Read The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by JamesWood Online


Published when he was thirty-three, The Broken Estate is the first book of essays by the man who would become one of America's most esteemed literary critics. Ranging in subject from Jane Austen to John Updike, this collection introduced American readers to a new kind of humanist criticism. Wood is committed to judging literature through its connection with the soul, its aPublished when he was thirty-three, The Broken Estate is the first book of essays by the man who would become one of America's most esteemed literary critics. Ranging in subject from Jane Austen to John Updike, this collection introduced American readers to a new kind of humanist criticism. Wood is committed to judging literature through its connection with the soul, its appeal to our appetites and identities, and he examines his subjects rigorously, without ever losing sight of the mysterious human impulse that has made these works valuable to generations of readers....

Title : The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief
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ISBN : 9780312429560
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Number of Pages : 304 Pages
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The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief Reviews

  • Ian
    2018-11-26 14:21

    The Broken EstateWhat does Wood mean by a "broken estate"? I wondered this while comfortably reading the Introduction to this book, an essay called "The Freedom of Not Quite".Wood argues that the "old estate" died in the middle of the nineteenth century. This is how he defines it:"I would define the old estate as the supposition that religion was a set of divine truth-claims, and that the Gospel narratives were supernatural reports; fiction might be supernatural too, but fiction was always fictional, it was not in the same order of truth as the Gospel narratives."If religion represents a divine truth, then it is expected that we will believe it. If fiction is fabricated by man, then it doesn't necessarily follow that we should believe it.Wood suggests that the old estate started to break down when these two positions began to soften and merge. The Gospels started to be read as fiction, and fiction became an almost religious activity.Wood believes that the ascent of science and the rise of the novel helped to kill off the divinity of Jesus. If the Gospels were fiction, then Jesus couldn't be the Son of God.At the same time:"...the novel gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative - and then in turn a new scepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative."Narrative, Truth and BeliefWood structures his arguments about belief in terms of two related concepts: narrative and truth. He differentiates between narratives in terms of orders of truth.A narrative appears to be a communication between an (express or implied) author and a reader.There seem to be three orders of truth.Firstly, according to Wood, the Christian Gospels were originally supposed to be supernatural narratives that were communicated to man by God. They were therefore supposed to be incontrovertible truth. The role of the reader was to believe, to become a believer. (view spoiler)[This argument seems to ignore the fact that the Gospels, in particular, are not necessarily accepted as truth by Judaism, other non-Christian religions, Agnosticism and Atheism. (hide spoiler)]Secondly, science constitutes a narrative of another order of truth, presumably man-made. It's arguable that history might fit in this category as well.Lastly, Wood argues that fiction represents another order of truth in the way it represents what he describes as "the real".How We Read FictionWood explains what he means about fiction in terms of how we readers respond to it.He believes that we "register the reality" of what we read in fiction. We sympathise, identify, and empathise with characters. An exchange or sharing of identities between the reader and the characters occurs. (view spoiler)[The relationship with the characters seems to be primary for Wood, although plot might be the vehicle by which we learn about them over time. (hide spoiler)]This exchange doesn't require aesthetic realism to happen. Wood argues that "just enough" suffices as real. The reader interprets the fiction "as if" it was real. In a way, the reader's imagination fills in the gaps necessary to make the fiction real, to make it the truth, at least for them.Some writers can achieve this outcome with highly distilled prose (he uses the drama of Beckett as his example). Perhaps, the reader's imagination just has to work a little harder in these cases. Others dilute their prose with detail. Our imagination doesn't have to work as hard. Thus, Wood asserts, truth can be found in a book, even if it is badly written.Not Quite RealThe author asks of the reader a "doubleness", during which two things occur in the reader's mind: the reader recognises that the world the author has created is "not quite real" and, yet, simultaneously, it is very real, i.e., the truth, a truth for them.Wood adopts Roland Barthes' stance that conventional fictional realism has lured us into forgetting its doubleness. We overlook and repress the extent to which it is "not quite real", the extent to which it is an effect or artifice. Realist fiction has succeeded in passing itself off as a conduit of reality and, therefore, of truth. We have started to believe fiction wholly or absolutely. We have forgotten that authors are liars or "artificers of the real".Make BelieveThe normal and traditional mechanism of fiction avoids absolute belief:"Belief in fiction is always belief 'as if'. Our belief is itself metaphorical - it only resembles actual belief, and is therefore never wholly belief...Thomas Mann writes that fiction is always a matter of 'not quite'."An author who achieves absolute belief makes us believe, as well as repress the realisation that the whole of the fiction is just make believe. In contrast, religious belief asks us to believe in God as the absolute truth. There is no "as if". Religious belief is never "not quite belief" (at least internally within the particular religion).However, it's this differentiation that Wood believes has blurred.Suspended DisbeliefWood seems to underestimate our willingness to suspend disbelief, at least temporarily, during the game or play of fiction.We approach fiction with a belief it's not real, but we can overcome this belief, partly or wholly, as we become familiar with and comfortable in the world the author has created. To the extent that film is a fiction, as soon as the lights go down, we are invited to suspend disbelief. We can do so, because we are in a different physical environment. When the film is over, we can return to "reality". What we experience during the film is make believe (ironically, because film is visual, it's much easier to mistake it for real). Perhaps, the punctuation of the opening and closing moments is more obvious in relation to a film, although we can always punctuate a book, as Wood acknowledges, by closing it, going outside and kicking a stone.Do we ever really forget that a novel is not real? I doubt it. At some point, we will always walk away from the object we're holding in our hands, and return to external reality.Belief in the Gospel TruthEqually, does the perceived fiction of the Gospels impact on the underlying belief in God? Would anybody cease to believe in a Christian God, if their belief in the Gospels was undermined? I would have thought the questioning of the Gospels would be more of a threshold issue: like Judaism's relationship to the New Testament as a whole, you wouldn't embrace Christianity, if you didn't believe in the literal or metaphorical truth of the Gospels.More importantly, you have to ask whether this whole literal truth of the Gospels issue only arise in relation to Christianity (because of the significance of the Gospels to the religion). What is its relevance to fiction and culture in non-Christian societies? None?Narrative GeneralisationYet, Wood builds his argument into a generalisation about narrative:"There is something about narrative that puts the world in doubt. Narrative corrugates belief, puts bends and twists in it."As wonderful as these words and this metaphor are, you have to wonder whether Wood makes too much of his argument.At best, you could say that narrative can be located on a continuum, and that the reality or reliability of a particular narrative is determined by the order of truth we accord to the category of narrative (i.e., its location on the continuum). Outside the adherents to a religion, we don't expect a supernatural narrative dictated by a deity to be the truth, even if it might contain sensible moral guidance. We expect scientific and historical truth to be reliable, but we have come to recognise that its truth is malleable. We don't expect fiction to be the truth, although it might confront the reader with truths. Picking Apart the Fictitious Theology of "The Bone Clocks"If we take religion out of the equation for the moment, what is left of Wood's argument with respect to fiction? Does he mourn the days when fiction was "not quite real, "not quite" the truth? If so, how do we return to those days or practices?The title of the Introduction implies that "not quite" affords a level of freedom (mind you, when the essay was first published, its name was "The Limits of Not Quite").When you read Wood's review of David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks", you have to ask what is left of the perceived freedom: seems to limit the scope of fiction to realism, or at least to pour scorn on fantasy. Alternatively, like many readers, he is perplexed by the juxtaposition of the two:"As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself in the novel's first section, the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism - the human activity - is relatively unimportant; it is the fantastical intergovernmental war that really matters. Whatever the stakes are, the reader decides, they are not really decided in the sublunary realm...the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of 'realistic' scepticism."Wood then proceeds to rant about the return of the novel to the subject matter of the epic (battles between men and gods)."The Bone Clocks" does what Wood thinks a novel (as opposed to an epic) shouldn't do:"The novel [in general] takes over from the epic not just because inwardness opens itself up as the great novelistic subject, but because human freedom asserts itself against divine arrangement. The 'human case' refuses to be preordained. The history of the novel can, in fact, be seen as a secular triumph over providential theology: first, God is displaced; then the God-like author fills the theological void; then the God-like author is finally displaced, too..."Despite Mitchell's humane gifts as a secular story-teller, 'The Bone Clocks' enforces an ordained hermeticism, in which fictional characters...perform unmotivated manoeuvres at the behest of mysterious plotters who can do what they want with their victims."A Broken Metaphor?Wood comes out with all of his canons firing. You have to wonder why he bothered. What in this novel prompted such an inflated and grotesque analysis? It's as if Hitler diverted the whole of the Nazi war effort to exterminating Biggles.At a basic level, Wood seems to have misunderstood or misrepresented the plot of Mitchell's novel. No human is manoeuvred, except by coercion that could equally have been applied by another human (i.e., a standard or garden variety bad guy). The so-called "decoding" occurs primarily in one chapter, the main fault of which is that it is a bit of an information dump (as often occurs in the last chapter of genre fiction). The only other interaction between human and supernatural is for the humans to be passive carriers of the supernaturals or souls between generations. As for the human case, we see Holly grow through six phases of life in a manner that is detailed enough to stand alone without the supernatural plot.However, my greatest reservation is that Wood seems to be limiting the subject-matter of fiction to a form of realism that sets out the "inwardness [of the] human case".Within the world of the imagination, I don't see why an author can't write about any subject matter they like, whether realism or fantasy, whether human or superhuman, whether inward or outward, whether serious or comic.You'd think this would be a natural consequence of Wood's argument that fiction is an activity within the "as if" realm of make believe. Realism is not a prerequisite of fiction. However, he seems to head in the opposite direction.Whatever the merit of Wood's "broken estate" concept (and Ì'm yet to be convinced of its value, except as a thematic organiser of the diverse essays in this collection), it seems to be irrelevant and inappropriate to a novel like "The Bone Clocks".Instead, it seems to be a case where a critical theory has simply strangled the critic's own ability to experience doubleness, to enjoy the make believe aspect of (literary) entertainment, to defer seriousness and to embrace fiction as if it could be fun.Postscript: Coleridge on the Suspension of DisbeliefColeridge is credited with coining the term "suspension of disbelief" in relation to a creative project he joined in with Wordsworth:"... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. "Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us ..."Coleridge appears to differentiate between poetic and religious faith.It's ironic that the term was first used to justify the use of supernatural themes in poetry and fiction at a time when they had ceased to be fashionable.

