Friday, 21 August 2015

Critical Talk

James Wood's recent Slate conversation with Isaac Chotiner has made news because of his admission that he might have come down too hard on David Foster Wallace. But the exchange was fascinating for other reasons as well. Here are five of its best moments:

On how Wood's jump to The New Yorker in 2007 influenced his criticism:
There was no doubt for me that when I moved from the New Republic to the New Yorker, from a smaller magazine to a larger magazine, that I had to rethink a little about the way I was going to write. And indeed that was part of the attraction of the change. Small magazines partly survive on militancy. And that’s very important. And there might be a part of me that would want the New Yorker to be more militant, and to have something more of the small magazine pugilism, but I was aware that my approach to writing criticism would change, and I was happy for a change. There was a sense of repeating myself, of digging deep into the same groove again.
On the use of "passionate re-description" as a critical strategy:
I was trying to talk about the larger tradition of literary criticism and literary journalism. Henry James said “The critic’s life is heroically vicarious,” or something like that. We might have our doubts about the heroism, but that “vicarious” is absolutely right. You are living vicariously but you also serve a function for the reader who might never read the book you’re writing about. And that’s where a long quotation of the kind that would seem inert in a properly scholarly paper comes into its own. I certainly see a connection here between writing and teaching. I do find that in the classroom—and students will say this to me—that the simple act of reading, spending half the class reading passages out loud, and bringing them alive, is its own pedagogy. It is actually half the business of making the thing comprehensible.
On what bugs him about John Updike's reviews:
The redescription in Updike’s criticism is obviously of a high order, and [of] a certain kind of generosity, too—that’s to say, he was a very patient and hospitable quoter of other people’s texts. But I always felt that there was a certain kind of ungenerousness in Updike’s work, too. The maddening equilibrium of his critical voice—never getting too upset or too excited—enacted, I always felt, a kind of strategy of containment, whereby everything could be diplomatically sorted through, and somehow equalized and neutralized, and put onto the same shelf—and always one rung below Updike himself.
On the difference between British and American literary journalism:
The British tradition was always rich, traditionally rich, in newspapers and therefore short-form criticism. When I was growing up, the Observer’s main fiction reviewer was Anthony Burgess, who was writing once a week at 900 or 1200 words max.... In America it was the other way around. The newspapers here weren’t especially interesting sources of criticism. But the place was absolutely rich in magazines and small magazines, and it was a place where long-form journalism was flourishing. And so I think it’s not surprising that you get these two very different traditions.
On what happens when a critic ages:
With criticism I think the odds are that you should get better and better because a lot of it is about the slow appreciation of knowledge. Much of being a critic is simply the comparative business. I’ve had to spend 30 years reading and writing about books to get close to having theories about the novel. I feel I’m always anxious about generalizing because I don’t quite know enough, and the counterexamples will spring out from the bushes and ambush me. But there’s no doubt that there’s a certain confidence to be had from feeling that you have some grasp on the tradition, and that things are beginning to make sense. And look at a critic like Frank Kermode. He was handing in his last reviews to the London Review of Books two weeks before he died and it was as good as anything he had written in the last 30 years of his life.

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