Letter from the Editor Philip Brennan
By the time Edmund Wilson died in the early 70s, the increasing self-consciousness of academic criticism had rendered his critical style, impressionistic judgments rendered ex cathedra, obsolete. Wilson was a belletristic don, and like a don’s, his tone at once conveyed and confirmed an uncontestable authority: “The period of the American Civil War was not one in which belles letters flourished,” he announces in the opening paragraph of Patriotic Gore. Learned, stylish, and accessible, Wilson’s criticism represented the high-water mark of literary criticism for a lay audience, though today it rings quaint, even a little campy; it smells like sweaty wool, pipe smoke, and scotch. Disturbed by the fact that no godfather has risen to take Wilson’s place, contemporary critics like James Wood, predictably enough, blame academic criticism for the current state of affairs. “Theory” is the epithet they use to refer to a rot that they believe has beset a proud tradition of public literary criticism.
The rise of “theory,” Wood has noted, turned criticism away from its original mission of assessing literary value. Thus diverted, criticism has become irrelevant to the reading public. “[L]iterary criticism as a discourse available for, and even attractive to, the common reader has all but disappeared,” Wood wrote recently in the London Review of Books. Wood attributes the disappearance to the shift in academic criticism away from questions of value and intent; the more infected the academy became with French philosophy, the more criticism metastasized into something meta-aesthetic, deconstructed, self-conscious, psychoanalyzed, and historicized, the less capable it was of addressing the concerns of ordinary readers. Once, Wood seems to imagine, readers turned to critics for judgment and guidance. The critic loomed as a presence behind a reader’s chair, nodding as the reader saw in the book in his lap the evidence of the critic’s sound judgment. This was Eden. Sitting beneath the leaves of the little magazines in a state of innocence, critics read and judged, basking in the grace of God. Then one day, Satan wriggled in through the fence and tempted them with the deadly apple of theory.
No one will dispute the fact that public critics no longer form the vanguard of literary criticism. However, this situation does not, as Wood thinks, constitute a failing on the part of Anglo-American literary culture. It is a result both of changes in professional literary studies and of the institutionalization of literary production in the university. Academics today are more open to contemporary writing than they were in Wilson’s time. Scholars in the first half of the 20th century were reluctant to expand the boundaries of their discipline beyond the received canon, which included no twentieth century writers and was only reluctantly beginning to admit American writers like Emerson. They ignored the contemporary avant-garde, directing their efforts instead toward explaining and evaluating, say, Milton. Scholarly stuffiness left an unmet need for competent readers of contemporary writers, and critics like Wilson achieved their stature by filling that need. In addition to becoming more sympathetic with the projects of working writers, universities have become instrumental in providing them with material support—always hard to come by but made especially scarce by the legacy of Cold War anti-intellectualism. The coziness of writers and academia, as well as the prominence of critical theory as an intellectual discourse, has helped writers become as critically sophisticated as their critics. Wood, who dismisses writing of a postmodern turn as “hysterical realism,” believes that writers’ engagement with critical theory has resulted in the production of books full of ideas but devoid of characters. But his dismissal of “hyperrealism”—as he terms the novels of Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, et al — is mere anti-intellectualism. Ideas have always mattered to novels, and to hope writers have some privileged view of the world that is utterly uncontaminated by curiosity or by acquaintance with non-literary forms of writing is unrealistic: it is nostalgia for a mythic time when writers humbly channeled the Muse and left it to critics to interpret their work.
While Wood thinks recent intellectual history has meant disaster for public criticism, it has, in fact, left us with a more precise, less grandiose style of book reviewing. Mindful of Pope’s advice to critics (“Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,/And mark that point where sense and dullness meet.”), this style makes more claims about books and fewer about literature. Few practicing book reviewers today would claim that their task is to evaluate new books for admission to a canon, especially when hundreds of merely creditable books are reviewed in a given month, and when in a year maybe one really good book, one that people will be reading in ten years, is published. How ridiculous would it be if a reviewer who gets stuck with the latest Joyce Carol Oates compared it to Melville? Good reviews never mask the fact that they are mere registers of the reviewer’s experience reading the book. The review is a matter of taste above all, and the reader will find those opinions that belong most conspicuously to a person to be the most helpful. I say this, of course, not to make any metaphysical claim about aesthetics, not to declare lamely that taste is subjective and that’s it. Rather, I say this in order to leave the question conspicuously alone, not out of intellectual laziness but as a way to reserve a space for a mode of reviewing that celebrates the pleasure of reading. Such a mode is more properly called literary journalism than literary criticism, for journalism captures the immediacy and specificity of events as they happen. In a book review the event in question is the reviewer’s reaction, all that he can praise and blame in a given book.
