What’s Really Real? Literary Critic James Wood Responds to Mischaracterizations

Remember that scene in Annie Hall where some blowhard is standing in line for movie tickets and loudly saying things about Marshall McLuhan? And then McLuhan himself shows up and tells him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

Literary critic James Wood kind of did that last night with an item on New York magazine’s Vulture blog. The item was based on a piece in yesterday’s Observer that asked whether Wood’s criticism—which we said has always been "uncommonly and unapologetically prescriptive"—was influencing aspiring writers.

Vulture briefly summarized our piece, referring at the top to Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works, as "a prescriptive guide to writing the kind of book that James Wood loves the best—the high-realist novel, which focuses on character and dialogue rather than on stylistic flourishes."

In his response, which he posted late last night to New York’s Web site, Wood called the post "nonsense" and rejected the notion that his book was a defense of realism. He went on: "…to say that I champion the fiction of character and dialogue over ‘stylistic flourishes’ is almost the opposite of the truth. As almost every word of criticism I have ever written attests, I pay the greatest attention to ‘stylistic flourishes,’ examine them, and revel joyfully in them. They are everything."

PWNED, right? Well, yeah, but it would be a mistake to blame this all on New York. We said he was a defender of realism, too! In fact, Wood’s aesthetics may not be so narrow—as he explained in an e-mail to The Observer on Tuesday shortly after the paper went out the door:

I am caricatured as a defender of realism, when, in fact, I have no great interest in realism per se. What I want to do is expand the American idea of what realism can be, and to argue that a highly developed commitment to aesthetics can co-exist with a highly developed commitment to the real (the human, the moral, dilemma). There is no problem with this confluence in British fiction (see people like Alan Hollinghurst), but for historical reasons American fiction is riven between arch-realists and arch-formalists. I see no need for that faultline and would like to break it down: that is why I liked Rivka Galchen’s book… and tried to read it within a tradition that is not exactly "realist" (Dostoevsky, Svevo, Bernhard), but that is intensely connected to the self…

In a separate e-mail, Wood clarified further: "The argument with Zadie [Smith] and others was not… an argument for character development (whatever that is—and my chapter on character in the new book pretty much rubbishes the idea of such ‘development’) over the excesses of style, but an argument against a certain kind of exaggeration."

Realism can mean lots of things, in other words. It ain’t all Flaubert and Muriel Spark. Which means, in turn, that those kids "adopting Wood’s preferred style," as Vulture put it, could be writing all kinds of books. Real talk.