A Reply to the Editors

Manhands XI
Manhands, Manhands XI, 2005, gelatin silver print, 8 × 10". Courtesy of the artist.

The statement that opened this magazine’s first issue was both minatory and elliptical. It had serious and sensible things to say about a certain strain of negative reviewing in the books pages of the New Republic; but it was itself a wholly negative attack on negativity. There I was, waiting for the sweets of positivity, for the proposals and manifestos and counterarguments, only to find the merest dusting of kiddies’ sugar: “And what can we do, with thirty-six weeks left on our discount subscription [to the New Republic]? Forget about it. We’re young yet: so we’ll go and be among the young.” Perhaps this was ironically intended; a few lines earlier there had emerged the stronger hint of a proposal: “If only they had allowed more positive individuality, cultivated something new, and still kept an old, dignified adherence to the Great Tradition, running continuously to them (as they hoped) from the New York Intellectuals, whose ashes were in urns in the TNR vaults if they were anywhere. This was a magazine that began with Edmund Wilson!”

Positive individuality; the cultivation of “something new” (anything, as long as it is something?); a connection to the Great Tradition; and… youth! One of the editors, Keith Gessen, could be found on the last page of the magazine writing: “It is time to say what you mean.” Indeed, but what do you mean? The Editors had unwittingly proved the gravamen of their own critique: that it is easier to criticize than to propose.


But now I am proving the same; and rather than fall into easy pugilism, it might be worth defending, first of all, a certain kind of negativity; and then worth chancing a certain kind of positivity. Or rather, perhaps the first, properly defended, will come to seem indistinguishable from the second, will take on the luster of the necessary: I’ve always been fond of Turgenev’s remark about Belinsky, that he was “not a negationist; he negated in the name of an ideal.” In this vein, it might also be worth observing that a magazine loosely marshaled around individuality, tradition, something new, and a dash of youth, is a respectable and worthy project—not to mention a thoroughly traditional one (Eliot’s Criterion, the Partisan Review, Les Temps Modernes). I hope it succeeds, because we have very few interesting small magazines.


In his introduction to The Sacred Wood, Eliot has wise words about Matthew Arnold’s lifelong attack on philistinism; the danger, said Eliot, is that such a struggle will be endless, may consume a whole life: there is always more philistinism about than its available correction. The critic should be wary of endlessly chasing the bad. I don’t care at all for Dale Peck’s enormous, steroidal renunciations, nor for the temperature of his rhetoric; he seems to me a natural novelist—I praised his strange second novel in the Guardian, years ago—and an unnatural critic. There has always seemed something grim to me about Mary McCarthy’s dogged insistence on remaining angry for forty years. One of the first things I did when I arrived at the New Republic in 1995 (after six years of reviewing fiction for the Guardian, the newspaper where I started, right out of university), was to look up McCarthy’s review, for that magazine, of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, a novel I greatly admire. It’s not a “negative” piece, and is all the more horrifying for the mildness of its dismissal. (A funny line of Cyril Connolly’s comes bubbling up: “This book is wanly recommended.”) To look back at such pieces is to turn into a pillar of salt. When I think of the toil and sweat of Stead’s labors, when I think of the high achievement of that book, and then read McCarthy’s brisk formulations, squeezed into no more than a thousand words, I feel a little sick. I try to be on guard for such failures of judgment and tact myself. Doubtless I have committed them.

And I agree with the commonplace that a critic who cannot praise is no critic at all: over the years, in the New Republic and the Guardian and the London Review of Books, I have written in praise, and often at considerable length, of Norman Rush (I have sometimes felt like this writer’s lone defender), José Saramago, Saul Bellow, Graham Swift, Jeffrey Eugenides, Philip Roth, Victor Pelevin, Alan Hollinghurst, Amit Chaudhuri, Monica Ali, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Kazuo Ishiguro, Muriel Spark, J. F. Powers, V. S. Pritchett, W. G. Sebald, J. M. Coetzee, Vikram Seth, Anne Enright, David Means, Geoff Dyer, David Bezmozgis, James Kelman, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Yates, Francisco Goldman, V. S. Naipaul, and indeed Christina Stead. This is to speak only of modern writers. A longer list would include Svevo, Verga, Hrabal, Henry Green, Joseph Roth, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Camus, Sartre, Hardy, Mann, Austen, Shakespeare, Lawrence (I edited a volume of his short stories), Bernanos, Gogol, Graham Greene, Woolf, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Hamsun, Dostoevsky, and Wodehouse.

