February 24, 2009


nicholas Richards


I don't think Waugh wrote a book called "Through a Cloud". It looks like a misprint from the Denton Welch book A Voice Through A Cloud" two lines down



He failed to include a single work by William Styron. Quite a glaring omission, I must say.


Zadie Smith's NYRB essay re: O'Neill/McCarthy was a cheap grad school pose.


Interesting! Delighted to see the kudos for Jane Bowles, Wide Sargasso Sea, and The Assistant here--none of them shoo-ins on these kinds of lists.

Peter G

Waterland, Money, How German Is It, A Fan's Notes ... quite a few of my own favorites here.

I note that Counterlife and Remains of the Day are both post-1985, but I think that's a more general cut off than a fixed one.


Thanks for posting this list. This blog is the main reason I've come to love Wood's criticism, which in turn has provided me new ways of appreciating great writing. Can't imagine what else to hope for from a literary blog!

Matthew Sheppard

Didn't James Wood say of Harold Bloom that he's a fine...reader of prose but an unreliable reader of poetry? You've got prose and prose in the bit introducing Wood's list. Thanks for posting the list.


Hi Matthew, I've confirmed the quote is as I've typed it. I think that's why Wood decided to reconsider Bloom's list - because his prose choices were lacking.

Alvy Singer

It isn't the best of Ballard (the exhibition) and well, Salinger's best are Franny or the stories, don't think that Catcher has something special (or new) reading it today. And where is Ginsberg and his Howling?


Criticism of Wood has gotten way beyond "the popular cliche of Wood as the hidebound dean of realism who thinks fiction stopped with Flaubert." The point isn't what books are on Wood's "thumb's up" list, the point is how he reads them.


A hold-over from my bachelor days, this defense of Zadie Smith -- but Mark, Mark, has Zadie Smith ever even mentioned Wood in the NYRB? I looked, because I had always read how gracious she was toward Wood, even after his knee-capping of her in his review of Book 1 and 2, and I didn't find anything.

Consider my defense of her honor completed.

Dan Wang

Now you have: "reader OR prose, but an unreliable reader of prose."

Confusing, to say the least!


Typos fixed, Dan. Thanks. Sorry

Stephan, not going to respond here right now because I am mulling a longer, more formal reply to Smith's essay, in which I would call her out on her sub-rosa score-settling with Wood. Forgive me if I keep my powder dry in the short term. But you remain an honorable feller ...


I'm happy to see Updike's "The Centaur" appreciated by Wood; it's a favorite of mine (as I recall, the title character, based on the author's father, was meant to stand as a contrast to Rabbit Angstrom). "Hugging the Shore" is a fine example of Updike's excellence as a critic - I would have added one of his short story collections (not sure which, but I think the stories are his best work).

For Graham Greene, I would add "The Honorary Consul", and for Robert Penn Warren, some of his poetry.

Happy to see "Sula" on the list; "Jazz" is an underrated Morrison novel...

And I think the later 2 novels in Faulkner's Snopes trilogy, "The Mansion" and "The Town" were published after 1945 ("The Hamlet" was earlier); if so, they would go on my list. Not Faulker's finest, but still better than some that are on this list.

Mike G

No Nabokov? Wow.


In his lengthy intro, Wood explained that - for the purposes of this exercise - he considered Nabokov Russian.

David Clarke

The comment that the real criticism leveled at Wood is 'how' he reads them. If one is going to raise the issue then they need a little more intellectual heft than has been raised against Wood to date.

In fact, there is no 'way' he reads them if that implies a single, dogmatic ideological way. He reads them as poetry / prose of the sentence, he reads them as comedies, he reads them as tragedies, he reads them as satires and he reads with the eyes of a philosopher and theologian as well as a literary critic. As such he deftly does in fact criticize the advocates of hysterical criticism (semiotics, deconstruction), that reduce all writing to 'texts' and thereby as frustrated and inferior prose writers can indulge the fantasy that there 'writing' is just as important as the works they are reviewing. On the other hand, Wood is committed to the value of the novel as form and that historically it has taken over the role played previously by religious texts. His critics pass by this position and continue along their intertextual way, muddying the waters as to make them appear deep.


"I am mulling a longer, more formal reply to Smith's essay, in which I would call her out on her sub-rosa score-settling with Wood."

Sub rosa? Isn't it better for her to simply present an argument (that happens to be a rebuttal of Woods) than to attack him by name? Should her NYRB article have included a full disclosure?

Zadie Smith is the author of the novel White Teeth, which had its head put on a pike by James Wood, who is a big fan of Netherland, the novel she respectfully fails to fully admire in the above piece.


you guys should check http://contrajameswoodblogspot.com for some wonderful, thorough wood-bashing.


sorry, that's http://contrajameswood.blogspot.com

rowan somervville

Galling, isn't it when one skims through such a list and sees an unfamiliar, or worse, disliked author, in place of one's favourite.

A little stab in my own kidney when I see Amis - (who I like ) instead of Nabokov (who I worship) ...and where oh where is my beloved Wallace Stegner...

Why must we set up such combative discourse ? I believe the answer to that question is quite simply - fear of death- but that's another story.