  • Mark
    2018-11-15 18:06

    A few years ago i bought the box set of 'The West Wing' as a goodly number of my friends had told me I would love it. Thus bought, i proceeded to watch it in huge epic length gulps. Episode after episode were watched and I laughed and gasped and marvelled at the brilliance of the dialogue and plotting, though I regularly had to rewind cos witty and busy politicos in the West Wing talk really, really fast. This is presumably something to do with getting all the lines in before the commercials but I am not sure. Anyhow I sat and watched and loved it. All through series 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 i loved it but as it went on little points began to grate and jar and, dare I say it, even annoy. For example, If Rob Lowe, when asked a question, said 'yap' just one more time like a little lap dog barking at the postman I was all set to fly to Washington myself and punch him in the face. It was at this point that I decided to leave the US President to himself for just a while as i realized i had grown to loathe the thing I had loved just because of a simple case of over-indulgence. It is the playing of a CD to death in the car syndrome, or the eating a punnet of cherries in the car as i drive back from the supermarket. Self-control Mark, show some self-control.Well James Wood was my over-indulgnce of this season. This book is, I would now say, written to be gradually eaten and digested, to allow the wisdom and insight to slowly enrich my literary outlook. It should not, and I cannot emphasize this too much, it should not be feasted upon like someone being let loose in a well stocked larder having just come off an enormous detox. Regurgitation or certainly indigestion is the only result.I began the book a couple of weeks ago and Wood has a fabulous style of writing. He is witty and insightful and allows his own personal history to intrude only in a very gentle and, it seemed to me, perfectly appropriate way. He looks at an enormous number of writers chapter by chapter ranging from Thomas More in the 16th Century right the way up to modern day novelists such as Philip Roth and Julin Barnes. The vast majority of his subjects are from the 20th Century and he looks at the way in which the drift of religious belief has had a knock on effect in terms of literary expression. Most of the modern novelists with whom he deals are atheists or certainly agnostic in their world view but it is an interesting way of approaching the deep questions of purpose and future and hope with which we all have to deal.Had I read him gradually over months i think this would be unadulteratedly glowing but the over-indulgnce serves to sicken a little. Here is my difficulty. Is that in me, because of excess and gluttony or is it in Wood because of his being a little in love with his own imagination and articulacy? He is, to use a phrase, a word-smith of wondrous proportions but sometimes less is more. Page after page is graced with images and phrases and incisive rapier points but as the chapters go on that word changes from graced to bestrewned and then on to scattered and finishes up as littered. He began to be in love with the sound of his own voice i felt; this may be a severe injustice to him and that is why i am saddened that I read it in gulps rather than nibbles as i may have begun to allow my reading to obscure his nourishment.Having said all that he makes you think brilliantly. He is an incredibly well-read man and in fairness to him he carries this lightly. His quotations and examples and cross-references arise naturally from his normally well-reasoned argument and they do not seem imposed or inserted artificially so as to show off his knowledge or expertize as can sometimes be the case. Though he is himself an atheist and quite clearly a arch defender of this outlook he does not belittle those who think differently although he cannot stop himself from inserting little digs when the opportunity arises, as when he will declare on a number of occasions phrases such as , " Most people of any sensitivity find this idea unacceptable". Now isn't this really the Emperor's new clothes concept in reverse where you make people embarrassed to raise their head above parapets because they will be declared insensitive by the magisterial sweep of Wood's unproven argument. Argue the case but do it by argument not falsely applied 'peer pressure' otherwise it just seems small minded.He argues for the importance of looking at the works of a writer as a whole and not focusing on microscopic words and phrases if this prevents you from seeing the whole, Approach a writer, seeing their development and growth and don't exaggeratedly hone in on one detail which 'proves ' your argument but can actually falsify the reality.He speaks at one point of a chronicler being'absolutely superstitious about facts and throws them about like salt, apparently hoping that they will drive out the devil of interpretation'.i love this image; writers create works which demand our doing our utmost to understand what he or she was intending but they also therefore create experiences for us where we are taken on our own journeys to places of which the author never even dreamed. This is the interface of faith and literature for me. Excellent works of literature speak to us in different ways. One reader reads and sees in an idea laid before them an opening door, the hidden glimpse of something enticing and enthralling and yet in the same work another reader might see only a locked and barred door, a bleak hopelessness. This is the wonder and joy of imagination and though Wood captures this he does, to an extent, lay down in a quite end-of-the-discusssion type way his interpretation as the right way of looking. This is perhaps the role of a critic and he is certainly far more intelligent, articulate and insightful then i am but his holding forth does grate after a while, though perhaps again that is the fault of my having been locked in an extended conversation with him where he was actually the only one doing the talking. I should have gone away more oftn and thought rather than launching too quickly into the next 'topic' upon which he wished to hold forth.Sometimes Wood seems so caught up in his own understanding or even, dare I say, prejudice, that he doesn't give credit to the writer's thinking. For example, at one point he criticizes Martin Amis for the poetic image 'the grey mesh of traffic fumes' sitting alongside the earthy and vulgar 'yeasty burp' issuing from the local pub. If I may be so bold I think this was to miss the point. Surely Amis was seeking to create the very dissonance that Wood criticizes. He speaks of the importance of lightness of touch and of hints and nudges rather than sledgehammer blows as far as writing is concerned and although I wholly agree with the sentiment he doesn't always carry out his own advice. To read this book is definitely to enter into discussions with a really insightful mind but discussion is definitely what is needed. Quaffing and gently imbibing like one of those gradual re-hydratory drips in a hospital rather than the downing of the contents of a Norse drinking horn in one sitting.'Fiction is most effective when its themes are unspoken. An ideal fiction has a kind of thematic ghostliness, whereby the novel marks its meanings most strongly as it passes, as it disappears, rather as on a street snow gets dirtier, more marked, as it disappears. This was brilliant and i shall revisit it, as i shall be so many of the other passages I marked and pencilled and maybe my review will change over the weeks but this, at the end of the monologue, is where i am at the moment.