There is no obvious pattern here. I am assumed to be a defender of “realism,” but I have skeptically reviewed Robert Stone and Tom Wolfe and John Irving, finding precisely their “realism” too conventional to deserve that noble and expansive word. I am assumed to be an “aesthete,” but it is precisely John Updike’s aestheticism that has goaded me again and again into print in the last ten years. I am assumed to be a “moralist,” but I like best to lose myself in the rich prose of a Bellow or a Melville or a Henry Green; probably no critic of contemporary fiction is more drawn to style and the enjoyment of style. I love ideas in fiction, but not as Julian Barnes or Richard Powers practice them. I praised Sabbath’s Theater and criticized The Human Stain; I was lukewarm about Disgrace but admired Elizabeth Costello.

Fixated on negativity—tellingly, they note only the negative pieces, never the laudatory ones—the Editors accuse the books pages of the New Republic of “taking down” writers like Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and Don DeLillo. I detest that verb. For one thing, no review ever does “take down” a writer: the writer has a way of popping up very punctually, three or four years later, with another offering. For another, a serious critique, of the kind I have written of Underworld or Paradise or White Teeth, takes nothing down; it takes something seriously, as Zadie Smith has herself often acknowledged, publicly and privately. In what way can my review of The Corrections, a book I praised at length for its humane and moving rewriting of DeLillo yet criticized for its residual and contradictory enthrallment to a DeLilloian idea of the paranoid “social novel,” be seen as “a takedown”? To argue, for two thousand words, with the argument of Jonathan Franzen’s Harper’s essay (to argue that it is intelligent, suggestive, and finally illogical, seeking refuge in a thin aestheticism—the consolation of the “sentence”—which I doubt Franzen himself even believes in); to then argue for a further three thousand words with The Corrections itself, is to take Franzen seriously. To call the Harper’s essay “elegant, infamous” and nothing more, to call The Corrections “a marvelous novel, more than deserving of its laurels,” and little more, as Chad Harbach did in the first issue of n+1, is merely to take Franzen for granted.

Henry James has a nice letter to Grace Norton, in which he defends Roderick Hudson against her mixed-to-negative review of it in the Nation: “I thank you most sincerely for noting those weak spots: it is invaluable, indispensable, to a style to feel itself watched, vigilantly.” To feel itself watched, vigilantly: how stern James was, and how moist our own optic has become, as we run around town denouncing negativity and “snark.” The issue has never been “snark”; it has always been intelligence, and writers rightly prefer intelligent hostility to stupid praise. I have been hard on Toni Morrison, on John Updike, on Pynchon and DeLillo, on Julian Barnes and Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, on Robert Stone and Salman Rushdie, but those writers have at least felt reviewed by a critic who is vigilantly watching their style; who considers fiction the most important occupation they could be performing; who is always urging such writers: “Write better!” It is like the Augustinian version of theodicy: novelists would far rather live in a universe in which negative reviews have the freedom to exist than in one from which such reviews had been banished.


And yes, one knows what it is like to receive a harsh review; and yes, one is aware of the basic inhumanity of the critic’s task. I write as one whose misfortune, having published a so-so novel, is to have received as his very first fiction review in England a piece with the headline “You won’t laugh, you won’t cry,” and then the obliging strap line: “James Wood’s first novel has neither comedy nor pathos.” (I well remember the comic moment, sitting in a chilly house in rural Ohio in early 2003 while I waited for the fax machine to disgorge two other English reviews of my novel. Both had photographs of me. The caption of one ran: “Wood: sensitive precision.” The other, emerging a minute later, ran: “Wood: stale philosophising.”)


Furthermore, the negative review “negates in the name of an ideal.” The shadow-face, the veronica, of that ideal is, I hope, slowly rubbed into presence over the course of a long argumentative critique. Over the past few years, my reviewing has tended to cluster around three areas of concern. I hope it’s not hubristic to rehearse them. First, American fiction has seemed at present (forgive the gross generalization) to be divided between what might be called informational realism on the one hand and something I have elsewhere called hysterical realism on the other. At present, contemporary novelists are increasingly eager to “tell us about the culture,” to fill their books with the latest report on “how we live now.” Information is the new character; we are constantly being told that we should be impressed by how much writers know. What they should know, and how they came to know it, seems less important, alas, than that they simply know it. The idea that what one knows might—to use Nietzsche’s phrase—“come out of one’s own burning” rather than free and flameless from Google, seems at present alien. The danger is that the American fondness for realism combines with this will-to-information to produce a hyperliteralism of the novel: you can see this in Tom Wolfe but also in Richard Powers. (Decades ago, Walter Benjamin prophetically suggested that modern information might displace storytelling: “No event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.”)

