say that he sees the novel as a specific genre- one with limits that can be played with, expanded, but never ignored. Whereas the critics you cite highest in your list were primarily concerned with people for whom the entire idea of the novel was a jumping off point- a vehicle for things that are often interesting but never very much like the novel in its hey-day.

Which I think is interesting. Because I see Wood primarily as a critic with the ability to define the genre again, the term novel otherwise incorporating so many varied beasts that it has become meaningless.

Very few people today are concerned with the difference between the memoir and the novel say, although the differences are profound. Even fewer people seem concerned with the difference between the novel and the kind of Renaissance prose narrative (say, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili) that Gravity's Rainbow resembles more than it resembles, I don't know, say David Copperfield.

I like a lot Dalkey Archive authors and books, but I wouldn't call very many of them novels. That doesn't make them bad, but it does change the stakes.

For Wood it seems that distinction wasn't made forty years ago, and so it must be made now. If he were only reactionary, then he wouldn't be a major critic, but to define the novel narrowly reinvigorates its possiblities.

So anything doesn't go. Which is often Wood's major complaint about a book, that it doesn't create a viable reality of its own- that it relies upon the FACT of the genre to carry what has been written, rather than creating its own reality. This is at the root of his complaint about Morrison, that she isn't really writing NOVELS at all. Which, I, for one, think is a fair criticism.

But then of course, I think Gravity's Rainbow is a very bad book. Give me Joseph McElroy any day.

In any case...

All best,


Patrick Giles

Hi Tevye, Drew, and others,

I apologize for running my too-long comments TWICE. I'm really bad at handling Internet-related stuff; always pushing the wrong buttons.

What's a novel? I don't have much of a definition, which is one reason I am so fascinated by them. I know what a play is (dramatic interaction in real time between at least one speaker and audience), a biography, a memoir. But a novel? The best definition I have ever heard is John Gardner's "a vivid and continuous dream," which I amend to "a vivid and continuous dream exchanged between a writer and reader(s)." Beyond this definition lies trouble, if not dragons. I find it virtually impossible to say, "I like all the [name of school] novels," because I don't. I can recite long passages of MADAME BOVARY (in different translations), yet other "realist" novels leave me cold. (And the notion that this is the supreme genre of the lit tradition so laughable I ain't even gonna indulge myself.) I was so torn up by Zola's THERESE RAQUIN (27 years ago, fiction and play versions) I forbid myself to reread it, yet GERMINAL struck me as a snooze. I adore much of Henry James's short fiction, still cannot get to "Daisy [Miller] wanted to be sure you knew she's not engaged," without bursting into loud and bitter sobs, but it's only recently I have been able to finish the big novels of his, which struck me (during various attempts at them) as labored, overlong, and a bit hysterical. And while I worship Pynchon (Drew, there is no argument about this: get to a lit meeting!), I have never been big on Gaddis, and Barth and others remain interesting but problematic for me. I thought Eggers's STAGGERING GENIUS too calculated and self-regarding by half, and yet it struck me as more imaginative than many novels I'd read, which says something about the confluence we fear to track between memoir and novel.

(Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, didn't, once writing to Hugh Walpole that [quoting from memory here] she felt novels were only the outer skins of the fictions we call ourselves; that if you continued to peel the novels away you would come to "the part you call you or me." And yet I DON'T like a biographical reading of Woolf. So do even the geniuses best know what a novel is, how their own works work, and how they can be passed on? A great novel is a mystery, and it is most great when it is most powerful and all-encompassing yet peculiarly inexplicable, as O'Connor knew, as Melville demonstrated, as Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch doggedly demonstrate (too coldly) and as Hawthorne, writing through the night while Melville hunted whales down the mountain, feared.)

Hence, I can't accept the linking of me with Dalkey Archive books (some of which are terrific--Flann O'Brien, Carole Maso, McElroy, Konwicki), or the sense that I am at odds with Wood because I favor a different tradition of novel-writing. I don't think Wood has much of value to say about the novel AT ALL. I believe he utters easy statements which the uncommitted who want to think themselves committed can digest feeling they have just learned something. I feel Wood is to great criticism the way Andrew Lloyd Weber is to great musical theater: seemingly related, but ultimately UNrelated.

I can't recall a single "wow" Wood moment, when I've been so struck by an insight of his I have had to put the magazine or book down and really take a moment to absorb it. I can recall PLENTY of such moments when reading the critics I cited above, or Proust's AGAINST SAINTE-BEUVE (here I am orthodox: EVERYONE who wants to write fiction has to read it, since in it his mind is working toward the RECHERCHE at such speed it feels like you're clinging to a comet purifying itself in outer space, you are literally burning up along with him in the fission of literature), or some of Foster Wallace's essays, or Bloom on the Romantics, or Nabokov tracing out his charts and drawings for those Cornell undergraduates (Pynchon wide-eyed but having troubl with the Russian wagon-lit while perched in the next-to-last row).

