Wood, James 1965-
WOOD, James 1965-
PERSONAL: Born 1965, in England; married Claire Messud (an author); children: two. Education: Jesus College, Cambridge, M.A., 1988.
ADDRESSES: Home—Cambridge, MA. Offıce—New Republic, 1331 H St. NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005.
CAREER: Guardian, London, England, former chief literary critic, beginning 1991; New Republic, Washington, DC, currently senior editor. Has been a visiting lecturer at Kenyon College and Harvard University.
(Editor and author of introduction) Selected Stories ofD. H. Lawrence, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1999.
The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
The Book against God (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2003.
The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (essays), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker.
SIDELIGHTS: Considered by many of his colleagues to be one of the most insightful and interesting literary critics writing today, James Wood has been a star commentator on the current state of literature since he became chief literary critic at the London Guardian at the age of twenty-six. Leaving his native England to become senior editor for the New Republic, Wood is known for presenting no-holds-barred critiques of contemporary authors, and has no compunctions about writing negative reviews of works by otherwise-lauded writers such as Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Don Delillo, and Tom Wolfe. A fan of the works of Henry James, Wood is critical of the overly self-conscious novel as well as of authors who create one-dimensional characters solely for the purpose of bolstering an overarching theme or attaining melodramatic effect.
As Joshua Glenn observed in a Boston Globe article, "Wood suggests that many of today's most brilliant writers have retreated from the rich complexities of the modern novel into the didactic, cartoon-like satire of earlier fiction." Many of his fellow critics, such as Spectator contributor Stephen Abell, consider Wood to be "a stylish writer as well as a clear-sighted reader," and in the words of Sanford Pinsker in the American Scholar, he was described as a "an unashamedly and uncompromisingly moral critic." He has also been accused of lapsing into "ridiculously flowery" prose, as Adam Begley observed in the New York Observer. At the same time, reviewers praise Wood for avoiding jargon in his reviews and for his devotion to his subject. He is, according to Begley, "recklessly committed to literature . . . and brave enough to risk ridicule by pushing every thought to the limit."
Raised in an evangelical Christian home in northern England, Wood lost his faith when he was still a teenager and supplanted it with a devotion to art, which has become his surrogate religion. This tie between religion and literature is evident in his first collection of critical essays, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. The twenty-one works in this collection cover such author as John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, and DeLillo, and although they were not written specifically for this book, the chapters clearly have something in common. As Pinsker pointed out, each essay "is part of a continuing argument about what novels can and cannot do once traditional religious beliefs become significantly altered." It is Wood's theory that the rise of the novel helped to bring down the "old estate" of Christianity as people began to realize that the Bible could be viewed as narrative fiction. "Jesus," explained Pinsker, "lost his divinity, became only an inspiring fantasist." Reviewers of The Broken Estate found such ideas fascinating. As Booklist writer Donna Seaman noted, "the intensity of his engagement is truly exhilarating," and Mary Paumier Jones concluded in Library Journal that "Wood provokes, entertains, and stimulates."
The theme uniting Wood's more recent essay collection The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel considers the nature of comedy in literature and includes commentaries on authors ranging from William Shakespeare to Saul Bellow. Among these works, the critic examines what he calls the comedy of forgiveness, or empathetic comedy, which he says involves stories with an irresponsible character whose actions result in a tragicomedy, a mix of the humorous and the sad that evokes empathetic laughter from the reader. Using Shakespeare as a touchstone for good writing in this manner, Wood dissects modern authors, consequently lambasting the works of such writers as Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Frantzen, Zadie Smith, and Salman Rushdie while praising the writing of Leo Tolstoy, Italo Svevo, V. S. Pritchett, and Henry Green. "His disapproving dismantling of the 'hysterical realism' of Pynchon and De Lillo, Frantzen and Smith, represents the intellectual triumph of the collection," commented Abell, adding that Wood feels that too often modern writers "tell the culture the things the culture already knows anyway." Reviewers of The Irresponsible Self considered the book "unusually rich and satisfying," as Andrew Wylie asserted in Kirkus Reviews. Donna Seaman similarly concluded in Booklist that this "series of essays . . . forms an intellectually exhilarating whole."