  • Stephen
    2018-12-05 17:06

    In one of his essays Wood asks what Chekhov meant by "life". After a year of reading Woolf and Flaubert closely, it has been fun drawing conclusions on my own so that I can now compare them to someone like Wood's who is interested in what "life" is and whether literature really has a say in it. If literature's only function is to be a reflection of life then I think it's essentially pointless: that's what friends are for, to see what concerns us and to chuckle at how time-bound we are. I believe poetry must have a prophetic quality (and not simply be open to interpretation), otherwise it loses much of its force. Revisiting Wood's essay on Woolf I was pleasantly surprised to see it entitled "Virginia Woolf's Mysticism". There's the entry in her diaries where she mentions her banishment of the word "soul". The sense is that she fears her afflictions, and to base her work on what might be no more than a physical issue would be to deceive her potential readers about the nature of religion, the highs and lows she receives as being unusual and unnatural - so she conditioned herself to avoid the question of the "soul", and thus belief altogether. Wood is at his best about the religious qualities writers bring to their novels. It's from here that his criticism blooms. A knock against his criticism is that he focuses too much energy on mechanics, based as they are on canonical conceptions on what makes some novels "great", avoiding discussion of content, which is what most readers are essentially reading for. If belief - a sense of religion - is at the core of any great writer, then it is understandable that he wouldn't vulgarize this by telling us whether this has any value. Cheap religion is the enemy, not belief of any stripe worth valuing. Character, to the Edwardians, was everything that could be described; to (Woolf's) generation it was everything that could be described. The Edwardians blunted character, she felt, by stubbing it into things - clothes, politics, income, houses, relatives. She wanted to sharpen character into the invisible.That's a great line. The thought about dog-tagging characteristics extends into the next paragraph where Wood emphasizes the Woolf who said reality was "a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." And that the aim of her literary generation was to explore the darker corridors of this span ("darker", as in "unexplored"). There's much I enjoy reading from Wood, but it's here that we part, and the difference might be fundamental: he believes this "consciousness" is the mind as it is prone to its whims (and we should see those whims as consciousness flourishes), as opposed to the sense of infinity we all inhabit; so that, in a very generous reading of Woolf's waywardness he is able to forgive her meandering as a mark of individuality. I believe that mark is there regardless of whether we detail our whims or not. It's excellent to hear Wood refuse to sanctify her: "And certainly, Woolf failed from time to time: the current amnesty, which blows triumph over everything she wrote, just imprisons her in hot air. It should be possible to demonstrate that all the novels have weak passages, and to discuss the inevitable chanciness of her use of interior monologue, without attracting the charge of being a 'masculine' reader." It is the signal failure of modernism I feel to have had literature withdraw into the mind. We get the mind anyway by a sense of a person's actions, and the only gain detailing the contents of a character's mind is the imprint on it of an author's style - there is hardly anything mimetic about this. It is certainly not what Woolf meant by "life" as described in The Narrow Bridge of Art. Wood is not making a very great distinction by criticizing the caricature of Woolf's excellence in that she writes characters through "stream of consciousness" first, so that he can correct this by saying "she allows absentmindedness into fiction. A character is allowed to drift out of relevance, to wander into a randomness which may be at odds with the structure of the novel as a whole." It's pretty much saying the same thing, only in that he's giving sanction to those terribly dead patches, those things Woolf herself feared as she shaped her beliefs. This waywardness of mind "frees characters from the fiction which grips them," but as ever, the greater enemy is not fiction itself but those who do it poorly. More needs to be said about how the novel as a genre broke away from the immediacy of the theatrical stage.For whatever reasons Woolf gets a pass and Flaubert doesn't. I suspect it's just British provincialism at its worst again, a way to ridicule the French for the sake of good ole amour propre. He focuses in on Flaubert's judgmentalism, the sense that he really doesn't love his characters. There's no commentary in a similar manner with Woolf, even though she is making categorical judgments about others constantly in her diaries (personally I love her for it - as with fiction, judgmentalism isn't the problem but being lame at it is). Wood is sure that "if Flaubert disliked his characters from afar, Chekhov loved his from afar; if Flaubert's people are all mistakes, Chekhov's, even the fools, are always forgiven... where Flaubert judges his characters' fantasies, Chekhov indulges them." You could certainly make this argument but at the expense of the tragic and comedic core of Flaubert's art. Why, for instance, does he criticize Flaubert for his judgmentalism and yet indulges Woolf (view spoiler)[with her suicide in Mrs. Dalloway, her social and artistic failures in To the Lighthouse, judgments of which Flaubert plays out in his Madame Bovary (hide spoiler)]? I suspect it's because Flaubert was having too much fun at it, and Wood himself would love to but cannot (oh how he'd love to have a crack at it, but kiss those Harvard and New Yorker posts away if you do). The critique of Flaubert that Wood is aiming for is warranted. At the end of an extremely pleasurable and profitable read of Madame Bovary this year in the outstanding Margaret Mauldon translation (Lydia Davis's ones truly suck - my mind goes blank on them), I closed the final page on it thinking mainly about the genius of the author, not the central mysteries of character. We are left to conclude that if you banish the "soul" from literature you create characters that work well to create books, but not anything vital resembling the "life" Virginia Woolf had in mind. Waywardness worked well for Woolf because she had a brilliant mind, but for the rest of us it can be an embarrassment.

