James Wood has had a standing offer to join the staff of The New Yorker for about as long as people have been calling him the best literary critic in the world.
Until recently, Mr. Wood did not want to go. He had contributed to the magazine a handful of times since moving to the United States from Great Britain in 1995, but the vast majority of his writing from that period went to The New Republic, where he had been serving under the magazine’s famously combustible literary editor Leon Wieseltier.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Wood informed Mr. Wieseltier that New Yorker editor David Remnick had made a new offer, and that he had decided to accept. The deal was already done, and Mr. Wieseltier and Mr. Wood have not spoken since.
“It’s true that I could have gone a few years ago to The New Yorker,” Mr. Wood wrote in an e-mail to The Observer. “But a few years ago, I was still writing my best stuff for Leon Wieseltier at The New Republic. In recent years, though, I had felt that I was repeating myself, that the pieces were becoming a bit automatic, a bit inevitable.”
He went on: “12 years seemed like a long inning, a respectable length of service. It was time for a change.”
Mr. Remnick said one of the motives in hiring Mr. Wood was that the magazine has not been as aggressive as he would like in its coverage of contemporary fiction.
Mr. Wood said he wants to “find and promote unknown or younger writers, to be something of a champion of new writing, when I find it to be good.”
This, he said, would be easier to do at The New Yorker than it was at TNR, partly because he can write shorter reviews.
Shorter reviews cut both ways, though, and some may worry whether the sophisticated, scholarly approach to literary criticism Mr. Wood has taken at TNR will survive at The New Yorker.
Mr. Wieseltier told The Observer that his “fondest wish is that James will write as if he never left.” He noted, though, that the two magazines are very different. “It would be hard to comment on the difference between The New Republic’s audience and The New Yorker’s audience without sounding vain and snobbish. The pieces we publish, they’re more argumentative. They’re more agitated and more agitating. They make more fights. They’re more scholarly. We allow a touch of wildness. They’re certainly less polite. David believes that civility is a primary intellectual virtue. I believe it’s a secondary intellectual virtue, or no intellectual virtue at all.”
Mr. Wood has fewer reservations about Mr. Remnick’s editorial approach.
“When David Remnick contacted me, he said straight off that he wanted me to be exactly the same kind of critic for him as I was for Leon,” he said.
That would make for a change at The New Yorker. Mr. Wood is, by reputation, a harsh critic, best known, perhaps, for exploding fashionable pieties to contemporary writers like Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith and John Updike.
And many of the authors he has targeted regularly publish fiction in The New Yorker. Will Mr. Wood be forced to put away his famous claws?
“I have no intention of going soft,” said Mr. Wood. “I intend to be a critic, which means, as Eliot once put it, ‘the elucidation of texts and the correction of taste.’ If I annoy people who publish stories or who have extracts published in The New Yorker, that will be the editor’s problem, not mine! After all, it’ll be him they complain to, not me.”
“I don’t expect him at all to change as a writer,” Mr. Remnick said. “I’m hiring him for him.”
Mr. Wieseltier did not want to speculate about whether the New Yorker editor would keep his word. He pointed, instead, to remarks Mr. Remnick made in The New York Times when news of Mr. Wood’s move first broke. At that time, Mr. Remnick said that Mr. Wood was not a “slam artist,” and that despite what people say about him, he is “also capable of passionate praise.”
“When he keeps insisting on James’ ability to praise,” Mr. Wieseltier said, “David is apologizing for one of James’ greatest strengths.”
In his first year as a staff writer for The New Yorker—Mr. Remnick said he expects the contract “will be re-upped and re-upped ad infinitum”—Mr. Wood will publish five or six long pieces totaling about 5,000 words and five or six shorter ones at 2,500. Mr. Remnick said Mr. Wood’s reviews will be edited by books editor Henry Finder, though he will be free to branch out to other kinds of writing—essays and reported pieces—if the fancy ever strikes him.
Mr. Wood is the second star writer to leave TNR for The New Yorker in recent months. Political reporter Ryan Lizza, who had been a TNR loyalist ever since he interned there as a young man, has just moved into an office in The New Yorker’s D.C. bureau, where he will serve as Washington correspondent.
Asked to comment on the two departures, TNR editor Franklin Foer replied, “They don’t raid your talent if you suck.”
Referring to the budget of The New Yorker, Mr. Wieseltier said, “It’s pointless to be angry at rich people for shopping.”
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