I feel Wood is only reiterating what many already know: that the realist tradition, looked upon in the most conservative way imaginable, is safest, and thus of most value to those for him safety equals immortality. New work that ratifies this contention should be valued. Old work that doesn't but is simply too wonderful to dismiss can be appreciated, although rather condescendingly. (See Wood on Svevo.) I wouldn't mind if Wood had the guts of a Nabokov, who freely tossed major reps and entire schools of literature off his private Parnassus. I don't agree with many of Nabokov's judgments, but is agreement what this is all about? (Often, I think it secretly is. That's a problem. Nobody on this list, or anywhere, has the last word in literature. (Not even Banville, Mark!) That's part of the mystery of it.)

(Wood is also good at writing at length about writers that are not that difficult in the first place. It's not that he is so right about Bezmogziss--it's that most of the other reviews (which were laudatory, deservedly) were of the current standard--unbearable-and in that context the not-retarded observations of Wood come off with a Wilsonian eminence. But what about the quietness of tone in NATASHA compared to the desperation underneath the actions? Why is the diction so paced, and spaced? It's as if the risk of writing more freely corresponds to speaking freely in a new land, a new language, where the risks of exposure and expulsion are gigantic, leaving you nowhere to return to and nowhere (yet) to venture forward freely into. This is what most intrigued me about DB's work. Somebody should write about it--maybe someone who shares his emigre experience. (Compare DB's writing to VN's--Nabokov was nobody's outsider! He came from an emigre generation that thought the world was for the taking--it was only midway through their emigration that the world took them to poverty, fascism, and mass murder. So Nabokov switches to English and demonstrates, immediately, a mastery so total a generation of native-born writers could do nothing but maneuver with frantic gestures in his imperpurtable wake. American lit is still trying (failing) to get over the Nabokov insurgence.)

I think that Wood is influential because he writes in places we all read, and because he assumes an authority of voice that aims, above all else, to be persuasive. I tend to be suspicious of such types. I've often felt required reading for any college-age person intending a career in literature should start, START, with Melville's CONFIDENCE MAN, because there are so many of them in this business, and Melville knew their mark so surely. What sites like this one can do is put the marks on notice they're not dealing winning hands, allow a freer exchange between readers and writers, exchanges which will hopefully spark some of us to rethink what we thought we knew (Example: Drew was right about Wood on Amis--but I have heard Wood speak well of him on the radio--I was thinking of Wood on MacEwan, whom I like a little more than Amis). This really matters, because we are overwhelmed right now with bogus authority figures in literature, and also in a peculiar moment when the faith seems in danger. Some of the gods have recently died. (Bellow, Sontag.) Younger gods are being overexalted. (Roth, them English guys.) Gods from sources wrongly perceived as "exotic" are continually under suspicion. (Morrison, who is so orthodox it's amusing to read right-wing screeds branding her a threat to standards and the future of literature. And although not her best book, I thought PARADISE had many worthy pages. It was, for starters, just too religious for the literary culture of our day to tolerate.)

Amidst this spiritual reshuffling, there's pagan bloodletting going on, the current fatted calves having just published books and bought real estate in Brooklyn. This sucks. It's unfair. And it gets in the way of the sacred inspiration that can flow between a person trying to read and a person trying to write. If Wood were any help with any of this, I would be singing his praises. I realize I have been too harsh about him, but this exalting of false idols, whether a British literary critic or the new Pope (I speak as a devout Catholic) never fails to piss me off.

Meanwhile, to get off my high horse and humbly entreat the list's help, my summer rereading project is Pynchon--all of him. Any essays or reviews Pynchonians would like to recommend as supplementary reading will be gratefully consulted. It is just 30 years since my older brother brought home the then-pretty new GRAVITY's RAINBOW and I spent an entire summer puzzling my way through it, laughing over the wordplay, shivering at the sexual violence, and feeling oddly scared of Blicero and sorry for Gottfried. (I was soon to meet versions of both.) I thought it was time to pay the Entropic Paradise another visit.


Dan Green

"I like a lot Dalkey Archive authors and books, but I wouldn't call very many of them novels. That doesn't make them bad, but it does change the stakes."

What does this mean? What "stakes" are being changed? In what direction? Is the "novel" being wrenched from the hands of the barbarians and returned to those of the righteous? Why do you (or James Wood) get to determine what a novel is?

"This is at the root of his complaint about Morrison, that she isn't really writing NOVELS at all. Which, I, for one, think is a fair criticism."

Well, if she isn't writing novels, and what Wood is interested in is novels, why is he reviewing her at all? Why judge her by standards that this very statement proclaims aren't relevant to what she does? Why not just say she's writing something else, something I don't like, and leave her books to those who do like them? You and Wood can have your novels, and those of us who prefer "jumping-off points" will leave you alone as well.