  • Stafford Davis
    2018-12-03 17:17

    James Woodvs.Don DeLilloNow here’s a real problem; a British literary critic whom I greatly admire, one James Wood, publishes an essay on why he doesn’t like a novel called, Underworld, by one of my favorite authors, the American novelist Don DeLillo. And that pesky rub is somewhere between the two, because I really like DeLillo’s book, while Wood’s 12 page critique of it, is an accurate and dead-on review that would make any fan of literature nod their head in one way or another. The facts: Underworld was first published in 1997 and James Wood’s essay entitled, Against Paranoia: The Case of Don DeLillo, was published in The New Republic shortly thereafter. Both the novel and essay are brilliantly crafted pieces that give the reader unexpected insights into the world around us. And no, I’m not kidding or being gratuitous when I say that.Corner #1James WoodBorn 1965; Durham, UKWood has published three books of criticism and one novel. He is a writer for the New Yorker and has written for The Guardian and The New Republic. He teaches at Harvard and Columbia Universities.Corner #2Don DeLilloBorn 1936; New York City, USADeLillo has written 15 novels and three plays. He’s won a National Book Award and a PEN/Faulkner Award. Underworld was voted the second most important work of fiction in the last 25 years by The New York Times.Round 1Wood ~To call Underworld, Don DeLillo’s large novel, a failure, might seem an act of slightly flirtatious irrelevance. The book is so large, so serious, so ambitious, so often well written, so punctually intelligent, that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ. Moreover, Don DeLillo’s huge endeavor represents a promise to restock the novel’s wasting pedigree in our age, and few want to see the promise broken. It is easy, and rightly so, for big books to flush away criticism. But DeLillo’s novel, despite chapters of great brilliance, does not gather its local victories as a book this large should. Instead, it enforces relations between its parts which it cannot coax. Curiously, it is at once distractingly centrifugal and dogmatically centripetal: its many characters dissolve an intensity which the novel insists on repeating.Some background:Underworld is the story of the kind of history that influences our lives in monumental ways. That being our personal history; things like, birth place, parents, siblings, school, environment, friends, romantic counterparts, and of course all this sets against the history we all know; JFK, Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Cold War. The book starts in 1951 with the “Shot Heard Around the World” in baseball when Bobby Thomson hit a homerun for a New York Giants victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Simultaneously the USSR makes its “shot” when it detonates its first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan. Underworld takes us on a journey from then to the late 1990’s in which we follow Thomson’s baseball that in reality was never found, but here its ownership changes over the next 50 years frequently. Every person to come in contact with the ball is a character along with others including, a Jesuit nun, a New York graffiti artist, a Kazakh medical ward, a conceptual artist, a waiter, and fictionalized versions of real characters; J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and most significantly, Lenny Bruce. The book follows a non-linear narrative that goes back and forth in time through the years of the Cold War.Round 2DeLillo talking about his book in an interview ~The last half century has been an enormously complex period – a strange spin-out experience, filled with danger and change. The novel is a very open form. It will accommodate large themes and whole landscapes of experience. The novel is here, the novel exists to give us a form that is fully equal to the sweeping realities of a given period. The novel expands, contracts, becomes essay-like, floats in pure consciousness – it gives the writer what he needs to produce a book that duplicates, a book that models the rich, dense, and complex weave of actual experience. The novel goads the writer into surpassing himself… And it occurs to me that this is what the writer does to transcend the limitations of his background. He does it though language, obviously. He writes himself into the larger world. He opens himself to the entire culture.Round 3Wood ~Don DeLillo is a serious artist whose pointed stewardship of the novel in our culture and pleasure in the chafe of fictional language are cherishable. But his very defensiveness of the novel leads him, as far as one can see, into a philosophy of history which may weaken the novel, and into a battle with the culture which the novel can only lose. Again, the problem is that DeLillo veers toward a complicity with the very culture he wants to defend the novel against. Yet DeLillo’s struggle with the anaconda of postmodern America, if not his personal theory of that struggle, is representative of much American writing since 1960, when Philip Roth famously argued that American reality was more vivid, and hence more fictional, than American fiction. DeLillo is not isolate; where Underworld fails, it fails collegiately.Round 4Underworldpage; 446In cities you build a language of circumspection and tact, a thousand little intimations, the nuance that has a shimmer of rubbed bronze. Then you go to the wilderness and become undone, lapsing into babble, eating mushroom caps that implode your brain, that make you preternaturally aware and afraid, turn you into an Aztec bird.Matt Shay sat in the terminal of the airport in Tucson and listened to announcements bouncing off the walls.He was thinking about his paranoid episode at the bombhead party the night before. He felt he’d glimpsed some horrific system of connections in which you can’t tell the difference between a soup can and a car bomb, because they are made by the same people in the way and ultimately refer to the same thing.There was a garbage strike in New York.There was a man being paged known only as Jack.A woman with an accent said to someone seated next to her, “I so-call fell in love with him the day he paint my walls.”There was a man in a wheelchair eating a burrito.Round 5Wood ~What is striking is how many paranoid people there are in Underworld, and how this multitude drives so many perforations of unreality into the book’s form that its truths come to seem ragged and uncertain, while its untruths have an airy consistency… Such an agglomeration of paranoid people makes the reader weary about discrimination, and thus deprives this novel of one of fiction’s great goads. Paranoia must necessarily do this to fiction, for it silences judgment. One might call this the logic of pampered ignorance. If what you start out from is what you do not know, this is an infinitely extendable mystical spectrum. One can always not know more. Paranoia approaches knowledge from behind, so that anything can be connected with anything. It is dogmatic occultism. Yet fiction’s task is to show where connections seem to end, the better for their vivid spread.Round 6Underworldpage; 301You withhold the deepest things from those who are closest and then talk to a stranger in a numbered; 778It was dark and quiet now and he went up the narrow street toward his building but then swung into a gateway on an impulse and went down the steps and into the yards.There was no light in the outer passage and he felt along the walls for the door that led inside. He smelled wet stone where the super had hosed the floors. He went inside and walked past the furnace room to the door at the end of the passage.He still felt uneasy about the basement room, about the needle and strap and spoon, but it was passing little by little into faded time, half lost in the weave of a thousand things.Page; 803Most of our longings go unfulfilled. This is the word’s wistful implication – a desire for something lost or fled or otherwise out of reach.In Phoenix now, with the years blowing by, I take a drive sometimes out past the regimented typeface on the map…Closing ArgumentsDon DeLillo is an amazingly talented writer and I have no problem calling him a genius. However in my view, Underworld is not his best work, yet it stands near the top of a skinny mountain that is the best of contemporary fiction. Of DeLillo’s work that stand above Underworld are; The Names, White Noise, The Body Artist, and Mao II.Literary Criticism is something that I’ve really enjoyed reading the past few years. It can give insight and understanding of literature that’s not always immediately apparent, and in turn, criticism can add to the evocative nature of the works it analyzes. James Wood is a fairly recent find for me. Out of the very few critics that I like, he is the best because he seems to possess an almost ESP-like ability to break things down and render them comprehensible to the layman while adding his own touch of resonance.Round 7Wood ~Naturally enough, DeLillo has his own American anxiety; you cannot have the calm growl of a Tolstoy in late-twentieth-century America, nor should you. But the paranoid vision incorporates a certain restless despair that makes the creation of rounded individual characters impossible. Paranoia acts as a falsely religious stimulant, to both novelists and their characters. Thus it is that DeLillo fights history with the religion of the novel, and speaks of the novel as “fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition and awe” – an extraordinary inversion of the sober nineteenth-century legacy, and a superstitious cul-de-sac for the novel. Living in America, inheriting a dread that American reality is too powerful for American fiction, he responds by crawling very close to an outright denial of reality’s groundedness, while exaggerating the strength of fiction’s potential resistance to that reality. If Tolstoy fought superstition with the daylight of realism, DeLillo merely fights superstition with a new superstition. He fights the religion of history with religion of fiction.Round 8UnderworldPage; 827And you can glance out the window for a moment, distracted by the sound of small kids playing a made-up game in a neighbor’s yard, some kind of kickball maybe, and they speak in your voice, or piggy-back races on the weedy lawn, and it’s your voice you hear, essentially, under the glimmerglass sky, and you look at the things in the room, offscreen, unwebbed, the tissued grain of the deskwood alive in the light, the thick lived tenor of things, the argument of things to be seen and eaten, the apple core going sepia in the lunch tray, and the dense measures of experience in a random glance, the monk’s candle reflected in the slope of the phone, hours marked in Roman numerals, and the glaze of the wax, and the curl of the braided wick, and the chipped rim of the mug that holds your yellow pencils, skewed all crazy, and the plied lives of the simplest surface, the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun, and the yellow of the yellow of the pencils, and you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meanings, its sense of serenities and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a word extending itself ever outward, the tone of agreement or treaty, the tone of repose, the sense of mollifying silence, the tone of hail and farewell, a word that carries the sunlit ardor of an object deep in drenching noon, the argument of binding touch, but it’s only a sequence of pulses on a dullish screen and all it can do is make you pensive – a word that spreads a longing through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and orchards to the solitary hills.

