“I Was Constantly Writing My Worst Possible Reviews”

How the New Yorker’s literary critic approached writing a novel of his own.

Author and critic James Wood.
Author and critic James Wood.
David Levenson/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to James Wood, a staff writer at the New Yorker and one of the most influential literary critics of his generation. This month, Wood is releasing a novel of his own, Upstate, which tells the story of an English father visiting his grown daughter in upstate New York. Wood himself, who was born in England, lives in Massachusetts with his wife, the novelist Claire Messud.

Below is an excerpt from the show, which has been edited and condensed for clarity. In it, we discuss the differences in writing criticism and fiction, thinking anew about the novels of misbehaving men, and the complicated legacies of Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: How is the process of writing a novel different from the process of writing an essay?

James Wood: So the main difference is a pretty obvious one, of course, and that has to do with temporality. A review is written fairly quickly. It’s a limited project. A novel, I guess, could take an infinite amount of time. This one, despite being short, it took quite a long time, because it kept on being interrupted. So I actually began it about three or four years ago and then stopped writing for seven or eight months, as things got in the way—having to earn a living, being a dad, that sort of thing.

So that’s one basic difference, and I suppose another important one is that one has to suspend thinking about an audience. When you write journalism, an audience is sort of structurally built into the relationship. You’re writing it for an editor who’s going to see it in a day or two. Then the next week, it will be out, and there’s a sort of known quantity, a known audience will be consuming that review, even if it’s a small amount of people. With a novel, you can’t know what that is or think about it, and you have to put it aside. I think that is freeing, too.

And then, of course, there’s probably where you were heading with your question, which is the even deeper question of what faculties are engaged when one is writing creatively as opposed to critically.

So what is the answer to that last part, then?

I saved it for last, because these are the ones I find hard to talk about. I, at least, find I can’t turn off the critical monitor quite how I would like to. I have come to the conclusion, or perhaps I’ve reconciled myself to that inability, but I’ve come to the conclusion that that isn’t such a bad thing, that maintaining a critical consciousness at least enables me to review myself, edit myself, think twice and three times about everything I’m doing, and all the other elements that, of course, are part of any creative endeavor. I’ve sort of cautiously come to embrace that, that inability to turn off the critical side.

Do you think it limits, perhaps, the type of novel you could write, even if not the quality of a specific novel, to be unable to turn off that side of your brain?

Yeah, I think possibly it does. There’s this beautiful phrase I love from V.S. Pritchett, where he talks about how Ford Madox Ford was unable to fall into the relaxed “stupor” that the great artist—he was thinking of, I don’t know, Proust or someone like that—is able to do. That sort of relaxed stupor, that kind of being almost half asleep allows a certain kind of freedom, which I’m not able to find.

Have you gone through the process of reading your book the way you would read a novel that you’re going to review—you know, with your pencil, and you’re sitting in your chair, and you’re checking off what you would, the way you’re writing about some book for the New Yorker?

Oh, yeah. Most certainly. In fact, much more systematically and chronically. That’s to say, again, the review is a limited endeavor. At most, you might be able to read a book twice, though that doesn’t happen much in practice. Then it’s gone. Living with this manuscript, thinking critically about it, and then it has to be said, even after it’s been sent off to the publisher, sort of waking up and finding that half of what you’ve done doesn’t please you. I found it to be sort of an intensely self-critical activity. So yeah, I was constantly writing my worst possible reviews.

The thing you said about not writing for an audience is interesting. Your wife is a novelist. You know a lot of novelists. Is that universal? Because that didn’t strike me as obvious, that novelists are not necessarily writing for an audience.

Yeah, I just felt it was important that I please myself. That meant, as it were, not pleasing an audience, which meant, further, not even relating to a potential audience. I don’t know how other writers think about this, though I think increasingly that literary writers are going to have to stop thinking about audiences, because I don’t know that they have much grasp anymore of what the components of that audience are.

Your book, Upstate, is about a father and daughters. Why do you think there aren’t more books written about the father-daughter relationship, compared to the other possible parent-child relationships?

That is a very good question, because it seems you’re right. I mean, fiction is absolutely dominated by same-gender relationships and then even further dominated by father-and-son relationships. I guess that writers feel that there’s a kind of intense internal struggle that is more dynamic, somehow, if it’s within the gender, and perhaps more violent in its nature. But for me, the interest really starts when the genders cross. That’s where it’s really interesting. So I was absolutely sure that I wanted to write about a father and two daughters.

Is that because of your own experience as a father?

Yeah. I have an elder daughter and a younger son. I had an easy relationship, in some ways, with my dad. But it could be said I had a fairly boring one too, and that all the energy actually was cross-gender. So the fierceness in my family and all the authority was from my mum. So my schooling, as it were, as a kid was in how to manage the parent who wasn’t male. So maybe it came out of that. I don’t know.

You know you’re a novelist because I’m asking you boring novelist questions like, “How much of this is drawn from real life?”

I’m happy to talk about that.

How old is your daughter now?

She’s 16.

Has she read the book?

