The Nearest Thing to Life is the latest collection from James Wood, the English literary critic and New Yorker writer. The book consists of several of Wood’s lectures; it is less focused on the specific novelists and essayists whom Wood is famous for evaluating and instead serves as an examination of several larger themes, including the role of criticism and literature’s ability to capture realities that other art forms cannot.
Wood previously wrote for the Guardian and the New Republic (where we briefly overlapped but never met). He developed a reputation as the most prominent literary critic in America, and someone who was happy to write harsh appraisals of everyone from Zadie Smith to David Foster Wallace. (His own novel, The Book Against God, came out in 2003.)
Wood is married to the novelist Claire Messud and teaches at Harvard. During the course of our conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the advantages and limitations of writing for the New Yorker, the ways in which technology is changing how we read, and whether critics become more generous with age.
Isaac Chotiner: Has writing fiction changed the way you think about writing criticism?
James Wood: It is some time ago that I wrote a novel. I am trying to write another novel—I hope a better one—now. I don’t know that it materially affected the way I read. I think for me that the creative and critical were always very intertwined. I do think that, though I was determined to deny it in a bullish manner in 2003 and 2004 when my novel came out, perhaps it did inaugurate a slightly milder tone in my own criticism. I just became generally a bit more sympathetic to how difficult it is to write a successful novel. It didn’t mean that I stopped writing occasional negative reviews, but I think there was some demonstrable change in tone.
It does seem now that you are writing more about books or writers you like, or trying to call attention to new novelists that people may not know, rather than taking down big writers. It’s interesting that you ascribe that change to novel writing rather than switching from the New Republic to the New Yorker.
It’s hard to know to what extent it was the act of putting out a novel: writing it, publishing it, having it reviewed. And to what extent it was that inevitable change from one institution to another. There was no doubt for me that when I moved from the New Republic to the New Yorker, from a smaller magazine to a larger magazine, that I had to rethink a little about the way I was going to write. And indeed that was part of the attraction of the change. Small magazines partly survive on militancy. And that’s very important. And there might be a part of me that would want the New Yorker to be more militant, and to have something more of the small magazine pugilism, but I was aware that my approach to writing criticism would change, and I was happy for a change. There was a sense of repeating myself, of digging deep into the same groove again.
When you go back and look at your old stuff, then, do you feel there were some writers you should have been more generous to?
Right, well generally I wish I’d slowed down a bit more with David Foster Wallace. And indeed I took the opportunity to try to do that later by choosing Brief Interviews With Hideous Men as a book to teach. That is sort of a nonpublic or nonprint way of taking the time that wasn’t available in journalism, and forcing myself to be less judgmental. The classroom isn’t really the place for those sorts of judgments and 80 percent of your students are going to be Wallace-heads anyway. So that’s a writer who I look back on with some ruefulness.
Strangely enough, although it was one of my most vicious, and gleefully vicious pieces, the piece on George Steiner would be one. There’s nothing that I think is wrong, objectively speaking, but when I look at the tone it makes me wince a little. I was 31 or 32 or something. It has a young man’s swinging aggression. [Laughs]
I went back recently and read a very negative piece I’d written, and while there was no specific sentence that I thought was factually wrong, I did wonder about the focus and the tone.
[Laughs] It’s just the sort of smarty-pants tone thing.
Yes, exactly, which I will now try to take in this interview.
But despite all this, I do think our culture is filled with people being too nice.
And of course great criticism is often very, very sharp. Is there any way in which being at the New Yorker inhibits you? If you wanted to write a really nasty piece about Jonathan Franzen—or, let me rephrase, if you read the new Jonathan Franzen book, and thought, “I want to write something really vicious about that,” is there a way in which you are inhibited because the institution you write for is the home to Franzen and so many of today’s great fiction writers?
Yeah I think there probably is actually an institutional block there. And yeah, I think that is an inhibition. So far, for me, it’s been productive because I’ve tried to find ways around it. So in other words, you know, don’t just review the new Pynchon or, as it might be, the new Franzen. Instead try Elena Ferrante. And I love doing that. Whether one can keep on doing that I don’t know. I mean obviously there’s always something wonderful to be discovered.
But you get to choose the kinds of things you’re reviewing?
I do, I do. But yeah, I think there are probably certain sensitivities around writers who write regularly as journalists for the magazine or whose fiction is regularly accepted. And of course that was never a problem at the New Republic.