  • Bart
    2018-12-09 14:26

    James Wood is a remarkable literary critic. He is perhaps the only practitioner of literary criticism writing today who can help a novelist become better. Wood can do this because he has read more, and more originally, than almost anyone in current circulation. Where New York Times columnists and guests write literary reviews that hope someday to grow into cinematic reviews, Wood writes essays about literature.Here's a long, but I think telling, example from The Broken Estate:Yet [DH] Lawrence has far greater stylistic powers than Hemingway, and manages simultaneously to be both a purer and a less mannered stylist. Here is Lawrence writing in 1916:"And then the tussocks and tussocks of primroses are fully out, there is full morning everywhere on the banks and roadsides and streamsides, and around the olive roots, a morning of primroses underfoot, with an invisible threading of many violets, and then the lovely blue clusters of hepatica, really like pieces of blue sky showing through a clarity of primrose."And here is Hemingway, writing in 1929:"The fields were green and there were small green shoots on the vines, the trees along the road had small leaves and a small breeze came from the sea. I saw the town with the hill and the old castle above it in a cup in the hills with the mountains beyond, brown mountains with a little green on their slopes."Both writers, as it happens, are writing about Italy. Both use one word three times ("green" for Hemingway, "primroses" for Lawrence), and repeat two other words. Hemingway's passage is static. He is layering, using the coincidence of words to suggest a coincidence of colors, a pastoral monotony. But Lawrence's words work against their own repetition, to enact a sense of change and movement. Lawrence is describing the breaking of dawn, the changing of light. This is a verbal discovery. . . . The sentences move toward the light, we move into "a clarity." The language says the same but alters, as light changes but remains the same; Lawrence merely lets us see a word from an improved angle. Repetition is difference. Hemingway, one feels, knows in advance just what his repetitions will be; Lawrence discovers, as he proceeds, that a word has changed its meaning as he has used it, and that he will need to use the same word because it now has a different meaning.The miracle of this sort of criticism is three-fold. First, Wood loves the prose of Lawrence enough to find just the example he needs. Second, Wood loves the prose of Hemingway enough (even as a reduced artist in Wood's eyes) that he has a ready contrast for Lawrence. But third, and most importantly, Wood understands not only the words but the writers using them well enough to walk us through every mechanical tick of the writers' prose.I recommend this book to any novelist at any level. It will teach you how to write better characters, and it will remind you how seriously (and severely) good readers may someday read you.

  • Jakey Gee
    2018-11-27 22:14

    I liked (and understood large portions of) the ones on Jane Austen, Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, Amis, Pynchon, Delillo, Updike and Sebald. You'll generally get more out of them when you've read the novels he's citing. But bloody hell, an awful lot of the time (e.g. in the essays on Thomas More, Iris Murdoch, Gogol), I genuinely didn't know what the fuck the man was on about and was reminded of the experience of sitting in a Russian Modernism seminar as a student (I jacked in that unit in week three), not daring to break the silence after the tutor said something like "but - I'm sure you'll have noticed - it is when faced with the violent tendentiousness at the heart of the eternal feminine that Akhmatova most ambivalently seeks to break the dialectic of 19th century aesthetics". At which I would want to bang my fist on the desk, stand up and yell "What the fucking hell are you fucking talking about? Speak English". I sometimes think that is a false memory, and that were I back there now, I wouldn't be anywhere as mystified or frightened. But then I see sections of James Wood's essays (he's a critic I generally like and, I think, has helped me get a better handle of lit crit). He'll come out with lines like:"Indeed, Murdoch's aesthetics have a strange, quasi-philosophical circularity"Or"The anti-bourgeouis principle of thoroughness is surreptitiously announced in Mann's first novel, Buddenbrooks". And I will be begging him to illustrate his point with examples from the text - as we were told. And please, please can I stop you there: what exactly *does* prose that is "borne of apologetic quiddity" actually fucking mean? Can you point me to a line where you think that's happening? I'm not *that* thick. I did well at university. So, great when you can glean something from it. But at times, utterly frustrating.

  • Matt
    2018-12-14 14:23

    "The child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but he rejects it religiously. He has buried evangelical belief but he has not buried the evangelical choice, which seems to him the only important dilemma. He respects the logical claustrophobia of Christian commitment, the little cell of belief. This is the only kind of belief that makes sense, the revolutionary kind. Nominal belief is insufficiently serious; nominal unbelief seems almost a blasphemy against earnest atheism."I just keep coming back to this- not just this quote, which I agree with biographically and philosophically (and maybe even spiritually) but because he's writing the criticism which I love to read the most- author portraits mixed with close readings and a real reckoning with the moral and philosophical implications of things while writing extremely well: lucidly, wittily, aphoristically, crisply, learnedly and- most important- lovingly. It's a good book to keep on the bedside table for those drowsy last hours or minutes when you're about to head to bed and you want a dollop of something imaginative (as only criticism is, and can be) and edifying (ditto)...I don't always agree with his taste or his critiques but the experience of reading him is always a pleasure, in the best Greek sense of the word. I'd love to see another novel of his, or better yet, a set of stories, which I think would suit him even better.It might have replaced Bloom's gargantuan 'Genius' as my preferred secual hymnal, not sure, I suppose time will tell.

  • William1
    2018-11-14 21:13

    The scholarly rigor of the first essay, "Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season," surprises. The essay is a review of Peter Ackroyd's biography of Sir Thomas. By way of a heady recapitulation of More's life and times, Wood suggests that Ackroyd's book is little more than hagiography, though he's careful never to use that word. The second essay "Shakespeare in Bloom" is no less kind. (But then kindness is not really what we are looking for here; that can always be got from one of my many books on compassion.) It looks at the Shakespearean criticism of eminence grise Harold Bloom. Calling his approach essentially a recapitulation of the dated "character criticism" of Dr Samuel Johnson, Wm. Hazlitt and A.C. Bradley. (Apparently, Bloom is vociferously disliked by the trendier Shakespeare critics of today; something I did not know, not being an academic.) Wood puts Bloom's work in context with a brief discussion of how other schools of criticism, such as New Criticism and New Historicism, view Shakespeare. Very interesting. Will continue my comments here as I sporadically read on.

  • Christina
    2018-12-06 22:14

    There are very few people who hold as good a grasp as James Wood on what makes a novel, and what makes it great. That said, his views on religion trend toward the polemical, to his discredit. The combination of scholarly erudition and eternal self confidence in the face of unknowables give him the air of a professor who, while at the beginning of the term seemed truly great, feels merely self-satisfied by term's end. I can't recall another time I managed to agree with someone so often, but felt the need to disavow us both based on their method of delivery.

