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James Wood and His Critics

James Wood, the former book critic for The New Republic, is moving to the New Yorker. His new position will give give him almost twenty percent more potential readers, and it will introduce his unflinchingly academic approach to criticism to … Read More

By / August 27, 2007

James Wood, the former book critic for The New Republic, is moving to the New Yorker. His new position will give give him almost twenty percent more potential readers, and it will introduce his unflinchingly academic approach to criticism to a lot of Upper East siders who'd prefer not to think so hard in their shrink's waiting room.

Wood, who is British, has received a lot of criticism of his criticism. The criticism often seems written by people who don't actually finish Wood's reviews. There are those that claim he's a book critic who hates books, but they are wilfully ignoring his gushing (sentimental?) paeans to the likes of Saul Bellow. Admittedly, TNR can be contrarian for it's own sake, but more often its contrarianism is undergirded by a belief in something better (and more often,traditional); Wood is the best example I know of the latter. And those that say he's stuck in the past ignore his recommendation of WG Sebald, for example, whose "Rings of Saturn" is absolutely confounding in the best possible way.

More interesting are those that say he "he just doesn't get America" (Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press). Indeed, most of the outrage at (and subsequent fear of) of Wood is in response to his attacks on writers like Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison in the spirit of his greater crusade against (his phrase) "hysterical realism". True, Wood's takedown of Morrison's "Paradise"–which "is a novel babyishly cradled in magic…sentimental, evasive, and cloudy"–is a triumph for humanity. But he has also levied serious criticisms against British writers like Zadie Smith ("Autograph Man" is a "a flailing, noisy hash of jokes, cool cultural references, pull-quotes, lists and roaring italics. It is like reading a newspaper designed by a kindergarten.") and Salman Rushdie, that overrated arrogant pseudo-hero, most notably in an essay titled "Salman Rushdie's Nobu Novel". Wood's best reviews are purely literary while resonating politically.

At the NYER, Wood will write more, shorter pieces; he says he hopes to write about writers unknown to the New Yorker's readers, perhaps even hitherto unknown to Wood himself. Here's hoping that the NYER's weirdly uniform style doesn't kill Wood's own measured exuberance, and that he can scare those in the world's literary community who've made a living rallying around noise rather than individually mining for style.

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