Have you read the new Franzen?
I haven’t read the new one, no.
He is obviously very interested in technology. So is Dave Eggers. So are many other writers. Are there any whom you think have captured the technological changes of this era particularly well?
I suppose you would certainly have to credit Wallace here. He was turning out to be a good deal more conservative than we took him to be and probably not least in terms of technology. He was also someone who spoke to so many people of his age because the fiction seemed in some way to be such an embedded response to the distractions and seductions and perhaps the insanity of technological life in all its forms. I recently wrote about this Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, who has a book out called My Documents.
This is the post-Pinochet writer?
Yeah, he’s an interesting post-modernist who is not in any easy postmodern way in flight from history. Quite the opposite. He is caught up in Chilean history. His characters are completely computer conversant. He has a story that tells the tale of the decline and break-up of a relationship by narrating the couple’s use of a shared computer. I felt constantly—and this was something I don’t usually feel about contemporary writing—that I was in the presence of someone who really wanted to make the computer an element of their text.
What about with you? Do you find yourself lying in bed and picking up Madame Bovary and then looking at your phone instead?
I’m sure I do. I’m more easily distracted, I have a shorter attention span, and I’m probably more daunted by longer books than I would have been 10 years ago. To what extent that’s just being a parent and having less time for everything I don’t know, but it’s definitely there.
You’ve been a critic for 25 years, and I was wondering the degree to which you are able to read not as a critic? Can you read differently on vacation than when you are reviewing?
I think it is the same for me.
You have a pen and everything?
For me, there’s no competition between pleasure and analysis. And there never was. That might be the self-selecting answer as to why I became a critic. At exactly the moment that I wanted really to write, and started writing poems and then trying to write bad fiction, I was reading with a view to learning stuff. I was reading poetry. How did Auden do his stanza forms? And I was trying to copy those. What’s a successful poem, what’s an unsuccessful poem?
So you were looking at sentences?
Right. What’s a good sentence? I don’t think I’ve changed. I am as sincerely interested in novels that fail as I am in novels that succeed. I just want to work them out. It’s a pleasure for me actually.
I heard an interview with Jerry Seinfeld and the interviewer said to him, essentially, “You know, it must be terrible to be your wife because I imagine she’s getting angry at you about the waffles that aren’t cooked right, and instead of focusing on why she is angry, you are thinking, ‘What bit could I do about waffles and spouses arguing?’ ” When you read the novels written by your wife, Claire Messud, can you stop being a critic and say “I’m just going to read this as a spouse?”
Remember that this interview will be published.
That is a very specific question but there’s an easy answer, which is that when my wife gets me to read stuff it’s precisely as a critic that she wants me to read it. Or paradoxically she wants me to read it as a critic and a husband. She wants a soft landing, as it were, but my utility is as a critic. Like most writers, she will come to me with her anxieties. Of course a part of her wants to be reassured, but the other part really wants a cold eye. And I want the same from her.
You say in your new book that criticism is about “passionate re-description.”
I was trying to talk about the larger tradition of literary criticism and literary journalism. Henry James said “The critic’s life is heroically vicarious,” or something like that. We might have our doubts about the heroism, but that “vicarious” is absolutely right. You are living vicariously but you also serve a function for the reader who might never read the book you’re writing about. And that’s where a long quotation of the kind that would seem inert in a properly scholarly paper comes into its own. I certainly see a connection here between writing and teaching. I do find that in the classroom—and students will say this to me—that the simple act of reading, spending half the class reading passages out loud, and bringing them alive, is its own pedagogy. It is actually half the business of making the thing comprehensible.
And yet, I never liked, say, John Updike’s criticism, just because I felt like he was always just sort of going through the motions of telling me what the book was about.
I know, I never liked it either. The redescription in Updike’s criticism is obviously of a high order, and [of] a certain kind of generosity, too—that’s to say, he was a very patient and hospitable quoter of other people’s texts. But I always felt that there was a certain kind of ungenerousness in Updike’s work, too. The maddening equilibrium of his critical voice—never getting too upset or too excited—enacted, I always felt, a kind of strategy of containment, whereby everything could be diplomatically sorted through, and somehow equalized and neutralized, and put onto the same shelf—and always one rung below Updike himself. That’s perhaps unfair. But I think his fiction worked in the same way, too, despite the passionate attention of his prose: It existed to clothe the world in superb words, to contain it, somehow.