  • John David
    2018-11-20 22:08

    You can’t accuse James Wood of lacking range. These essays run the gamut from Harold Bloom’s influence on Shakespeare studies to the “theology” of George Steiner to the lasting (though indirect) impact of Ernst Renan. Unfortunately, had I not taken notes as I read these two dozen or so essays, I would have quickly forgotten most of the arguments presented herein. At their worst, they are uncontroversial and too subtle perhaps to make an impression. There are a few, though, that are fascinating and thought-provoking enough to make you reconsider the topic at hand – but they are the exception in an otherwise relatively pedestrian set of essays.Wood has the odd habit of writing something vaguely resembling a book review which in reality is just an opportunity for him to get on a soapbox concerning the subject at hand. This is precisely what he does what the aforementioned essay, titled “Shakespeare in Bloom.” It purports to be a review of Bloom’s “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.” In a sixteen-page-long review, he mentions the book perhaps two or three times, choosing to spend most of his time wrapped up in discussion of the place of ontology in artistic creativity: namely, did we invent Shakespeare (that is, his place in the literary canon), or did he invent us? His answers to these questions draw much more from Hazlitt, Coleridge, and other twentieth century critics than they do from the book being considered, and therefore Bloom’s book, no matter your opinion of it, seems to come off as a cipher, an empty vessel upon which Wood can expatiate as he sees fit. His review of Peter Ackroyd’s “The Life of Thomas More” and the Melville essay, “The All and The If: God and Metaphor in Melville” (mostly a review of Hershel Parker’s biography of Melville), are similar in that they are really more polemical in nature, but still operate under the conceit of a book review.First the lame and the bland. Do we really need another piece on how Jane Austen created successively female characters with more actively interior lives, and therefore was at least in part responsible for bringing the fore the private, internal lives and thoughts of these characters? And what use is it to have Virginia Woolf described for the 72nd time as “mystical”? Or another retelling of how DeLillo’s conspiracy-laden fiction weakens his writing instead of strengthens it? As for the first two observations, they have been fully fleshed out elsewhere and now seem droll and unimaginative. I even happen to agree with the last point, but I certainly don’t want to read another essay about it; it seems to stand on its own merits for anyone who has read almost anything he has written. There are some pieces of moderate interest, including one on T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism (another cipher of a book review, this time of Anthony Julius’ “Anti-Semitism and Literary Form”). I haven’t read Julius’ book, but it sounds like he goes hopping from poem to poem in Eliot’s oeuvre anxious to kind anti-Jewish sentiment wherever he can find it. Wood rightly take the effort to point out that being a bad person (or having prejudices that today seem less-than-fashionable) doesn’t make you a bad poet.But I wouldn’t want to leave someone with the impression that the whole book is like this; it has its moments. In the essay on George Steiner’s idea of literature and meaning (mostly as presented in Steiner’s “Real Presences”), Wood accuses Steiner of being “theological.” He suggests Steiner says anything can be said about anything and therefore runs the risk – one could liken it to Pascal’s Wager – that meaning even really exists. He also attacks Steiner’s suggestion that American lacks great art because of its liberal, democratic government. I read one of the essays in “Real Presences” for my undergraduate thesis which is why I was particularly interested in Wood’s assessment, but I don’t remember the anti-Americanism in it. This is my first collection by Wood, supposedly one of the better literary critics writing today, but didn’t really see what much of the ado was about. I would suggest that, instead of sitting down to read these all at once, you read them topically as you make your way through the authors themselves. That might provide you with a reading that’s more lasting and memorable than most of the ones I walked away with. Despite my experience here, I’m sure the soi-disant literary critic in me will have me coming back for more James Wood in the future.

  • Mike
    2018-12-13 15:17

    The best critic out there, and he's theologically literate (if not theologically correct) to boot. I can't wait for his new book. I'm also looking forward to reading his Tolstoy essay from a month or so back in the New Yorker. I've been putting off until I finish War and Peace (I've got about 60 pages to go).

  • robert
    2018-12-03 16:30

    if you are writing your own novel, you'll find some of these essays really inspiring (such as the one on Moby Dick and the contrarian view of Pynchon)

  • Robert McCaffrey
    2018-11-18 16:08

    Any reader grappling with T. S. Eliot's infamous anti-semitism should read Wood's essay entitled "T. S. Eliot's Christian Anti-Semitism," which is actually a criticism of a screed by Anthony Julius called "T. S. Eliot Anti-Semitism and Literary Form." James' is an erudite critic, but he seems always to be answering to a Christian literary inheritance, and grappling with mostly Protestant Christian theological questions that no longer seem very important, and this makes him something of an anachronism. But James' ultimately aesthetic interest in literature, and his deep understanding of how fiction works (see his wonderful manual for readers and writers, "How Fiction Works") make him an essential critic. His essay "John Updike's Complacent God" revealed to me not only a spiritual blandness I found in Updike's fiction, but ultimately a technical problem with his prose style which gives all of his writing a too familiar sameness.

  • Reinhardt
    2018-12-07 21:21

    James Wood is a literary Jedi. He wields words with astonishing agility. In this collection of reviews, he penetrates the tangled web and thoughts, allusions, and metaphor in these complex books and finds the Gordian knot and deftly pierces it to unravel the books meaning, message, and structure. It is remarkable.Not afraid to be critical (as is the job of a critic), but also quick to point out the genius.The final essay is an extremely well thought out summary of modern Christian thought interweaved with personal memoir. Extremely effective and insightful, even if his ultimate conclusion is not convincing as he is arguing against truth - at least how I see it.

  • Jonathan Walker
    2018-11-26 18:22

    I read most, but not all, of this. It doesn't really hang together as a book. Most (all?) of the chapters seem to have originated as review essays, and though there are repeated threads and ideas linking them, I found I could not be bothered to read the chapters about authors in whom I have no interest (Updike, Roth, etc.) because there was no overarching argument to justify the effort. The best bit is the autobiographical sketch in the final chapter. The best chapter on a specific author is the one on Melville.I also found Wood to be irritatingly doctrinaire in his ideas about what a novel can or should be (e.g. in his chapter on Pynchon).

  • Joe Lyons
    2018-12-06 22:04

    Awesome! It took me a long, hard time to finish this intellectually stimulating book, but it was worth every minute. I needed to digest each section to really put some critical critiquing tools in my toolbox.

  • Anna
    2018-12-12 18:34

    James Wood’s literary criticism, I must admit, is excellent in its precise insight. I also admit that it is more than pedantic. What truly troubles me about Wood’s book, however, is the very last chapter and essay, The Broken Estate: The Legacy of Ernest Renan and Mathew Arnold. First of all, such a clear agenda does not belong in a book of literary criticism. It is jarringly distinct from the other essays and belongs to be in entirely other collection, if not on its own. Furthermore, Wood’s whole premise cannot stand. His entire argument is built upon misinterpretation and his facts are clearly cherry-picked. As I think about my own writing, I take Wood as a clear example of how not to build an argument. Wood looks at Ernest Renan and Mathew Arnold, writers and thinkers of the middle of the nineteenth century. He says, “But Renan and Arnold were slayers of Christianity, removed its self-justification as a religion, its claim to be true,” (251). He takes their religious claims and essentially says that they helped destroy an entire religion—“...killed off Christianity as a faith” (253). Here is the problem with Wood’s assertion: Renan and Arnold are not representative of the Christian faith, as Wood thinks, nor should they be. Renan’s and Arnold’s theology is not consistent with Christianity at all. So how, then, can Wood base the entirety of a failed religion on what today’s Church still views as heresy, on two men’s misinterpretations of Scripture and bad theology? Renan and Arnold rejected the divinity of Christ and Wood even notes that they did not think sin as central to the gospel—beliefs that the Church has resisted from Augustine’s time to 2016. Wood sees these beliefs as defeating to the faith; I see them as simply incorrect, as do many, many others. Wood goes on to share from his own experience and his opinions are poignant, sharp and biting. Writing an opinion is certainly fair—for who can refute an honest experience? —but this does not belong with a collection of essays of literary critique. In and of itself, his account is well written. He raises valid concerns and relates failures on behalf of his childhood church. I don’t really have to wonder why he’d question the genre of faith he was raised in. He says of his loss of faith: “It is a process that brings great unhappiness to others, but not to oneself. It is like undressing. You are so quickly, so easily free” (260). What Wood doesn’t acknowledge is that all Christians, if they are honest with themselves, go through the exact same thing. But unlike him, many do return to faith. He forgets that not all church experiences, especially those of the twenty-first century, are like his own. Wood also looks at the problem of evil. He fairly cites the problems, certain solutions, and the problems with said solutions. It is true, the problem of evil is unsettling and Wood’s thoughts are more than valid. What bothers me is how he makes unfair generalizations. He says, “But God was not absent in Nazi Germany. Ordinary Christians, the very believers who, in Johnson’s vision, crew the little craft of morality, did little to avert evil and in many cases furthered it. Since religion, in this case, did not stop evil, why should we believe that religion, in another case, would promote goodness?” (262). To say that Christianity, a whole belief system, is incorrect because of the faults of a certain group of Christians is erroneous. What of all the Christians who did take great costs to avert evil? What of the great thinker and theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer who vehemently insisted that Christianity belonged nowhere in the Nazi party? Surely Wood, who values the intellect so much, should acknowledge someone like Bonheoffer, someone much more representative of correct theology than either Renan or Arnold. In post-secularism, religion is more readily allowed into academia. This welcoming, however, is not without strings. Wood’s last chapter is permissible because it concerns religion, but more importantly because it shames it. I argue that this essay, full of honest opinions but faulty examples, is simply out of place. I want my writing to be clear and concise, like Wood. But I want my research to be thorough and based on facts, not based on someone’s misinterpretation. I do respect Wood’s assertions, but I reject the way he goes about them.

