Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, 528 pp., $30
Critics, especially literary critics, tend to get the worst of both worlds when it comes to the writing life. Whatever insights the critic may bring to bear on a new book, most of the average reader’s curiosity will be tied to the pragmatic question of whether or not it’s worth their time—and there’s never enough time to read everything. Therefore the literary critic is often caught in the unenviable position of advocating for books that most readers won’t ever read; even if they do, the critic’s writing will often pale in the reader’s mind in comparison to the book itself. To make matters worse, if a critic is at all passionate about the books he covers, there can be a Salieri-esque ache to seeing it done better than you can do it yourself—with the added chagrin of understanding precisely how an author works his magic on the page.
A few critics, however, have the ability to approach criticism as an art form in and of itself, employing an artist’s sensitivity to nuance and depth of vision. Academic approaches tend to miss the mark entirely. Rather than surgically eviscerating a text, like a body splayed on an operating table, or diagnosing its hidden power relations, criticism at its best should have the same visionary sensibility as a novel or a poem. This aesthetic approach has a long and illustrious tradition, though there are precious few keeping it alive these days.
One of those few critics is James Wood. Serious Noticing is a new collection culled from more than 20 years of essays by the New Yorker critic, who previously worked at the Guardian and the New Republic. It contains both his canonical and lesser-known works, and covers a wide variety of subjects. There’s a sprinkling of personal essays about family, one about the mad genius of the Who drummer Keith Moon, and a popular investigation of why he’s never returned to his native England after decades in Boston.
The title alone explains a lot about Wood’s critical perspective. What Wood admires most in literature is the capacity for authors to notice deeply, to have reverence for the minute but telling details that make their stories. To see how a bird “flinches” its way up a tree, or how a baby’s legs look as if they are wrapped in twine, is to engage with the very stuff of life. Explaining Anton Chekhov’s revolutionary understanding about life, Wood reminds us that “our inner lives run at their own speed. They are laxly calendared. They live in their own gentle almanac, and in his stories the free inner life bumps against the outer life like two different time-systems.”
This is prescient. After all, we don’t always talk about “the plot” in our day-to-day conversations, nor do our lives adhere to some kind of prearranged dramatic arc. Wood doesn’t quote it, but Samuel Butler’s wise aphorism that “life is like trying to learn to play the violin and give concerts at the same time” is true not only about the human condition but about the world of fiction as well.
Wood’s rigorous attentiveness to detail is a secular form of reverence for the real, a monkish devotion to le mot juste. There’s more to writing well than just finding the right word. As Wood explains, “When I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I talk about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I talk about detail I’m really talking about character, and when I talk about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.” All of these classic literary devices aren’t just there to be dutifully noted by scholars and students; they are each woven together with the almost invisible thread of the writer’s vision to create a theatre of the real. Wood is refreshingly free of dogmatism; he never ignores the influence of history and politics on a particular writer’s imagination, but he isn’t awarding brownie points for correct opinions.
Wood is an atheist, but his atheism is richly informed by his early exposure to religion, having grown up in an evangelical Anglican household of stoic Northern English stock. This means that he comes by his secularism honestly, since he has already seen piety up close. Even if he’s chosen to reject it, he’s aware of how it has molded his thinking. Instead of callously dismissing the mystical obsessions of God-haunted types like Melville, Dostoevsky, and Woolf as much ado about nothingness, he empathizes with the tremendous torment they subject themselves to in order to peer into various metaphysical black holes and come back with stories to tell. “Poor Melville, lucky Melville!” Wood murmurs at the end of a magisterial essay on Moby Dick. There’s often a subtly redemptive comic approach to Wood’s philosophical inquiries. Approaching the genius of Saul Bellow through his brisk, antic, often comic narrative skills is a great way of entering his fictional world. Don Quixote is a knight of faith in his own eccentric way, but Wood also appreciates the knight’s hilariously Monty Pythonesque pratfalls during his mad quest.
Most American readers probably don’t know the work of Jenny Erpenbeck, Ismail Kadare, and Bohumil Hrabal, three writers described as major figures in the new collection. I confess that I’ll probably never get the chance to read them myself. But after reading Wood’s essays I feel almost as if I’ve met them, that I’ve taken a brief guided tour through their works and lives, overhearing some of the tall tales told in one of Hrabal’s Prague beerhalls that are brewed into his many works. Wood’s essays are often more like prose portraits, life studies drawn from deep reading, going deeper than dry scholarly pedantry can fathom.
And in his personal essays, which are underrepresented here, Wood shows a novelist’s eye for character; he can capture a person’s life in a couple of sentences or a telling image. Consider this ironic description of a priest: “The funereal uniform, supposed to obliterate the self in a shroud of colorlessness, also draws enormous attention to the self; humility seems to be made out of the same cloth as pride.” There’s a whole personality unfolding in the way he describes his father slumping into the couch after lunch “tired and entitled—but sweetly, not triumphantly” and listing the names of favorite classical performances. A hidden, private world of experience is contained in how he sketches his late father-in-law’s life: “what interested him were societies, tribes, roots, exiles, journeys, languages. . . . he floated on top of American life, fortunate, wounded, unmoored.” The receptiveness to an individual voice shines through in Wood’s appreciation of literary characters. He prefers to treat them as their own autonomous creations, deserving of attention and respect in their own right, rather than just empty puppets to be knocked around at their creator’s whim.
Wood always objected to such heedlessness, which is one of the reasons he caused a stir by criticizing a generation of postmodern writers for whom he invented the category of “hysterical realism.” Wood defined this new genre as fiction that “pursues vitality at all costs,” denouncing the kind of sprawling, overwrought novels that “know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.” His critique isn’t intended to defame, and accurately describes the tone and texture of novels by the likes of Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. But here I think Wood is mistaken: In many ways a figure like Wallace can be understood as a realist, even if his books are indeed filled with crazy plot twists, outrageous caricatures, and volumes of sheer information. Realism changes; it can’t help doing so. Wood cites Dickens’s endless catalogues of minor characters and labyrinthine plot twists as one of hysterical realism’s forebears, and that’s probably correct. But though Dickens is still applicable to the world we now live in, Wallace and his contemporaries are too. It goes without saying that the average person’s experience of modernity has mutated into something that would be almost unimaginable 200 years ago; the density of information present in Wallace’s fiction, and the ambient anxiety that comes with it, is omnipresent in our lived experience.
Agree or disagree with any particular judgment, Wood’s criticism is always made in good faith and with an open mind. His nuanced and sensitive approach to the form graciously affirms his credo that “literature teaches us to notice.” Henry James once advised an up-and-comer “to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” It’s a tall order and probably impossible to truly live up to. But reading Wood on literature can help. At his best, Wood not only enhances our understanding of the books themselves but helps lift our line of vision a little higher—in order to see what others see, to notice what they notice, and to keep noticing more deeply and more seriously. In the end, it’s in those details that life really lies.