November 05, 2010



That excerpt leads me to believe that Wood is too goddamned serious to evaluate comic fiction.

Michael A. Rizzo

I read Wood's review when i was about 100 pages into Finkler, and I don't think I've ever disagreed more strongly with him. Much as I love his deployment of the word 'Mozartean' in reference to the qualities of Bellow's prose, I really feel that most of Woods' curtailment of Jacobson's achievement really is of his own devising (esp. vis-a-vis his own definition of comedy vs. The Comic Novel, which is one of his perennial call-backs to his own previous works, in this case esp. those essays collected in The Irresponsible Self). Also, I think his comparison of two beloved writers of mine, Wodehouse and M. Amis, similarly curtails both of their achievements, esp. the latter's. I haven't disagreed with Wood so strongly since his review of Lowboy. Anyway, back to Finkler....

Michael A. Rizzo

I think I just contradicted myself, so let me make myself clear: I disagreed with Wood most strongly on Finkler. One proviso: I will always find myself in accord with Wood when it comes to the great Sabbath's Theater, no matter what....

Michael A. Rizzo

And one more thing: The Pregnant Widow is a masterpiece, the summation of Martin Amis' life-work (bypassing all of his Islamophobic journalism). I think it's his best work since his seminal review of Lolita. (Sorry, thought I'd liven things up a bit.)


I think the essence of his review - "Treslove’s admiring stupidity constantly pushes the representation of Jews and Jewishness toward caricature.... this is a decisively male and modern version of Jewishness, much influenced by the historic pugilism of Philip Roth’s weaker novels." - is pretty dead-on. I read and reviewed the book, too.


This is vintage Woods - traversing the line between insight and pedantry like a soldier running serpentine through machinegun fire.


I like Jacobson (though I haven't read Kalooki Nights) but do think he tends often to give his characters or novels a theme or guiding principle in the manner of a comic humour, that often identifies that character too monomaniacally and reductionistically. I can see that as a problem that Wood would not think it worth overcoming. For me the central character in "Finkler" 's goyish obsession with Judiaism was unbelievable but worth accepting as a central starting conceit.

I do think in "Finkler" the different characters, each with a different stance on their Jewishness or lack thereof, might individually tend to caricature but eventually work together to paint a varied and ultimately moving portrait of a modern dilemma.


What hasn't been said, and needs to be said:

Wood's review is not just a poorly argued review, and poorly written review. It's an anti-semitic review. Right down to the big-nosed illustration that accompanies it.

Full-bore anti-semitism? No. Subtle anti-semitism, the more insidious kind. And, frankly, a particularly English brand of it.

The entire review can be summed up this way: Jacobson, you're too Jewish.

Wood caricatures Jacobson in order to put him down. "Garish," "hyperbolic," "impatient," "shouting," "fatalistic." In other words: Jewish.

The review is very, very uneasy with what is not decorous and considered -- what is not formal and elegant. He has real problems with Jacobson's tendency to exaggerate -- but what is comedy, if not exaggeration?

I was surprised to see Wood speak of Bellow as
"Mozartean" -- completely ignoring that what makes Bellow Bellow is his elegant pugilism, his brio, his zesty exuberance. His Jewishness. All his best writing has these qualities.

The review is also full of laughers. Wood writes of filling the margins of his copy with criticisms. Well, I wrote in the margins of his review several times. To wit: "Comedy is the angle at which most of us see the world?" Huh? Who's us? Ruling class elites? And how about this one: "monochromatically devoted to funniness, as a fever is devoted to heat." Huh? And this one: Jacobson "can't take his foot off the exaggeration pedal." Wow; really bad.

Wood is not always so bad, but he's vastly overrated as a writer of prose; he tries to hard; his analogies and metaphors are too often straining. Seldom does a review simply FLOW. It's criticism of the most constipated kind.

I was also bothered, here, that he uses an author's own words in an interview -- not considered words, but spoken words -- against him. Bad, bad form.

Also bad: the review never mentions that Jacobson's novel won the Booker Prize, the preeminent British literary award.

The job of a critic is to try to understand an author's intention, and to then judge from there. Wood didn't do this. He tries to fit Jacobson under his own notion of what comedy is and isn't, and judges accordingly.

I feel awful for Jacobson, to have a countryman trash him in America's most prestigious literary magazine. And for what? To what end?


Hi everyone

I wanted to ask if anyone knew if there existed anywhere the transcript of Wood's critique which was available to view without subscription? I'm not feeling particularly flush with money in these days before Christmas!

Happy holidays in any case,


The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."