  • Fraser Kinnear
    2018-11-27 18:16

    I really enjoyed "How Fiction Works", and liked "The Fun Stuff" enough to buy this collection of essays. The introductory essay was my favorite passage in this book. Wood recalls seeing Beckett's Endgame, and remarks upon how powerful the play's "unrealistic" characters are:Our usual language about how we relate to fictional characters - we "sympathize" with them, "identify," "empathize"- implies a large exchange, a sizable impact, a sharing of identities, but perhaps what [the Endgame] scene reveals is that representation needs only a very small point of connection; and the smaller the point the more acute its effect, like a sharp pencil pressed down onto a whitening fingernail... Why is it that a few minutes of Beckett can effect this transformation when five hundred straining pages of some contemporary novel fail to? Why is Beckett's distillation [of a character] more real than another writer's dilution? Coleridge famously wrote about the suspension of disbelief, but what is the consent, the belief that Beckett extracts from us? It is not quite akin to the modern realist novel that patiently builds a plausible and recognizable fictional world and asks us to credit the independent existence of its characters, whose every page seems to say: "This really happened, or could ahve really happened." Beckett is not interested in asking us to believe what is happening on stage is exactly plausible , in this way. Yet he has a great interest in persuading us of its truth. Wood then goes on to introduce his Broken Estate idea, which relates to how authors' works evolved from "realistic" storytelling (originally imbibed with religious authority) towards the type of storytelling that Beckett is providing. His subsequent essays trace various writers' place in this evolution. My favorite cases that Wood provided were Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Knut Hamsun, and Virginia Woolf. Not sure why, but his essays on later authors (e.g., Pynchon, Delillo, Roth), whose works I prefer, were less interesting. The idea that these subtle-if-not-"realistic" story elements might provide a more "realistic" experience than anything else feels very Platonic to me, like it was pointing to the ideal truth of some emotion. I was reminded of a lecture I listened to recently from Borges: Anything suggested is far more suggestive than anything laid down. Perhaps the human mind has a tendency to deny a statement. I remember what Emerson said: "Arguments convince nobody." They convince nobody because they are presented as arguments... When something is merely hinted at, there's a kind of hospitality for our imagination. We are ready to accept it.I want to think more about how this relates to Platonism in mathematics, representation in painting, and my opinion of the end of True Detective. I get the feeling that it shouldn't matter to me so much what is the more "real" explanation for a number or an emotion. What matters more is how gracefully the message reaches to me.

  • Alan Gerstle
    2018-12-08 18:30

    James Wood writes literary criticism using a standard vocabulary of traditional critical terms, but embellishes the stock phrases with his own metaphors and associations that are often original and clever. However, I'd place his literary essays into two categories: those in which he analyzes writers and their work in order to cast a new perspective on certain texts, most would think as canonical writers, i.e., Gogol, Melville, Forster. Then there are the more polemical tracts wherein he focuses his arguments on why certain writers (a good example, Updike and Morrison)fail at their intent. These I find a bit solipsistic. For example, he derides Updike for being a theological writer, but one who never enters the depths of describing the angst in modern doubt that would be the sign of a truly engaged writer. I find this a bogus argument; what Wood is saying is that Updike lacks the depth to mine the angst and despair of the modern suffering individual, as though there is some test of "writer's depth" that can be correlated with the awareness and experience of suffering. However, not every temperament is embroiled in the battle to come to terms with existential crises, for the simple reason they may not experience it or may not find they are competent to imaginatively write about it. Wood seems to believe the function of the novel is to buttress the world of other 'good' novels to form an alternative to 'the broken estate.' By good novels, he means novels he "demonstrates" are good. I do agree with him regarding the tedious styles of writers like Morrison and Angela Carter, who, by employing the'magical' in their writing, end up with work that is pretentious and gimmicky in which the "so what" factor can only be answered by "Beats Me." , Enough of the exposition, though. This is just scratching the surface. The prime reason I like some of James Wood's essays is because I agree with their assessments: for example, Toni Morrison is a phony writer; Philip Roth is a profound writer; Nabokov is a master stylist, but his work is empty, so Lolita and other works are more akin to circus acts that legitimate theater (that's my analogy, anyway). Well, it feels good to know that I'm not the only person that thinks Nabokov is a bore.But there are some statements Wood makes that are just plain dumb. He doesn't like John Updike for illogical tropes, like "Poignant breastless woman." Wood says a breastless woman (metaphorically) can't be poignant. This is not literary criticism; it is quasi-science. I find the sensibility behind Updike's description appropriate. I can't prove it is, naturally, although Wood seems to think he can prove his point. But ultimately Wood is placed high in the ranks of legitimate critics. But the reason is not his astuteness. It's simply because he gets paid for it.

  • Joni
    2018-12-04 20:23

    as inviting as lightning for those uncharged by contemporary letters. no expense of saliva goes unrewarded at this succession of platonic symposia: on every page some savory crumb of insight awaits the born chewer, and every passage tempts taste to widen its range. i particularly liked the essays on chekhov and the ever-momentous woolf, for in these wood becomes the aging lover reminiscing over the pleasures that once issued his inward growth, paying them tribute by sounding anew the words that first made him shiver. about 4/5 of his metaphors pass the pertinence test and do not arrest the flow of the prose (which, of course, is utterly engrossing, especially in its generous moments). the rest, however, are merely the fictive flights, demented remnants, and self-flattering flutterings of a self-flattening talent spitting boyish joyceanisms and, unremarkably, achieving that spit, nothing more. his end-game, too, is a spiraling farce of artlessness that threatens to consume whole movements of concluding argument by the speeding build up of anticipatory damage, always honoring its promise. but the pulse of his thinking strikes fatally like a nietzschean mauler on every thing false and hasty, and most of contemporary commentary he will outlast by means of this only. the engine of his brain seems to live on sound contention, the reserve in his voice is singular amid the turgid warblings of our day, even his mockery (always convincing) is an exercise in utilitiarian modesty, and his honest search for truth reminds of the aging goethe who, approaching that still dominion whose population is ever on increase, turned toward the flaring evening outside his window and, summing up the meaning of it all, sounded a faint "nicht", and took leave. whereas the sentimental flock, ever grasping for anodyne deceits, has interpreted this oracular whisper as "licht", wood still has hearing. to read him is to see the blood flow back into that heap of limbs that once embraced nature and now sprouts it. pick that crowning flower, smell its plenty, and make your wounded senses turn to flight. truly uplifting