Leora Skolkin-Smith

Hi, Mark. Of course I admire and respect your disagreement but I feel perhaps you might have misunderstood what I meant. This due, to my clumsiness at stating it, not your fault at all. What I meant was: I did not think Wood was saying that if a novel didn't have realism, it wasn't a worthy work. Of course "obvious" was a poor choice of words but I would hope that any major critic would admire Kafka or Marquez and others and not demand realism to be the only yardstick of worth and assumed Wood was sophisticated enough to be among such critics. I didn't think Wood was criticizing the books because it wasn't a "realistic" telling. I think he was criticizing the book because it wasn't a truthful telling. And I believed you weren't drawing that distinction but, rather, equating real in a formal stylistic sense with truthful. By truthful, I mean anyway, portraits of depth and believability which aren't manipulative and one-dimensional. I found it very hard to believe these characters but, more importantly, I found it impossible to embrace them, to live inside them--though I certainly lived inside Gregor when he was a cockroach in Kafka's masterpiece, As fantastical as that work was It was truth on a dime. Woods was underlining the lack of human truth here not faulting the novel just because it wasn't a realistic novel per se.

Secondly, yes we must have very different experiences as Jews, which is great and fine and makes the world even more interesting. But I couldn't help it, Mark. I just hated the flat and stereotypical sensibility being portrayed in this book. I felt as Wood, that these were cardboard versions of Jews, not blood and mind people on the page and it offended me. But I'm known for hypersensitivity about my Jewishness. I am not fully American (my mother was born in Palestine and educated in London and I am more from the European/Middle Eastern side of Jewishness.) Often I feel alienated from much American Jewish work, so this is probably just me. But I will add that over-simplying everything the way Krauss did and sugar-coating it all to boot was hard to take and believe--perhaps, again, I was brought up in a war-torn Israel/Palestine where life is raw and hardly sentimental. And where the problems are still fierce, bloody and volatile, irresolvable.

Anyway, what a lively discussion, Thanks for letting me be a part of it. I don't feel, Patrick, I can really comment on Wood as a critique. I gravitate towards him because, as Mark has pointed out, he busts through so much facile noisy trendy stuff and reminds me of quietude and depth. I don't see him as conservative, really, just not trendy. He looks at literature on a continuum and doesn't fall into the faddish basin so many seem to be drowning in.

D. Johnson


I enjoyed your post. You read my post and disagreed and said why and how, much appreciated.

I suppose I'd like to know what you think of any ONE Wood essay, as I feel like one of the problems in this discussion is that there is a kind of straw-man Wood, the notion of him as a critic that is thrown out so easily and carelessly. That's not what you're doing, I don't think, but I'd love to see you take apart an individual essay. Not because I think I'll agree, but because I'll have a better idea of where you're coming from.

I know this won't endear me, but I think the tide's going out on Pynchon, and I think Gravity's Rainbow is not much of a novel, though an interesting fever-dream. Its cleverness would be brilliance if it were just a little bit human.

I don't care for it, or much of his work at all, really. I think of McElroy as a kind of shadow Pynchon, better and fuller and more human. Also fond of Gaddis. But judging from your post, there is no room for discussion on this. Yet I think there is with others, I hear more and more whisperings that maybe the big book isn't all that it seemed to be. I thought the big Bookforum issue seemed less like a celebration and more like it was propping something up.

What one Wood essay? I don't know or know that you'd take the time. The Henry Green essay, to me, is truly exceptional, and then, of course, there's the Chekhov essay.

To be honest, I don't think much of most of the critics you revere. I still go back to On Photography but think that Sontag's limitations as a literary critic are too long to go into here- she was alway better in the visual world. Ilan Stavans said a lot about them in few words in Bookforum or Artforum, I can't recall which one. Bloom has always left me cold.

So I think have your experience of Wood with these two.

Just to speak to the Bezmozgis. I thought Wood actually hit the nail on the head quality-wise when he surmised that the final two stories might be the last two written. Natasha and Minyan were certainly head and shoulders above the rest to me, and Minyan was the only truly memorable story. Whereas the earlier pieces seemed to me mostly forced.

I saw Krauss read earlier this evening. It wasn't so very bad, it's just that her old Jewish man sounded like a twenty-something woman and said things like "Get a grip" when he wasn't saying things like "schmuck"- the scenes were cliches, the language merely forgettable. I think we can at least suppose that the argument we're having over Wood affords some stature, whereas the Krauss is difficult to debate...

I enjoyed your litany of works, it's interesting to see a list of what moves any one person. Orthodoxy worries me, reading Wood, but I think it is also his strength- a corrective, which we don't need for the works that succed but for the poor imitators, the also-rans- the coinage can be debased. My own taste runs widely and to much that I know or think Wood would dislike.

