James Wood’s The Broken Estate

The Broken EstateIn my previous posting on Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, I spoke, perhaps dramatically, of the battle for the soul of Western culture, one that has already long been lost in academia. University English departments have stripped literature of its special status, relegating works that survived centuries to the status of cultural artifacts, on a par with the meanest television show or Hollywood film. Our best authors, once revered as sources of wisdom, are now looked upon with suspicion, their works interrogated rather than enjoyed. Merely reflecting on these developments is enough to keep me up at night, sad at what we have lost and angry at how easily we abandoned our heritage, but before sorrow can turn to despair I inevitably come across some contemporary writer or thinker who gives me hope. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that, absent my discovery of James Wood, one-time Guardian book reviewer turned Harvard “Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism,” I would sleep much less soundly at night.

The Broken Estate, Wood’s first published collection of criticism, takes seriously Harold Bloom’s prescription for contemporary literary criticism: “read, reread, describe, evaluate, appreciate.” The “read” and “reread” commandments should not need defending, but it’s worth mentioning how widely Wood has read and how valuable his reading habits are to his role as critic. Only Bloom himself can inspire the same jealous awe. Who but a fanatical reader can draw on four separate biographies of D.H. Lawrence, or confidently lead us through Melville’s source reading for Moby Dick, from Shakespeare and Montaigne to Pierre Bayle and Thomas Browne? Yet it is the last two of Bloom’s commandments – evaluate and appreciate – that set Wood apart from his contemporaries. To truly evaluate literature involves a recognition that some writing is better than others, that there is more beauty, more truth, more value in some writers than there is in others, and for fifty-some years this has been an unpopular opinion to hold. Fitting, then, that Wood is most explicit about literature’s value in an essay on Harold Bloom, the foremost champion of the importance of literature in our time:

Once the question of value is suspended as irrelevant to literary inquiry, the next step must be an actual skepticism about literary value at all. Perhaps there is no such thing as good and bad in literature or in culture, only various symptomatic displays? Perhaps greatness is an ideological hoax, designed precisely to keep people from questioning it?

Wood, Bloom and anyone else not steeped in the radical nihilism of modern criticism cannot accept this line of thinking; indeed, Wood’s every essay is a testament to that final of Bloom’s injunctions: appreciate. We distrust any literary critic who doesn’t ground their criticism, positive or negative, in an appreciation of literature, a recognition of what the very best writing can deliver.

Updike, Don DeLillo, Julian Barnes and Thomas Pynchon all receive censure from Wood, often in harsh terms (“Updike’s lyric capacities have been rightly praised, and need not detain us here. It should go without saying that he is a fine pupil of Nabokov; at his worst, his prose is a harmless, puffy lyricism, a seigneurial gratuity, as if language were just a meaningless bill to a very rich man and Updike adding a lazy ten percent tip to each sentence”), but these are always grounded in some important contrast, the what might have been. Wood gives us his ideal, holds a given writer – whether Melville or Sebald, canonical or contemporary – to this standard, and presents us with the evaluation. This strikes me as eminently fair-minded criticism, but it has earned Wood the reputation of a malcontent, someone whose standards are too lofty or whose judgments of contemporary writing unfairly harsh (his most famous review remains his criticism of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and is very worth a read even for those unfamiliar with her novel). To these people I present as counter-evidence Wood’s review of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, a book I am increasingly certain will be viewed, decades hence, as one of the finest novels of the 20th century. I have it in me to read Sabbath’s Theatre with rapt enjoyment, to feel myself entangled with its protagonist’s battles, but to then translate that experience into words, to convey those feelings to a third party, continues to frustrate me. “Literature and literary criticism share the same language,” Wood reminds us in another essay, and this distinguishes literary criticism from art, film or music criticism; it means, practically speaking, that the literary critic and the writer share a common concern for words, and that effective criticism must participate in the very literary qualities it seeks to evaluate. So when Wood writes of Mickey Sabbath, Roth’s protagonist, that he is “pathetic, like most of us, because he knows himself well enough for judgment but not well enough for correction,” he is meeting Roth as an equal.

This is a throwaway line in a much larger review, but it effortlessly captures Sabbath’s character and, even better, involves us in the summary. In other words, it is poetic, the critic’s analog to Sabbath’s own self-summary: “Everything runs away, beginning with who you are, and at some indefinable point you come to half understand that the ruthless antagonist is yourself.” Many an aspiring writer, myself included, would sell their very soul to write something half so beautiful.