  • Grant
    2018-12-11 20:07

    It had been a while since I'd read literary criticism but if one is an avid reader of fiction, I think it's important to supplement that with some critical analysis. Wood certainly provides that and if it weren't for his misreading of DeLillo's "Underworld", one of my favourite books, this would probably be a 5-star rating. Wood's main criticism of the book is that it has a kind of falsely, artificially imposed paranoia, at the expense of character development. Yet the truths of that book do NOT seem superstitious, as Wood claims. They seem consistent, yet subtly revealed. Consistency of thematic representation, structure, scope - these novelistic elements do not necessitate heavy handedness and exaggeration, as Wood implies. It's not that the book's characters are underdeveloped - it's that they take a backseat to the overarching scope of the novel, which is fine. Characters do not have to dominate a book for it to be successful. In "Underworld", characters are used in service of the wider vision. And, ultimately, the book is NOT about paranoia, as Wood interprets. The book is about digging into deeper truths, finding revelations in life, appreciating the interconnectedness of history, and, with all that, finding hope and... yes, PEACE.That said, the essay on Melville/Moby-Dick is excellent and the best in the collection. It helped me to develop a deeper appreciation of the value of metaphor in literature. His essay on W.G. Sebald has compelled me to read that author, which I'm sure I'll do soon. I largely agreed with his assessment of Pynchon, whose over-allegorizing and flamboyant characterizations have irked me. Pg 190: "Pynchon's characters do not move us because they are not human, they are serfs to allegory"... having read two Pynchon books thus far, I agree with that assessment. The rant against God in the final chapter seemed a little out of place, but was entertaining nonetheless.

  • Ci
    2018-11-17 19:20

    Mr. Wood illustrated his own approach to literary criticism. As he said, when talking about Virginia Woolf, "The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about one's self". Indeed, Mr. Wood has generalized much of his method of critiques through a carefully selected writers, ranging from English to Norwegian, including the great Melville and less great Phillip Roth. Given my own reading span, I can only read the writers whose books I have read with care. Even in my own narrowness, I could appreciate Mr. Wood's rigorous scholarship and his ability to craft shapely sentences. Occasional snarky comments slip in, but not frequent -- at least in the selections I read.Jane Austen's work had earned a nearly unequivocal admirable, and right so. A single word stands out in his essay: “hermeneutics", here in study of people and relationships instead of the text. “Someone who understood other people, who attended to their secret meanings, who read people properly, might be called hermeneuticals”, such as some of the admirable characters in Austen novels, Elinor of Sense and Sensibility, Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, and Anne Elliot of Persuasion, along with others. Mrs Ramsey and Mrs Dalloway also achieved that level of understanding of others. However the art of Virginia Woolf is harder to express given the mythical concept of "life" in Woolf's novel, because the "life" can not achieved through the Platonic ladder of Goodness, but something fluid and porous, a metaphysical Good that she tried most valiantly to nail down to words. Still, I don't like Mrs. Dalloway, even though I can now see the great beauty in Mrs. Ramsey -- here lies the need to re-read this book again, if only to review Woolf's Dalloway again.

  • Samuel Brown
    2018-12-07 17:20

    Excellent on literature, really excellent. Less interesting on religion, except in the sense of toying with some notions of postmodern religion. Not as good as Eagleton in this space, as I read it. But on literature, there is great fun in this collection of essays. There are a couple of essays that are sub-par, but the general collection is quite good as literary criticism. I was glad to see our agreement on most of the writers (glad to hear DeLillo and Updike deflated, agree that Chekhov and Gogol are great and fascinating writers). The eponymous essay, a sermon he delivered, was much less interesting than the other essays I think because he was playing to his weakness in that essay. His presentation of himself as a 15-year-old repulsed by traditional theodicy then turning a jaundiced eye on Kierkegaard's spiritual maelstrom a decade later seems relevant, for both good and bad in his evaluations of religion and its current meaning. Stronger than How Fiction Works in sections but overall not as good.

  • Carl
    2018-11-15 19:12

    Borrowing this from Jane, my cousin in law (I've been blessed with two cousins-in-law on that side of the family with a taste in books which nicely compliments my own). James Wood is not religious himself, from what I understand, but, from what I've seen so far, gives a sensitive and thoughtful look at religion and faith in literature. His introduction includes a nice meditation on the differences and similarities between fiction and religion, both of which call for a certain sort of believing, but with important differences. Will have to review this more when I've read more and have more time-- I'm supposed to be editing a diss. chapter right now.

  • Abby
    2018-12-09 20:34

    James Wood is a prickly critic and fond of sweeping judgments, but I still like him, and I liked this collection (although some essays far more than others, hence the three stars). I particularly enjoyed his pieces on Shakespeare, Woolf, Chekhov, and Melville (and perhaps because he shares my glowing feelings toward them). But I found his harshness toward Toni Morrison distasteful, probably because I love her (although I did agree, on the whole, with his verdict on Paradise, which I do not think was a success). Too many parentheticals. But it is an entertaining and thought-provoking collection of criticism.

  • Wm
    2018-12-07 16:15

    Sure James Wood sometimes puts the emphasis in the wrong place or glosses over things you wouldn't or argues from assertion, but he arouses thought as well as any literary critic, rightfully brings in issues of belief and the contexts of theology and philosophy to works/authors that require it, isn't afraid to make aesthetic/moral judgments and can craft and damn good sentence.Excellent stuff here. I enjoyed it much better than How Fiction Works, which now I see what he is capable of may be downgraded to three stars.

  • Scott Cox
    2018-11-18 21:32

    A fascinating compilation of how (mostly) Christian faith influenced some of our most well-known authors. To whet one's appetite, chapter titles include "Jane Austen's Heroic Consciousness," "The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville," "The Monk of Fornication: Philip Roth's Nihilism," and "W.G. Sebald's Uncertainty." Obviously James Wood's own faith (or lack thereof) influences his viewpoint. However this is a thoroughly well-written and thought-provoking book. I often find myself re-reading sections, especially after reading a book by one of the authors discussed in this work.

  • Elizabeth
    2018-12-05 15:28

    Wood is a gifted writer who is able to make other writers' vivid and real even if you aren't familiar their work. This collection is very much a testament to Woods' capabilities, and reads a lot like reading several of his New Yorker articles strung together. My only recommendation would be to read this in short bursts (perhaps a chapter each day) rather than straight through (as I did). It's a collection to savor.

    2018-12-04 22:05

    Great essay in mostly all my favorite English speaking author, and some Russian. I would have liked somebody else, I mean from other culture and language, but ok, maybe next time, but no, Thomas Mann is not enough.Grande saggio che racconta e approfondisce quasi tutti i miei autori inglesi preferiti, e qualche russo. La prossima volta non mi dispiacerebbe qualche altro autore, magari di una cultura diversa e no, thomas Mann non é abbastanza.

  • Bruce
    2018-12-07 19:24

    Loving the review of Roth's Sabbath's Theater so much it might make me reconsider reading Roth. Read the Ghost Writer years ago but haven't felt the need to read him since. Same with Updike, whom Wood doesn't have much good to say about. But as with most things by Wood, the review is a literary gem in itself. Looking forward to the chapters on evil - esp after having just read his TNR review of Bloom's Yaweh and Jesus and his comments on gnosticism.