A lot of the British critics that are big in America—Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Clive James, Zoë Heller— seem less interested in what you are talking about. They don’t spend as much time with re-description.
Yeah, I think that’s true. They’re all wonderful stylists. There’s a specific British tradition, which is short forms, and I came out of it too: 800 words, 1,000 words, the daily newspaper. Basically every sentence you quote is a sentence lost to you as a journalist, so you don’t quote, you paraphrase, and the emphasis is on your own voice, and the comedy and the tartness and the celebrity and so on of that voice.
So this kind of criticism you are writing about is more American?
Yeah I think it is because, again, we’re talking about institutions. The British tradition was always rich, traditionally rich, in newspapers and therefore short-form criticism. When I was growing up, the Observer’s main fiction reviewer was Anthony Burgess, who was writing once a week at 900 or 1200 words max.
And then writing 900- or 1200-page novels.
Right, exactly, in his Monaco aerie. But you know, that tradition was generally short-form. And even when there were magazines like the Spectator or the New Statesmen, the reviews were not long. In America it was the other way around. The newspapers here weren’t especially interesting sources of criticism. But the place was absolutely rich in magazines and small magazines, and it was a place where long-form journalism was flourishing. And so I think it’s not surprising that you get these two very different traditions.
Are there critics now who you want to read every time they write?
Yeah, I can think of four or five people that I like to read regularly. Mark Greif. There’s a guy in England, Leo Robson who writes for the New Statesman mainly but sometimes writes for the Nation too, who I think is extremely good on fiction. You mentioned Zoë Heller. I’d definitely put her up there. Adam Kirsch.
You hear people say “criticism is dead, there are not as many great critics as there used to be, etc.”
Yeah, I don’t believe that. I used to say this three or four years ago—maybe I’d be a little more tempered now—but I certainly used to say, and felt, that actually we were in something of a golden age of the essay, and of the review essay, and that we didn’t need to have any nostalgia toward the ’50s and ’60s and Partisan Review and so on. Now, at places like Harper’s and the Atlantic you can see the pressure is being put on. The implosion of the New Republic is another example, so I’m not so sanguine. It depends on who you are. If you’re someone like Ian McEwan or Karl Ove Knausgaard, you can bring a book out and receive between five and 10 4,000-word essays in the United States by intelligent, serious people.
How old are you now, if I may I ask?
Fifty in November.
Martin Amis writes about novelists losing a certain energy as they age. Do you think that’s true with critics as well?
I think less so with critics. That makes sense for fiction writers, although there are probably good counterexamples. There are writers who really don’t get going until their 40s. Dostoevsky, Stendhal. With criticism I think the odds are that you should get better and better because a lot of it is about the slow appreciation of knowledge. Much of being a critic is simply the comparative business. I’ve had to spend 30 years reading and writing about books to get close to having theories about the novel. I feel I’m always anxious about generalizing because I don’t quite know enough, and the counterexamples will spring out from the bushes and ambush me. But there’s no doubt that there’s a certain confidence to be had from feeling that you have some grasp on the tradition, and that things are beginning to make sense. And look at a critic like Frank Kermode. He was handing in his last reviews to the London Review of Books two weeks before he died and it was as good as anything he had written in the last 30 years of his life.
Right, it’s one thing when like Orwell is keeping it up on his deathbed and is only 46, or whatever, whereas Kermode was much, much older.
Are there any TV shows that you have been enthralled by the way you have a great novel?
Sure, certainly The Sopranos. Homeland for a bit until I got bored, Mad Men for a bit until I got bored, and currently I’m quite into a French detective thing called Spiral. It’s pretty good.
You’ll be happy to know Homeland has gone from being boring to being horrifically bad.
[Laughs] Oh that’s fine then.
It surpassed mere boredom.
It’s amazing, one has an instinct that this is going to happen—it’s almost like hearing the engine break down just before it actually breaks down.
I’m sure you’ve read a million times that modern television classics are the great novels of our day. What do you think about that comparison?
I understand its justice, but I’m wary of its comprehensive and sort of dominating power. The justice is obvious to anyone. There are similarities with the novel: One develops a relationship to characters that is often very like the relationship you develop with fictional characters in long novels. The first reason I’m wary is that you can see some kind of fetishizing of narrative prolongation, right? Not just a box set, but a box set that never ends. That you could sort of gorge for the rest of your life on your favorite series. What gets fetishized is one’s ability to keep it going. And this I suppose is a slight version of my hysterical realism critique—that something gets privileged and realized at the cost of other things.