Which matters little. I don't mean to set him us an arbiter of everything, which I don't think we need, but more as a keeper (and elaborator) of this one (very full) idea, the old and ever current notion of the novel, which I think we do.

All best,


Blank Frank

A reader writes: “By the way, if anyone would like to read the review in its entirety, please drop me a line and I'll email you a copy.”

That responsibility is never “[b]y the way." It is the only way. In an online discussion based on excerpts from a review, we have a scrumptious instance of careless channel-flipping: a continual and forcible montage making the original less audible through nth-generation analog hiss.


A reader writes: “How ‘real’ does it have to be? How much heart is too much?”

This “real” vs. “heart” contest is rigged. Did cyborgs take over while I was sleeping? I felt sure that I’d dreamt the whole thing, and that we could continue to distinguish the real heart from the plastic palpitations of the Jarvik-Seven. Come on, junk sculpture, turn back into junk. I would like nothing better than to be a tuned-in om-shanti machine-gun sweetie-pie; but I can't help snarling when intelligent readers misconstrue mawkish simulacra as the “terrain of the heart.”


A reader writes: “Perhaps the best test is whether you find a line like ‘Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering’ moving or sentimental.”

Or whether you find you must defecate or vomit before you’ve reached the final period—not because you don’t like to kiss, or to answer questions; but because you have been in love, and you feel that experience merits a non-laxative, non-emetic representation. Perhaps the best test is whether, when Wood writes, “[t]he result of all this childishness, emphatically so in Krauss’s case, is a novel that is not a grown-up book for grown-up readers,” you suspect he’s addressing you.

Michael Gorra

I'm interested by so many people singling out JW's piece on Henry Green, which I agree is very fine indeed. But here's a question: how many people actually read Henry Green? Has anybody read him in a college course? Or do people find him on their own, and if so, how, given his rather spotty availability here, libraries aside?

Leora Skolkin-Smith

Michael, I read Henry Green as part of a college course and he was very well regarded and taught where I went to school. I think I appreciate Woods pieces on Saul Bellow, the way he describes why and how Bellow's prose works in terms which are concrete, really brilliant.

D. Johnson


If I recall correctly, I was dimly aware of Henry Green and then I read a strong recommendation for three of his books in W.M. Spackman's book of essays, On the Decay of Humanism...a pretty odd list of recommendations from that book, Glenway Wescott, Wilson's fiction, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Robert M. Coates, and others.

I found Loving used and read it. Then, later, I started picking up the Harvill editions in remainder shops. Then Back from NDP and the final three from Dalkey Archive. Pack My Bag in Penguin. I don't like omnibuses (the way Penguin had them) and so I spent some time picking up the great old hardbacks (later printings) of Living, Party Going, Caught, etc.

Anyway, that's the way it went.



Michael, I came to Green the same way I came to Hamsun, Svevo and others ... through Wood's essays. (Since I studied journalism at NYU before being ejected, I didn't do much reading there.)

And I usually find the books themselves through half.com

Ian Randall Wilson

The issue isn't really realism or Realism, the issue is verisimilitude: Does the action, character and setting ring true? (Personally I don't think that Realism is the be-all and end-all of great literature but that's a different discussion.) Woods says, no. In his reading he experiences a disruption when the writing is no longer transparent, when something about the characters as presented is off. This is workshop 101 stuff. But is Woods falling prey to the Reality Fallacy or is he correct, something's not quite right with the passages? I'm in agreement with a lot of others who have commented on the way Woods seems to put all the books he reads through the same critical sieve, but in this case, I think something's not quite right. The characters come off as hammy and stereotypical. It's Tevya with Borscht belt shtick mixed together. It's Krauss's idea of an idea of how such a character might behave. It's like writing about a place without having been there and lacking the imagination to envision the place convincingly in the absence of actual experience.

Neil Paraday

Ian is right; and I bet Wood would agree with him. In the intro to the Broken Estate, Wood writes about Mann's idea of fiction as the place of "not-quite," and comments: "Fiction, being the game of not quite, is the place of not-quite belief." And in his essay on Henry Green, which Drew mentioned, he praises Green's dialogue like this: "Dialogue, in Green, is not about the writer 'getting it right,' as creative writing workshops insist. It is both a fidelity to the actual and an unreal infidelity, as in Shakespeare and Dickens; both a report and a dance." Seems to me Wood is perfectly well able to see that fiction is real AND fictive at the same time. What's the big deal? The dogmatists here seem not to be Wood or D.Johnson, but to be the postmodernists. None of the writers that Mark says he read in laudatory essays by Wood -- Svevo, Hamsun, or Green -- could be called 'realists.' And neither is Hrabal, may he rest in peace.
That's all.

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