She’s not read the book, and I don’t want to get too autobiographical, but I will say that I just mentioned two families: the one which I’ve partly created and the one that I was born into. In both of those cases, there have, of course, been happy experiences and unhappy experiences. As I think I said, my mother was sort of fierce and somewhat abusive, even, and quite unhappy. There was a lot of depression around, and it didn’t seem to be something that afflicted my dad in the same way. So I think, from an early age, I was trying to consider these issues: Why one person and not the other? How are these things distributed? And then how, of course, they were handed onto the children of those people. I’m one of three siblings, and, looking at the three of us, there would seem also to be a kind of uneven, somewhat unfair, and apparently random distribution of happiness and unhappiness, or just call it stability and instability. Then when you have kids yourself, you begin to think about this, just at the basic level of noticing how very different one child is from the other and how little control you had over that and will have over that.

I had your wife on the show about [10] months ago. I asked her what it was like to have a husband who’s a literary critic reading her work. She said, “It’s harder for him in the situation than me.” I think she meant that, He’s the one who has to read my novels and give comments on it, so it’s harder than me reading his literary essays. What is that like now that the situation is reversed and you’re writing novels?

I don’t know if it was harder or less hard, but it was incredibly useful, because she’s able to encourage me when I feel like it’s gone flat and dead and I haven’t written anything for four months. So, she was very good, just at that practical level. Then she was the first reader when the manuscript was finished, and that was immensely helpful, because she read it and said, with a novelist’s eye, “This is fine, but there are a couple of lines that seem to have been snipped off too early, that you need to continue right to the end of the book” and really showed me how to do that. So that was … yeah, that was splendid.

If you go back and read old novels or even more current novels of, let’s say, misbehaving men, are you reading them from a different perspective at all these days, or have you thought anew about engaging with literature that is created by people who may not have been the best people in their personal lives?

Sure. Yeah. I think I know where you’re going with the question, and, yes, I was just thinking about this when Philip Roth died. When I pretty much arrived at Harvard in 2003, maybe two years later, I taught Sabbath’s Theater, a book I very much admire and, certainly, a problematic book about a misbehaving man—also, I think, a tragic book about a certain burden of male sexuality, and that’s how I taught it. But I don’t think I would teach that book now, and I would probably be a little too anxious about my ability to pull it off, as a teacher. So yes, I think things have changed. That said, going way back to my late 20s, whenever I wrote about John Updike, I was always very critical, [and] had no time for the sort of misogyny, and so on.

I think there are specific, perhaps institutional, things that have changed, but I don’t know that my understanding, particularly of that postwar generation of male writers, has changed very much. They’ve always seemed a fairly flawed bunch of people to me, particularly in the way they write about women or don’t even admit women into their fictions.

When you say you wonder about your ability to pull off teaching Sabbath’s Theater, does that mean that you think the consciousness of students has changed, and so they would respond differently to the same lesson? Or does it mean that you feel like maybe you weren’t talking about it properly, and now you’re aware that you weren’t talking about it properly?

No. I don’t think that. That’s to say, I think I would teach it almost exactly as I did in 2005, when I distinctly remember we talked about the misogyny, but then we also tried to talk about how the novel is pretty critical of a kind of … yeah, a sort of vicious sort of unbridled male sexuality.

No, really what I mean is that it’s really almost a thing as basic as speech acts. That’s to say, I don’t think what I say would be different. There are literally passages that I read out in 2005 that I would feel anxious about reading out now.

What do you mean by anxious? That your students would feel anxious?

Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t easy in 2005. I was aware that there were certain students who were sort of leaving. It was a lecture, so people could come and go. But there was a certain sense of … the room was getting a little emptier over the three weeks that we discussed that novel, and that’s fine. But yes, I think there would be the slight fear now that some of the energy of the comedy of that novel would be unspeakable.

Along the lines of what you’re saying, it feels like we’re at a point in American culture where, with a lot of the criticism of art and books, aesthetic judgments are talked about less than they were, and the politics of the work under consideration is talked about more.


I think that there are obvious reasons for that, that things are becoming more politicized—some good, some maybe not so good. Do you feel that when you are reading criticism, and how do you feel about it?

I do. Actually, I felt that to be a movement that certainly predates the Trump administration and also predates the #MeToo movement. I mean, for some time now, probably even going back to, say, my book How Fiction Works, when that came out in 2008, I’ve felt that I’ve been, to some extent, fighting a somewhat sort of rearguard activity, as a formalist, and having to make a case as a formalist, as someone who attends to aesthetic matters in a way that perhaps wasn’t true, I don’t know, 10 or 15 years ago.

Actually, the politicization of everything only makes me more keen to secure a kind of sacred space. I like the idea of form as something that draws a circle around material that will be utterly changed within that circle and that is also set apart somewhat from contemporary political issues. Do you know what I mean? I guess I find myself drawn more and more to pieces of music or poems or certain novels that don’t have much to say directly about our contemporary issues and that seem to have this sort of formal band around them, within which there is a kind of stillness, almost.

You coined a term called hysterical realism about 18 years ago, reviewing Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth. For people who haven’t read your piece or haven’t heard the term hysterical realism, do you want to just define it quickly?