By “hysterical realism” I have meant a zany overexcitement, a fear of silence and of stillness, a tendency toward self-conscious riffs, easy ironies, puerility, and above all the exaggeration of the vitality of fictional characters into cartoonishness. The dilemma could be put dialectically: the writer, fearful that her characters are not “alive” enough, overdoes the liveliness and goes on a vitality spree; suddenly aware that she has overdone it, she tries to solve the problem by drawing self-conscious attention to the exaggeration (“Hey, relax, this is obviously cartoonish!”). But the self-consciousness, far from healing the wound, merely makes it bloodier. (Much of Rushdie works like this, and is correspondingly unbearable.)

My second critical preoccupation flows from the first: there is a generalized overemphasis on a certain kind of intelligence in fiction—now habitually and tellingly renamed “smartness.” We are now so convinced of the terrifying complexity of our culture that we tend to flatter those writers who grapple with it at all, certain that they must be very brilliant just to be attempting it. But Proust rightly said in Contre Sainte-Beuve that to say of a novelist “he is very intelligent” is no different from saying “he loved his mother very much.” It is no more than a given, a premise, a biological truism. Of course, fine novelists must be very intelligent, but we have become fixated on one kind of intelligence—the theoretical, the analytical, the cultural—at the expense of other kinds of intelligence: intelligence of form, of language, the knowledge of human relations and human motive. Put it this way: I’ll accept that Richard Powers is terrifically smart if you’ll admit with me that Alice Munro is also terrifically smart.

The third and final area of perturbation has been motivated by a sense that what the novel does can be done equally well by a number of different forms—journalism, cultural analysis, theory, nonfiction narrative, film, and so on—and that therefore the novel is simply unus inter pares. But of course, as long as the novel thinks of its primary function as cultural analysis, it will find itself thought of as merely one among several different ways of doing such analysis. Give the novel back its aesthetic autonomy and we will discover once again the great circularity of the form: that the novel justifies itself by making an enquiry that it alone can make.


My ideal, then, is the autonomous novel itself, and doubtless a commitment to a particular kind of novel. I am especially interested in the real (though not especially in realism, which too quickly becomes literalism); I am especially interested in consciousness and how the mind is reproduced on the page; I am especially interested in the novel as a comic and secular form; and I am especially interested—how could I help being interested?—in the human, in what Ian Watt calls “the literal imagination.” The Editors, in their statement, called my critical defense of this kind of fiction an “essentially parodic” project. It seems central to me and might more justly be called Aristotelian: that’s to say, it is the defense of the credible imagination against the incredible imagination (following Aristotle, who writes that a convincing impossibility in mimesis is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility, the burden thereby being put not so much on verisimilitude as on mimetic persuasion). There is no reason that the defence of this kind of mimesis should harden into a narrow aesthetic, for it ought to be expansive enough to connect Shakespeare’s mimesis, say, with Nabokov’s, or Dickens’s with Svevo’s, or Flaubert’s with Patrick White’s. Very little connects Norman Rush’s Mortals (a talky, intellectual, and richly written political novel set in Botswana) with James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late (a Beckettian monologue written in unpunctuated Glaswegian vernacular), two books I have praised, except that both writers have an interest in human beings, and an interest in language, and an interest in plausible fictions, and a desire to transmit that interest. I think that realism—broadly defined as the persuasive mimesis of probable human activity—is the large, central language of the novel; as I wrote in my first book of essays: “Realism is not a law, but a lenient tutor, for it schools its own truants. It is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, dream, and so on.”


Henry James wrote that the kind of fiction he liked concerned itself with “the present palpable-intimate,” a formulation the husks of whose terms will clearly change even as the kernels remain the same, since James’s “present” will not be mine. Present: I think the novel should deal with current reality; I have no time for historical fiction, seeing it as merely science fiction facing backwards. Palpable: Fiction is made of details, palpabilities, concretenesses, verbal densities and lusters, facts and things. Intimate: I have a marked preference for representations of the kind of business ordinary human beings conduct with one another (and such business has no need, of course, to be merely “domestic”).