The second reason has to do with the differences. And the main difference is clearly that what an actor does with a part is inhabit it and bring it alive in ways that are wordless and that are magical and that certainly do have similarities with fiction, but that have to do with the actor. And that’s why we’re all enthralled with certain actors. And that’s why when we look at TV scripts alone, away from the actors, they’re often pretty thin. Recently I saw While We’re Young, the Noah Baumbach film. It is very nicely fleshed out by the actors, and it’s got some really funny stuff in it, but I felt that if it were a novel it would be so thin.
Film or television is ostensibly a much more collaborative effort than writing a novel. But fiction isn’t entirely a solitary occupation. At one level, a novel belongs to an individual writer. At another level, there are editors. People are edited and they are given advice, and often the editor will have the final say about something. The reaction to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman revealed an incredible immaturity about what a novel is. The fact that people viewed it as a different novel, not an abandoned version of To Kill a Mockingbird, was a sign, to me, that people don’t want to admit that writing a novel is anything but the lone effort of the author.
Right, that’s very good. There was also another immaturity, which was that people seemed to object to the fact that their favorite character was different from their favorite character. As so often there’s this sort of unwillingness to accept that a character is a constructed thing particular to each book, so somehow if the character is different in a book that seemed to be an earlier draft, then that’s a kind of offense. I am struck by the way in which people, particularly with beloved books, don’t see the character as made up anymore.
Are there any characters that you feel that sort of protective towards, the way these people whose lives have apparently been ruined by a new story about Atticus Finch feel?
It’s very hard for me to answer that question. I feel that as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a very strong sense of the doubleness of fiction. I’ve always loved being inside books, and I’ve always found books very easy to close and walk away from. I’m extremely impressed by people who immerse themselves in books, at the cost of everything else, and who not only do that, but who see everything in fiction. Who see the prompt that the writer gives them to imagine a 19th-century Parisian apartment building and actually have a floor plan in their heads. My wife is a bit like this. She visualizes what she is told to visualize or what she’s encouraged to visualize by the writer: Emma Bovary is a solid person wearing a blue dress or whatever the description is. I never bothered to see the stuff I’m told to see in writing, and I think that’s a help for me just in this question of constructedness. I never forget that characters are made up and never really want to forget they are.
It sounds to me like what you’re saying is you have a very rational mind. This reminds me of a question you have been asked before about whether the novel is a surrogate for religion. It seems like what you’re saying now is that, at least for you, it’s almost the opposite—you sort of can’t forget that you’re reading something that’s constructed and you’re not putting yourself into a mindset that is anything less than rational and reasoned.
Absolutely. I think that for me, particularly in my childhood, that was an important distinction even though I wasn’t able necessarily to be analytical about it. It was realizing that there were texts that weren’t sacred, that had no power of command over them even though they had tremendous powers of persuasion. That gave me the ability to walk away because they were not Truth, they were a version of truth. And I think that’s all absolutely related to this sort of being able to see fiction as a wonderful music the envelops you and passionately excites you, but is also somewhere being written by someone.
You were writing about atheism very early on. I was wondering if the explosion of so-called new atheism—particularly the virulently anti-theological writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris, and the rest—has surprised you in its potency and popular success.
Yeah, I think I am a bit surprised. Given the power of right-wing religiosity in this country it’s not surprising that there should be a very fierce atheist and rationalist countermovement. I am actually one of these people who really likes watching those YouTube videos with titles like, “Christopher Hitchens owns idiotic Texan religionist” or whatever. I actually watch that stuff and enjoy it. But when I drift down to the comments section, I’m always amazed anew that there are quite so many atheists in this country, and that they are quite so completely fanatical. That is to say, if you are unwise enough, as I have been, to write a sort of plague on both their houses type of piece, in which you are mildly critical of certain elements of the new atheism as well as being fairly obviously critical of religiosity, you get no quarter from the atheistic camp. That always sort of surprises me. There really is no space for any—I won’t say middle position because it isn’t a middle position. I’m a nonbeliever. But that there is no tolerance for the remotest whisper of rational discourse about the fact of religious practice, about the existence of religious practice, is dismaying to me.