In simpler terms, I think the best one can do with such a list is enjoy it for introducing us to unfamiliar or forgotten works . By ranting and plotting and laying siege to imagined towers, one fails to notice that the portcullis is up, the gates wide open, and there's a lovely garden within, open to the public and selling teacakes and lemonade.


Mr. Somervville: Nabokov was considered "Russian" by Wood for the purposes of this list.

Also, As someone who usually agrees with Wood in his assessments, I thoroughly enjoyed Zadie Smith's article in the NYRB. I'm sort of bored by the kneejerk reactions (commenter above: "Grad School pose" Really?) by the Wood fanboy contingent. Of course, I'm looking forward to your upcoming article, Mr Sarvas, but I'm worried that you called her piece a kneecapping, when Wood wasn't even mentioned. I mean, if that's a "kneecapping" what term would you use for Wood assault on Smith (and, again, I'm a bigger fan of the former than the latter)?

rowan somervville

Ah yes my dear Topher

Nabokov born in St Petersburg, Ishiguro born in nagasaki, naipal in Trinidad...


It's just lame to classify Nabokov as just a "Russian" writer, particularly since he wrote masterpieces in English. Moreover, his peripatetic exile life gave him very rich pan-EUropean and pan-American experience from which he drew in his writing. He is, in fact, the epitome of the writer who addresses western culture as such, in all its preoccupations. Where he was born and what his native language was are irrelevant to this classification.


As someone said, of course there's no reason to charge ready to assault the foe's citadel- I confess to reading essentially no criticism so Wood doesn't even exist on my horizon so there's no axe to grind- but I'd find the absence of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker a glaring ommission, when one cosiders much more tame offerings in there. No Beckett, or does his Irishness preclude him?


I'm intrigued to read Mark's take on Zadie Smith's NYRB review - particularly as I know that Smith and Wood are good friends.

Eugene O'Connor

The omission of Hemmingway and Steinbeck seems peculiar.OK so Thurber is too light?

sean murray

Strange ommission indeed, Andrew, especially given Wood's heroic championing of those qualities we cherish in Beckett's work (and did he not recommend Neverland as 'The Unnamable with wickets'?)... every bit as heroic, in fact, as his championing of those of The Naked Lunch, The Sotweed Factor, The Crying of Lot 49, Sixty Stories...

D.W. Merriman

Robert Hass.


Denton Welch? Really? Over Hemingway or Steinbeck?

Ditto for Edmund White. Does Wood having something for teh geighs? Otherwise these choices are inexplicable.

tom dewis

I like Wood but I hate lists.

Scott K

No Cormac McCarthy? Doctorow? I think Elmore Leonard ought to be on a list like this if only to represent the genre. Oh well. So it goes.


Where's Lawrence Durrell? In Alexandria?


Wood on McCarthy:


And an excellent response to it:


Sharpe Books

Its is a very worth collection, but isnt there space for fun stuff on the ebst books collection ?

DECT phones

I would agree with mr oconnor furthur up that no steinbeck on the list seems odd.

Burke Ritchie

Wood wrote on VS Naipaul recently for the New Yorker.
He missed the flaw in Mr. Biswas: the author's Victorian reticence concerning the hanky-panky that must have gone on Hanuman house. Of course kids don't see much, and maybe not enough time had elapsed on the writing of Biswas, but it still seems a little bit, No Irish girl would..., to me. Readers should be grateful to Patrick French for telling us that in real life one of the gods fathered a child by a niece.


I very much enjoyed Wood's concise and illuminating "How Fiction Works"

thanks for posting


Wood says Harold Bloom is an unreliable reader of prose. That's like saying Larry Bird was an unreliable three-point shooter. There is NO more reliable reader of prose than Harold Bloom!! I imagine Wood is somewhat envious of Bloom's status as THE American critic, it is the only explanation for such rude, polemical statements.

By the way, his list is a joke, On the Road is a poorly written piece of garbage, Plath was a rather boorish, inadequate poet with really nothing to say. Gravity's Rainbow is one of the great books ever, I don't care how over-dense or superfluous Wood deems it, it should be on any list of great books for that time period. I could go on and on, suffice it to say, James Wood is too idiosyncratic in his approach, and above all, OVERRATED!!!


Wood has a fine crtical mind. Still, compared to Harold Bloom, with his appreciation of "Gravity's Rainbow" and Roth's "Zuckerman Bound" books, "The Excutioner's Song" and "Ancient Evenings," Cormac McCarthy's "(pre-1985) "Suttree" and Gaddis' "The Recognitions," Wood is perhaps a bit "unreliable."

Juan Francisco Ferré

No Gaddis, no Gass, no Coover, no Beckett, no Nabokov, no McCarthy, no Davenport, no Hawkes, no Theroux, no Reed, no Kozinski, no Paley, no Gravity´s Rainbow, not a serious list, not a serious (literary) mind...


adventures of huckleberry finn This is a really good read for me, Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw.Thanks for posting this informative article




... no Faulkner? no Steinbeck? This sort of lists are always curious, but here Woods looks like scribbling it on a napkin, in bar -


I'm having trouble finding this article in the guardian archives. All references online to this seem to link back to you. Are you sure about the date? many thanks.


Great to see Henry Green and JG Farrell included on Wood's list.


Needs Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

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