When Wood decided to write a novel of his own, he knew he was venturing into hazardous territory and leaving himself open to the same critical lances he had thrown at other authors. Characteristically, The Book against God found admirers and detractors alike. Intended to fall into the tragicomic class of fiction about which he has written critically, Wood's story centers on Thomas Bunting, an antihero who has completed all but his dissertation towards a Ph.D. His promise to his wife and others that he will complete the dissertation becomes an extended lie, for he has actually discontinued work on it in favor of writing in his private series of journal notebooks that he collectively calls his "Book against God," or BAG. His long-suffering wife, who has been supporting Bunting financially while he dallies, eventually leaves him; he also sacrifices his career to his obsession. At first, Bunting blames his dissertation for his personal problems, but he eventually comes to realize it is the BAG that has consumed his life. Some reviewers of The Book against God faulted it for a lack of irony and humor, citing it as a book that lacks an emotional center. "I regret to report," wrote World and I contributor Merritt Moseley, "that The Book against God is one of the most humorless novels I have read in a very long time." Moseley considered the self-involved Bunting to be more irritating than comical and found the story's conclusion neither "tragic" nor "even very sad."
Other critics, such as Nation writer Brian Morton, were similarly confused about what Wood is trying to accomplish with his tale. "Bunting is an enjoyable character, but it isn't clear what Wood wants us to make of him," Morton wrote, concluding that The Book against God "is not a masterful novel" though it is evidence of a "talented beginner." A number of other reviewers found much to enjoy in Wood's debut novel, with David Propson asserting in the "New Criterion" that "it is a . . . deeply comic novel and a clever inversion of a conventional narrative." William Skidelsky, writing in the New Statesman, also noted that "The Book against God perfectly embodies its author's stipulation"—whether or not one considers Wood's novel an accomplished piece of fiction, it at least adheres to his personal ideals of what makes a good novel.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Wood, James, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2004.
American Scholar, summer, 1999, Sanford Pinsker, review of The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, p. 139.
Booklist, June 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of TheBroken Estate, p. 1774; May 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of The Book against God, p. 1646; May 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, p. 1592.
Boston Globe, August 15, 2004, Joshua Glenn, "The Morals of the Story," p. D3.
Economist, April 12, 2003, review of The Book againstGod.
Entertainment Weekly, June 25, 2004, Troy Patterson, "Book Critic Face-off: Potshots and Pans," p. 170.
First Things, December, 2003, Dermont Quinn, review of The Book against God, p. 53.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2003, review of The Book against God, p. 570; March 15, 2004, Andrew Wylie, review of The Irresponsible Self, p. 264.
Library Journal, May 1, 1999, Mary Paumier Jones, review of The Broken Estate, p. 80; May 15, 2003, Edward B. St. John, review of The Book against God, p. 128.
Nation, June 30, 2003, Brian Morton, review of TheBook against God, p. 30.
New Criterion, June, 2003, David Propson, review of The Book against God, p. 87.
New Statesman, February 12, 1999, Malcolm Bradbury, review of The Broken Estate, p. 52; March 31, 2003, William Skidelsky, review of The Book against God, p. 53.
New Yorker, June 16, 2003, review of The Book against God, p. 197.
Publishers Weekly, April 19, 1999, review of TheBroken Estate, p. 47; March 31, 2003, review of The Book against God, p. 38; April 12, 2004, review of The Irresponsible Self, p. 45.
Spectator, April 19, 2003, D. J. Taylor, review of TheBook against God, p. 41; May 29, 2004, Stephen Abell, review of The Irresponsible Self, p. 35.
Wilson Quarterly, autumn, 1999, James Morris, review of The Broken Estate, p. 117.
World and I, December, 2003, Merritt Moseley, "Faithful to Faithlessness: James Wood, a Spirited Literary Critic, First-time Novelist, and Lapsed Believer, Becomes a Victim of His Own Devices," p. 211.
LA Weekly Online,http://www.laweekly.com/ (May 30, 2003), Brendan Bernhard, "The Critic: James Wood on Literary Fervor, Bad Movies and His First Novel."
Morning News Online,http://www.themorningnews.org/ (July 13, 2004), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Wood.
New York Observer Online,http://www.observer.com/ (December 20, 2004), Adam Begley, "Lit Crit as It Ought to Be: Open-eyed, Recklessly Committed."*