The Fun Stuff and Other Essays by James Wood – review

The great literary critic James Wood turns his stern gaze on the likes of Paul Auster, Richard Yates and WG Sebald in a fascinating collection of essays

If literary criticism no longer enjoys the privileged cultural position it occupied in the middle of the 20th century, the same cannot be said of James Wood. Chief book reviewer for the New Yorker and visiting lecturer at Harvard, the English expat is probably the Anglophone world's most esteemed literary critic.

With his intimidating seriousness and near religious belief in the moral possibilities of the novel, Wood can seem like a throwback to that era of Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, FR Leavis and William Empson, when books weren't reviewed so much as stringently evaluated for a higher purpose.

Certainly when Wood reviews an author, he stays reviewed. The novelist Jonathan Lethem was so chastened by the experience that a whole eight years after Wood's review of The Fortress of Solitude was published, he wrote a lengthy essay attacking the critic's "blanketing tone of ruminative mastery".

That ruminative mastery is much in evidence in Wood's new collection, The Fun Stuff. The title – a rare flash of openly ironic humour – refers to the lead essay, a beautiful exposition of Wood's teenage ardour for the manic drumming of the Who's Keith Moon. Trained as a classical musician at Eton, Wood sought liberation in the percussive chaos produced by the notoriously self-destructive hedonist.

It's hard to imagine the sternly pensive Wood succumbing to such flamboyant beat-keeping. But as he writes revealingly of Moon's idiosyncratic style: "For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong."

Wood's prose is seldom if ever wrong. Instead it tends to be dense but painstakingly constructed, bedecked in extensive reading, layered argument and piercing observation. Sometimes that recipe can seem a little forbidding within the pages of a magazine, even one as august as the New Yorker. Perhaps it's the greater sense of air, but the setting of a book allows the essays to breathe more freely, and the references to accumulate less dauntingly.

For when Wood discusses WG Sebald, for example, it's with the benefit of having read and recognised the influence of Thomas Bernhard and Adalbert Stifter. He will also have noted the debt to Joseph Roth in the work of Aleksandar Hemon, even if it escapes Hemon himself. And only Wood would point out that while Richard Yates's stories are often likened to John Cheever's, they are closer to JF Power's.

Hisessay on Yates demonstrates what a relentless intelligence can achieve in well-travelled territory by providing an intensely subtle appreciation of the author's finest work. So finely argued and culturally rich is Wood's understanding of Revolutionary Road that his contention that it is a clever rewriting of Madame Bovary seems less a literary opinion than a moral certainty. Thus persuaded, we greet the notion that the book's hero, Frank Wheeler, is a hypocritical combination of Charles Bovary and Emma Bovary as a moment of penny-dropping intellectual revelation.

The gift of the great critic is to be able to explain complex concepts to the reader in a manner that is neither bamboozling nor patronising. Although demanding of the reader's attention, Wood has this gift, but perhaps his most impressive facility – and one apparently lost on Lethem – is his willingness to pay authors the compliment of taking their work as seriously as they take it themselves.

You never feel that he shortchanges his subjects, regardless of whether or not they earn his approval. He excoriates Paul Auster, it's true, and in such devastating fashion that you hope that the quintessential New Yorker doesn't subscribe to the New Yorker. But it's not a lazy hatchet job. Wood has done the work. He's read Auster's oeuvre and his contempt for it stems from careful diligence rather than casual spite.

That distinction may necessarily be lost on the receiving author, but it's one worth treasuring for the discerning reader. It means that this is a book that's impossible to read without gaining a greater appreciation of what it means to write well, both in the case of the work under review and, just as pleasurably, the reviews themselves.


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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