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.)