It is the “intimate” that connects us to the “present”; it is the “intimate” that should be “present.” I am sometimes accused of writing as if I wanted novelists to be merely writing in the 21st century with the same forms they used in the 19th century, which would indeed be like demanding that Thomas Adès write music like Puccini. No sensitive or serious reader or writer could wish this. It would be nonsensical. The forms and languages of fiction are always changing. And the self may well be changing, too. But not as quickly as the representations of the self. Our postmodern generation often falls into a kind of historical superiority or metaphysical provincialism, whereby we pride ourselves on how very different our subjectivity is—more mediated, more fractured, more self-conscious, et cetera—from our ancestors’. Were this true we would be unable to read the fiction produced by those predecessors. And more to the point, there are writers, like Hamsun and Dostoevsky, whose ideas of the self are still more radical than anything dreamed up by, say, Thomas Pynchon. Nothing in contemporary fiction, not even Dennis Cooper’s sadistic imaginings or Cormac McCarthy’s bloody ravages, is more horrifying than the moment in Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) when the narrator puts his finger in his mouth and begins to eat himself. It’s not postmodern, it’s posthuman. Beckett clearly borrowed this scene from Hamsun when he had Molloy eat his stones. And Beckett, of course, is a good example of a writer whose language and forms are utterly different from his predecessors, but whose metaphysic of the self would be recognizable not only to Schopenhauer but probably to Aquinas. (You might call Beckett the ultimate realist.)

We have more trash in our minds, obviously enough, than humans did a century ago. Thanks to video and television and the internet, we see ourselves constantly represented and replicated. So we are far more self-conscious than at any time in history; on the other hand, the low quality of most of this self-consciousness threatens to drown the self. This is why I thought Don DeLillo’s Underworld so symptomatic of the challenges facing contemporary writers. On the one hand, it is a theoretically advanced novel about technology and paranoia, about systems of communication and recent history. On the other, it is a solidly old-fashioned book, attempting to describe, in almost Dickensian detail, the interconnectedness of the whole of society.

It insists on these connections pretty didactically (the atom bomb is connected in some way to baseball and to JFK, et cetera), as Dickens’s plots insist on connections (wills, lost relatives, and so on). But, and unlike Dickens, at the level of the human there are no real connections at all, because there are no human beings in DeLillo’s book, no one who really matters and whose consciousness really matters to himself. Thus the paranoid connectedness DeLillo claims to find in American society of the last fifty years is almost utterly conceptual. DeLillo has said that he writes novels about “the inner life of the culture.” But can you write novels about the inner life of the culture and not write about the inner life of characters? Aren’t the two precisely intimately connected?

The difficult task of the contemporary novelist, I think, is to connect the inner life of our culture with the inner life of the human and to describe both vividly (to connect the “intimate” with the “present”); to achieve this evocation while not hiding from the reader that this connection has become problematic both in life and for the artist; to describe what “moral seriousness” might look like in a world in which this kind of language now seems ghostly and antique; to write this up in a language that is at once artistically pure and recognizably human; and to fulfill this very modern challenge while holding to the older idea that the novel, of all forms, offers the greatest chance of providing this fulfillment.


I am attracted to the spirit of n+1, despite the silliness of its words against me, because I like the idea of a criticism that does three things at once: speaks about fiction and verse as writers speak about their craft; writes criticism journalistically, with verve and style, for a common reader; and bends this criticism back toward the academy in the hope of influencing the kind of writing that is done there (of course, such criticism has also learned a great deal from academic scholarship and theory). Edmund Wilson stole the phrase “triple thinker” from one of Flaubert’s letters, and I will steal it from Wilson. Such a threefold critic—writerly, journalistic, scholarly—would be an ideal triple thinker, and I have tried to write just this kind of criticism over the past fifteen years.


