The Book Club

A Shouting Match With Invisible Foes

Dear Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Sorry about the “over-totalized.” It’s just that I like reading so much, and sometimes, daffy bookworm that I am, a word gets into my head and spins around and just won’t leave until I put it down on paper. In a way it reminds me of life, all the men I have loved, and a friend of mine in Texas. Because I really like to read…

Whoops, let’s try that again:

Dear Tony,

Sorry about the “over-totalized.” And yes, let’s move on to James Wood, who has written the most surprising and probably the most admirable book of the bunch. What I wasn’t at all prepared for was the intensity of his religious preoccupations. The actual body of the book is not so unconventional; it’s a series of considerations of Major Writers (from Austen to Gogol to Mann on up to Roth and Pynchon and DeLillo) that sometimes read like New Republic reviews of a biography and sometimes seem written from scratch for this volume. (That’s one of the odd things here: I never could tell whether Wood had been thinking all his writing life about literature and belief, or whether he recently realized he had piled up enough of his fine magazine pieces to publish a collection, and decided that literature and belief would make a neat organizing theme.)

In any case, these inner chapters are framed by an intro and an epilogue in which Wood revisits, of all things, the moment in the 19th century when educated Europeans ceased to believe literally in the Bible. They began to see the Gospels as just a story–the most beautiful of stories, but nothing more. Wood thinks that this was disastrous for literature, and the novel in particular. Too many writers made style into a new kind of God; Flaubert in particular fetishized visual detail, and in so doing turned his characters into pawns. Wood thinks the bravest thing a writer can do is give his or her characters the freedom to think. This is why he loves Chekhov so much, and Austen, and Woolf, and a few others.

This strand of the book is interesting, and makes at least some sense. I think it’s especially brave of Wood to look hard at the individual writers’ intentions, which isn’t always so fashionable; this allows him to step outside of some worn-out historical categories, like modernism, and attack an influential stylist like Flaubert but praise another influential stylist like Woolf, because her motivation was so different. But interwoven with this promising strand are others that seem stiff and tangled. Wood constantly attacks writers who proceed by crude argument; he wants them to create beautiful metaphors with a lighter touch and a deeper meaning. He himself can pull off a spiffy metaphor here and there. His first lines are often pretty great: “Nikolai Gogol is a satirist standing on one leg,” or “Melville, in relation to belief, was like the last guest who cannot leave the party.” (And maybe I was looking for these good first lines because Wood is the author of one of my favorite book review openers of recent years: “Joan Didion has a nose for the comedy of America, but not an ear for the comedy of Joan Didion.”)

But most of the time Wood seems to be engaged in a shouting match with invisible foes. He defines these preposterously vague and abstract but, to him, mutually exclusive categories: metaphor versus argument, theological truth versus philosophical truth. Then, he sets about cheering for his side and attacking the visiting team. He preaches, he censors; instead of showing, he tells. Philosophical truth is not as valuable as theological truth, he says. What does this mean, and why? The “spirit of the novelistic” and the “spirit of the dialectic” are identical. Again, why? And why does Wood feel Thomas Mann has been unfairly maligned for writing in allegorical forms, while Toni Morrison hasn’t been maligned enough for doing the same thing? I feel constrained by the Christian prism Wood applies to everything. And even literarily speaking, there’s a rigidity to his approach, a narrow and rather provincial sense of what novels can and should be that I don’t at all trust; his attacks make me want to defend writers like Pynchon and DeLillo, whom I’ve never particularly loved. Which is an accomplishment, I guess.

This is a hard book to talk about, and I’m sorry if I sound dry and abstract. I’ll have more to say tomorrow, much of it more appreciative of Wood than today. I leave it to you to pursue the biographical “back story” of his religious concerns. Oh, and one more thing before I go. What do you make of his not including George Eliot, who stands at the center of the whole broken-estate catastrophe that so upsets him? I mean, the woman translated The Life of Jesus from the German, for God’s sakes, and went on to write skeptical but intensely idealistic novels about lives lived according to faith. Her absence here is kind of weird, don’t you think?

All best,