On James Wood

An interesting review of James Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works. I think it accurately diagnoses most of Wood’s weaknesses (“Wood is at his best when either microscopically close to a text or expounding it from a magisterial distance. In the middle ground, where plots and contexts lurk, he sometimes gets things wrong”), but made me think in a new way about Wood’s style:

Wood became famous by taking reviewing very seriously, an attitude that — for a number of reasons, not all of them sinister — is less widespread than you might think. Intelligent, well-read and extremely confident, he wrote from the beginning in a style that suggested he’d put some thought into questions concerning verbal surfaces. By the time he was starting out, the witty changes of register associated with the New Review and the New Statesman in the 70s had degenerated into a reflexively jokey high style in the hands of many journalists. In academic criticism, on the other hand, the enthusiasm for theory that peaked in the 80s had often resulted in curdled writing and an avoidance of “value judgments”. Wood responded by fashioning a critical voice that’s serious but opinionated, heavily stylised but not slick. He shares Martin Amis’s taste for coining paradoxical metaphors, but not for the quasi-laddish diction with which the novelist once brought aesthetic judgments down to earth.

As a result, Wood’s writing sometimes seems to issue from a world of rather dandified beautiful letters. Unafraid of sounding like an connoisseur, he’s entirely comfortable, say, describing Pushkin’s stanzas as “little private carriages of plush”. Nor is he afraid of sounding faux-donnishly lofty. Yet few books would get reviewed if critics agreed to a total ban on elevated language. Wood thinks that some writers worry about stylistic excess in the same way that some actors worry that their job isn’t manly, and his style is in part a stand against that tradition.

We hear writers talking about the importance of voice frequently and at great length. We hear much less (grumbling about John Clute aside) about reviewers’ voices, but I think the truth is that how something is said about a book is almost as important as what is said. Let’s have reviews with a bit more conscious control of their personality, in other words. (Of course, by no means have I fully worked out what I want to sound like when I write a review.)

7 thoughts on “On James Wood

  1. I came across a great piece in SFS by Paul Kincaid about an Australian critic whose name completely escapes me and Paul writes at length about his voice and what motivated his takes on different books (including a hatred of the idea that SF is a ghetto).

    I’m not sure if consciously controlling how your personality comes across is necessarily a good idea. That sounds like a recipe for paralysis as people self-consciously try and modulate their voices to suit their personality or to get across some fake personality in the way a stand-up comedian does.

    I think that the best way to get a voice is to just let one emerge from your writings naturally and let other people pick up on it.

  2. Jonathan, the critic was George Turner, an award winning mainstream writer who turned to sf fairly late in life. He made a reputation for himself as an acerbic critic of sf before he started to write his own sf novels, several of which won awards including the Clarke Award for The Sea and Summer.

    On Niall’s more general point: I have always believed that a piece of criticism should be, in its own way, as much an entertainment as any other piece of writing. Generally, I’ve found, criticism that is dull to read is also dull as criticism.

  3. Jonathan — I don’t necessarily mean that reviewers should adapt their voice, but I do think they should pay attention to it and work to make it recognisable. Which I guess is just an argument against first drafts, in some ways.

  4. I know this is something I’ve been examining after reading Chip Delany’s “About Writing.” Style is so obviously important in any non-fiction writing, but sf seems to have a deficit of reviewers who have both really insightful critical perspectives and enjoyable, unique authorial voices.

    I’ve been experimenting with my own style a bit recently, especially in how reviews can be structured. I’ve been playing with adding more of myself into them, and casting them in a more narrative form. I had noticed in collections like “Best American Essays of 200x” that the essays I most enjoyed reading said things about their authors as well as their ostensible subjects.

    Still, being as new as I am, I think I spend too much time hoping I don’t come across as an uninformed idiot to really develop my own solid style. Hopefully as I gain confidence that will get better.

  5. While one’s writing style is certainly deliberate, I think style and substance are subtly related. I’ve found that if an author’s ideas are particularly interesting, I’ll also enjoy their style.

  6. Paul — That is indeed the one I was thinking of. Good work BTW, I enjoyed the piece enormously.

    I don’t think I ever thought about having a particular voice or approach until Paul Raven suggested I had one. Now I’m all self-conscious…

  7. I loved your call to “have reviews with a bit more conscious control of their personality.” I attempted something just like that when I reviewed Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser at my blog. Lately, I’ve been blogging a close reading of Wood’s How Fiction Works. It’s less voice-conscious and more discursive. Nice to see a convergence of interests. Drop by sometime: Wisdom of the West.

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