The kind of criticism such a triple thinker might write has several important functions, currently neglected by the academy. To look at a novel or poem as a writer does is first of all to be unafraid of simplicity. Often, simplicity is the only possible way of saying of a novel or a poem “this moved me,” “this was beautiful,” “this silences me.” Simplicity is the climate of the preliminary, the realm in which we utter our first affective responses. (And in which we are all critics.) Simplicity is also a way to bypass the anxiety that studying literature in college inevitably plants in us—that uneasy sensation that literature exists only for us to say clever things about. If you ask a group of university students how Jane Austen differentiates her characters, you get silence. These students will talk well about the picturesque in Austen, about the ideological, about the genre of romance, and many other things, because they understand that they are at university to learn a language and that criticism is a kind of language game. But they are stumped by the very thing that a novelist would instantly see in Austen—that her characters are differentiated by how they speak. Criticism by uncommon writers has a way of saying, and seeing, the simple large things. When Eudora Welty, for instance, writes of symbols in fiction that one way of thinking about Moby-Dick is that he was so large a symbol he had to be a whale, she is compacting into a piece of witty novelistic wisdom a point at once deep and simple about the way symbols should work in novels.

Writers also properly remind us that a great deal of criticism is not in fact especially analytical but a kind of persuasive redescription. Sometimes to hear a poet or a fine critic read a poem aloud is to have been party to a critical act; there is a good reason, after all, why writers have always been very interested in actors and acting—there is a sense in which the actor is the purest, the first critic. The written equivalent of the reading of a poem or a play aloud is the retelling of the literature one is talking about; the good critic has an awareness that criticism means, in part, telling a good story about the story you are criticizing.

How to achieve that retelling? There is a kind of writing through books rather than about them that we recognize in the greatest writer-critics. This writing-through is often achieved by using the language of metaphor and simile that art itself uses. It is a recognition that literary criticism is unique in criticism because one has the great privilege of performing it in the same medium one is describing. (How, comparatively, one pities the music critic, the art critic!) When Coleridge writes of Swift that he had the soul of Rabelais but dwelling in a dry place; when Virginia Woolf says of Dickens’s profligacy with minor characters that he is quite willing to throw a few of them onto a fire to make a scene blaze up; when James writes that Balzac, in his monkish devotion to his art, was like some “Benedictine of the actual” (a phrase he liked so much he plagiarized himself and also applied it to Flaubert); when Pritchett laments that Ford Madox Ford never fell into that “determined stupor” out of which great artistic work comes, these writers are producing images which are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in their so-called “creative” work. And they are speaking to literature in, as it were, its own language. “As it were”—there, I have been metaphorical myself. This speaking to literature in its own language is indeed the equivalent of a musical or theatrical performance; an act of critique which is at the same time a re-voicing. There may also be an element of writerly rivalry or competitive proximity here, the writer displaying her own talent, showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. (Woolf’s essays are the great examples here, because when she wrote for the TLS all contributions were anonymous: her journalism had to sign itself by style.)


Two years ago, I went to hear Alfred Brendel give an illustrated talk about Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. Brendel sat at a table, with his piano behind him. He would talk—or mumble, rather—from his lecture notes; and then, to illustrate, he would turn to the piano to play a phrase. Even to play a short phrase, he became not a quoter but a performer, not merely a critic but an artist-critic: he had to enter the trance-like state in which he performs whole concerts (shudderings, phantom mastication, closed eyes, swooning and tilting). It was intensely frustrating to hear, again and again, five bars of the most beautiful Beethoven, only to have them break off and be replaced by Brendel’s Viennese mumbling. Play on, play on, don’t talk!, I soundlessly urged. The mumbling quickly became of no interest or importance; one lived for the next quote, one was swinging from beauty to beauty, high above the dun currents of the prosaic. His “quotes” overwhelmed his commentary; in a sense, he was incapable of quoting. Or rather, he could only quote: Brendel had approached Benjamin’s idea of a book entirely made of quotes.

The analogy with literary criticism is imperfect, because the literary critic lacks this precise ability to inflect his chosen quotes as the musician performs his. (Though he or she may approach it orally when teaching, and performing aloud a passage in class.) But let Brendel’s wordy mumbling stand for a kind of literary criticism condemned to exteriority, a writing about rather than through the text, a flat commentary—there are thousands of examples, both academic and journalistic—banished from the heart of the creative. And let Brendel’s performance on the piano, his inability to quote without also creating, stand for the kind of literary criticism that is a writing through a text and not just a writing about, the kind of criticism that is at once critique and redescription.

In lieu of a reply, n+1 will devote a portion of the next issue to a roundtable on the current situation of American fiction. —The Editors

In lieu of a reply, n+1 will devote a portion of the next issue to a roundtable on the current situation of American fiction. —The Editors

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