Some years ago philosopher Martha Nussbaum lamented the state of contemporary literary (academic) criticism, observing that it does not communicate “the sense that we are social beings puzzling out, in times of great moral difficulty, what might be, for us, the best way to live.” She hungers for “writing about literature that talks of human lives and choices as if they matter to us all.” (Both quotations are from her essay “Perceptive Equlibrium: Literary Theory and Ethical Theory,” included in Love’s Knowledge.) A similar dissatisfaction with the nature of academic criticism motivates my own current efforts to find other ways and other examples of writing about literature. In the essays and reviews I have just read by James Wood, I have found what I was looking for. Wood draws on a rich knowledge of literary traditions and is not afraid to be erudite, or to use technical vocabulary to explicate literary styles and devices; anyone who can (so aptly, too) describe Isabel Archer and Fanny Price as “highly literate hermeneuts of the material that we, too, are reading” (in his essay “The Unwinding Stair“) is not writing “Lit Lite” or “Classics for Dummies.” But–or do I mean “And”?–he combines this kind of unabashedly intellectual analysis with reflections at once personal and philosophical, dispassionate and fully engaged with the conversations the books seem to him to get started. Though I have gathered up some examples of Wood’s comments on literary criticism and theory more generally, I am most interested in how he deals with specific examples, and of these, I was most impressed with his reviews of McEwan’s Saturday and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I thought these would make good test cases, as I have read the novels recently and thought about them a fair amount.
I’ll give just a one long example, from the conclusion of his Ishiguro review. After a thoughtful discussion of the novel’s story, its narration, and Ishiguro’s “studied husbanding of affect” in this chillingly quiet account of clones raised, we gradually realize, to serve as organ donors for “normals,” Wood asks, “what if we are more like Tommy and Kathy than we at first imagined?”
Everything they do is dipped in futility, because the great pool of death awaits them. They possess individuality, and seem to enjoy it (they fall in love, they have sex, they read George Eliot), but that individuality is a mirage, a parody of liberty. Their lives have been written in advance … Their freedom is a tiny hemmed thing, their lives a vast stitch-up.
We begin the novel horrified by their difference from us and end it thoughtful about their similarity to us. After all, heredity writes a great deal of our destiny for us; and death soon enough makes us orphans. … To be assured of death at twenty-five or so, as [these cloned] children are, seems to rob life of all its savor and purpose. But why do we persist in the idea that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose?
And from that he can return to Kafka, and Beckett, and Hardy (“When Dead”: “This fleeting life-brief blight / Will have gone past / When I resume my old and right / Place in the Vast”). From the uncanny ordinariness of the narrator’s voice, so seemingly unsuited to the extraordinary nature of her story, Ishiguro and Wood together make us look again at the whole idea of the ordinary, and in particular the most certain, “normal” thing of all, death. While the experience and the focus is explicitly textual, the meaning is intensely human. Something very similar happens in the end of Wood’s review of Saturday: “At the last, the novel’s literalist hero delicately gathers his very literal Saturday, and makes it metaphorical, emblematic; all our Saturdays will become Sundays, as all our yesterdays have lit the way to dusty death.”
But what is Wood’s contribution here? Why is anything further than Ishiguro’s original telling (as Wood says, “curious, surprisingly suggestive and tender”) necessary? Wood and Ishiguro meditate on the purpose of life, but what, on this example, is the purpose of criticism? (As my students sometimes ask, rather querulously, “if that’s what the author meant, why didn’t he just say so?”) One thing I think Wood does is model a thoughtful, sensitive, well-informed reading, in the spirit of “did you notice this? what about this?” He also takes Ishiguro’s offering and gives it a different kind of life: the conversation is not over when the book ends, and Ishiguro’s is not the final word. Now we see something that Ishiguro has shown us, or as he has perceived it, and we can talk about it too. Ishiguro has described the novelist’s work as a way of saying “It’s like this, isn’t it? Don’t you see it this way too?” (I’m paraphrasing)–and so when he’s done talking, we see what we think, or say something back. But Wood is also interested in the novel as an art form, in how and why specific kinds of narration, for instance, create certain effects, or generate (or control) affect and emotion. The trained eye sees better, understands the alternatives better. In the mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon,” there’s a wonderful episode in which a geologist is assigned to train the astronauts to collect rock samples from the moon. The crucial step is getting them to see, not just undifferentiated rocks, but specific kinds of rocks that tell their own stories and accrue meaning and significance through their shapes, composition, and location. Critics (any experts, really) help less experienced readers in the same way, telling them some of the things they can look for and why they might be interesting. They train you in appreciation and make you excited about the aesthetic and intellectual experience of reading attentively.
In an earlier post I quoted Denis Donoghue remarking that contemporary critics do not allow writers their own themes. Clearly, Wood takes a different approach. One way I might describe it is that he is thinking through the literature he is reading–not against it. One effect is that his own writing comes to sound like those he writes about (as in the example above from his Saturday review, which in turns has–fittingly and I’m sure deliberately–the beautiful cadences of the ending of Joyce’s “The Dead”). It is a sympathetic, rather than symptomatic, reading, though this is not to say there is no room for criticism in the narrower sense of disagreement or evaluation. For instance, he thinks parts of Never Let Me Go lapse “from picture to diagram” (as GE put it).
I’m interested to see what a bad review from him looks like [update: I’ve seen one now, with his review of Updike’s Terrorist–ouch], and I’m also very interested in reading more of his comments on the relationship between his work and that of academic critics.