Sure. I don’t know whether it has much coinage anymore or whether it should. It was, for me, a way of talking about a kind of comedy in fiction that seemed intent on a sort of slightly bogus vitality, which tended toward caricature and zaniness and extremity, rather than the subtler arts of comedy, and also tended to swerve away from something that I think is one of the central strands in the novelistic tradition, which is tragicomedy—the sort of comedy that makes you cry, the laughter-through-tears kind of tradition, which I think is, really, in a way, the novel’s invention.

Have you thought about your critique of hysterical realism now, given how hysterical the world we’re living in actually is? People may often feel like they’re living in a hysterical reality. But this does seem like a unique moment in all kinds of ways.

I think that’s a very good point. So just to back up for a second, I have, of course, rethought that whole critique. Sometimes, probably to please myself or justify myself, more than anything else, I’ve tended to reformulate it so that I now think sometimes, when I look back at that essay, it wasn’t so much the hysteria side of things I was criticizing as, in some ways, the realism side of things. That’s to say, there were two parts of that critique. The critique was about a kind of comedy, but the critique was also about a certain way in which those novelists were, at once, very unrealistic but, at the same time, in terms of the grammar of the fiction, were just following a fairly boring realism. They didn’t seem, to me, to be doing anything very interesting with form.

But you’re right. Of course, that feeling of the novel being in competition, particularly with American reality, is not a new one. I mean, you could probably say it goes all the way back to Melville’s The Confidence Man. But the aforementioned Philip Roth famously talked in the early ’60s about American reality sort of outdoing fiction’s abilities to catch up.

Here’s what I wouldn’t change. We’re in hysterically unreal times, but does it follow that the novel is trying to mirror or embody that, or is the novel doing something related to but subtly different from that kind of lived experience of hysteria? In other words, I think you could make a case that precisely what we don’t need now is fiction that exactly maps onto the anxiety of our times.

I remember reading a Salman Rushdie quote, which I always thought was a strange way of looking at things, where he essentially says, India’s a big place, a crowded place. It’s hot. There’s tons of energy. So prose to capture India essentially needs to be all those things. I thought that was a category error of some sort.

Absolutely, and was brilliantly critiqued both in essayistic form and in the form of his own fiction by the Anglo-Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, who’s been very good on this, this idea of this mimetic fallacy, this idea that you fill up the form with the thing it’s representing and that it looks like the thing it’s representing.

It’s interestingly written into, I think, the American challenge. It’s written into the project of the Great American Novel. It’s written into, say, Whitman’s work, when Whitman says, America is “the greatest poem.” So it’s not going to go away as a particular kind of fraughtness for American writers.

What do you think Roth’s legacy is in America fiction?

I do think he was the great stealth postmodernist, and it’s the obvious difference between him and the other Jewish American writer that he adored above all, Saul Bellow, who, essentially, was not an experimentalist in any way. There was play at the level of sentence, but it wasn’t about essentially changing the forms.

With Roth, it wasn’t just that he was interested in veils of fictionality, alter egos, and so on. He really liked the challenge of form. He really liked to tell a story one way, then to tell it the other way. He liked splitting characters up, in the way he did in Operation Shylock. He liked writing, essentially, about himself. If you look at what’s currently energetic in American writing—autobiography, autofiction, essays—Roth was there 20 years earlier, particularly with a book like The Counterlife, which I very much admire.

Another writer who passed away within the last month or so is Tom Wolfe, who also left a big imprint on American letters, in terms of both fiction and nonfiction, and liked to play around with ideas of realism. What are your feelings about Tom Wolfe and his legacy?

So I can see that the journalism was important when it came out. There were two ways of responding to the ’60s. There was loud, because the time was loud, and that was Wolfe and many others. Then there was quiet, like Joan Didion, where you were fiercely filtering everything.

I suppose I’m going to sound very contrary if I say that some of the loudness irritates me in Wolfe, but also some of the quietness in Didion seems too filtered to me now. I guess I want something in the middle. But the journalism is important and will obviously last.

I couldn’t bear his fiction, because it took from the hysteria of the journalism, or it transferred it directly to the fiction. You find that there’s no individuation in Wolfe’s novels. Everyone thinks and speaks in exactly the same way, which is to say, loudly. If you think of it in musical terms, there’s no attention to dynamics. It’s as if the orchestra or the band is just playing at full volume for a five-hour gig, and then you just collapse with bleeding ears at the end of it. It’s appalling.

Yeah. A Man in Full is the worst long novel that I’ve actually finished—or the longest worst novel that I’ve actually finished to the end and not quit.

I perhaps shouldn’t say this, because I’m offering up a hostage to fortune when I say it, but it shows that it isn’t always an easy thing to move from one genre to another. In other words, the qualities that made his journalism interesting—a playfulness with form and the sort of ear for excess … they don’t work at all in his fiction. Of course, in fictional terms, he’s completely traditional. There’s no experimentation whatsoever. Any boldness in the journalism isn’t there in the fiction at all. It’s a completely lazy inheritance of, essentially, popular realist grammar.