Wood, of course, imagines his mission as something grander than mere literary journalism. He wants to shape the direction of literature by consolidating and increasing whatever influence on literary production he wields as a critic. In his struggle to make criticism matter again, to reanimate the bones of T.S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson, Wood treats reviews as acts of self-assertion; a Wood review has an unmistakable scent. The results of Wood’s superman criticism are mixed. Like an autocrat who bends his own rules for expediency’s sake, Wood often neglects to follow his own critical formula, that value follows intention and instead uses reviews as pretexts for illustrating his critical principles. The result leaves the reader feeling ripped off, as if the piece, partly about whatever poor author happens to be under Wood’s scalpel and half about Wood himself, has defaulted on its promise as a review. The work reviewed becomes a specimen dissected to illustrate a type.
Wood’s tendency to stray from the text weakens his criticism. Despite the unforgiving anonymity of any lab, a specimen still possesses a stubborn specificity. So too with books. Wood panned Terry Eagleton’s After Theory, largely, it seems, because of hostility to Eagleton’s enterprise. Instead of asking what Eagleton intended to do and how well he did it, Wood dismisses the whole project as ill conceived from the start. Eagleton has no pretension to being a stylist, yet like a bully mashing a chunk of asphalt into a snowball, Wood’s review sneaks a critical vocabulary meant for novels into criticism of a theoretical work: “[B]y any higher literary standard, he falls too often into a crowd pleasing intellectual vivacity of style, a laddish, overly journalistic surplus. It is a style in which the truth cannot be told.” What? Driven by suspicion of critical theory, Wood moves with amazing quickness from trashing Eagleton’s style to attacking his good faith. Does Wood mean that Eagleton’s style is an unfortunate choice, a medium that garbles his meaning, or does he mean that Eagleton has chosen the style in order to obfuscate deliberately? Wood even psychologizes: “Eagleton dislikes [postmodernism], because, as a lapsed Catholic and an unlapsed Marxist, he believes in truth, foundations, and totalities.”
Whatever my reservations about Wood’s criticism, however rude my desire to call him pompous, precious, or fussy, he is famous. So what is the secret of his success? How is it that Wood is hailed as the savior of literary criticism and a redeemer of public intellectual life? Did Jesus intervene, a little embarrassed at being hero to creation scientists and mall-church pietists, relieved that he finally had a champion at the New Republic and one who writes thoughtful meditations on belief in the modern world at that? Or did Wood do it alone? His fame, admittedly well deserved, is very much self-cultivated. Part of the agenda he’s promoting, to make novels matter again, involves restoring to critics the power to declare which books are important. Wood longs for the authority of an Edmund Wilson or a Clement Greenberg, who, like those Modernists with unmistakable styles whose careers they helped launch, developed signature personas. Wood’s aesthetic isn’t necessarily modernist—he most likes authors who promise “to return fiction to its nineteenth-century gravity”—but his critical ethos is. He wants to be remembered as a critic who shaped the direction of literature through asserting superior taste.
Wood’s use of the word “gravity” to praise nineteenth-century fiction reveals that he suffers from the misfortune of being born at the wrong time. He should have lived in the 20s, when critics mattered and people still struggled with the question of belief. For at least the last 15 years, “decentered” has been the buzzword describing the contemporary situation. The concepts that it signifies have been central to the ideas—oh, that pernicious “theory”—used in interpreting much of postwar artistic production. Gravity, of course, implies a center, a force producing stability and coherence. I’m sure Wood’s word choice was not intended to imply the contrast between his aesthetic and postmodern concerns, but in any case, his desire that today’s fiction share nineteenth-century characteristics, like realism or a concern for questions of belief, is almost as absurd as hoping today’s fiction show deep anxieties about the findings of Darwin. Wood has forgotten that the primary job of any literary journalist is simply to keep an open mind (the editor of any high school lit mag could tell you that), and that the purpose of public criticism is not to shape the course of art but to elucidate and interpret individual works. Public literary criticism should be an a posteriori exercise, that is, it should look at what writers are producing, ask what they intended to do, and then, with humility and good faith, judge how well they’ve done it. Wood preaches this critical formula, but he lets a priori aesthetic notions get in the way of his adhering to it.
If he’d lived at the right time, maybe Wood could have been a minister, doling out sermons directing a congregation’s eyes and hearts heavenward. Much has already been written about Wood’s religiosity, and if I had to guess, I’d say the causes of this inky torrent are first, the novelty of witnessing a modern intellectual’s personal religious struggle, and second, the impression Wood’s quest conveys of high seriousness and otherworldly purpose.