James Wood, Britain's most brilliant literary critic, has published a novel. Can the merciless arbiter live up to his own critical standards?by Jason Cowley / April 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: The Book Against God Author: James Wood Price: (Jonathan Cape, ?12.99)
James Wood conforms in many ways to my romantic ideal of the critic. He is not someone for whom literary criticism is a mere profession or a discipline. For Wood, criticism is a vocation, a secular calling.
When Wood, who is 37, first emerged as a young writer on the ‘Guardian’ in the late 1980s, his reviews had a strange, sanctimonious fervour. There was nothing quite like them. They resembled polemical sermons rather than reviews; even then, he seemed to have read everything of value and to know exactly what he wanted to say about literature and how to say it. It emerged later that he had endured an evangelical Christian childhood and adolescence in the northeast of England, but had lost his belief while a Cambridge undergraduate. In place of lost faith he discovered, as FR Leavis had before him, belief in the transformative potential of literature-literature as rival to, and usurper of, religion; literature as the repository of secular truth and ethical guidance. Literature as story, as entertainment, or as means to bring urgent news of the times in which we live, seemed of no interest to him.
From the beginning, Wood used a charged, inflated critical language, a high style appropriate to the dignity of his self-appointed task. Unwilling to forgive slipshod or ready-made formulation, he was a stern moralist, quite oblivious to modishness or fashion. He could be cruel, especially when reviewing minor writers of small talent, and exasperatingly competitive, contrasting his own elaborate style with that of the writer under review; he often spoke of the rivalrous proximity of the critic and the author, both of whom use prose narrative. Metaphor was what delighted him most. He once wrote, comically, in a review of a novel by Candia McWilliam, that he was prepared to lose a whole book for a phrase as good as the “silent bustle of fish.”
In 1995, Wood moved to Washington to become a senior editor on the ‘New Republic’, where he was allowed the freedom to write long, rigorously worked reviews of contemporary novelists, many of whom were reduced to rubble. At this time, he began to mature as a reader and critic, developing his own idiosyncratic theology of fiction. “Every novel is its own reality and its own realism,” he wrote in ‘The Broken Estate’: ‘Essays…