In Harper’s, Colson Whitehead Accuses James Wood of Being (Gasp!) an Aesthete and a Traditionalist

Colson Whitehead has published a satirical bit of literary criticism called "Wow, fiction works!" in the ‘Readings’ section of February’s Harper’s. Written in the form of a lecture read to a group of aspiring writers by a corny, simple-minded hack, the piece is a send-up of The New Yorker’s book critic James Wood, whose preferences and ideas about literature Mr. Whitehead evidently finds ridiculous.

"In my literary criticism," Mr. Whitehead’s oafish orator says in the opening of his address, "I have become known as a champion of the eternal verities and a scold of the trendy and the fashionable. I have essayed to instruct your writers in how to write correctly. Now I will teach you to read correctly."

From there, Mr. Whitehead makes fun of Mr. Wood’s enthusiasm ("I remember when the first dispatches of Dirty Realism made their way across the Atlantic. I pored over each latest issue of Granta as if it contained the Holy Word. And perhaps it did."), his preferred method of close reading ("We know Gus is thirsty; for pages Carver has created a matrix of connotation, employing such language as ‘parched,’ ‘dried-up,’ and ‘really frickin’ thirsty’ to describe him. In short, Gus needs a drink."), and his disposition towards contemporary literature ("The bookstores are too full today of writers who have nothing to say.").

There are specific references to some of Mr. Wood’s most identifiable traits as a critic (his distaste for what he calls "hysterical realism," his affection for Saul Bellow) and to the fact that he has written a novel of his own.

All in all, basically: "Here are some things about James Wood, a guy who exists and about whom you might know a few basic facts. He is an overeducated British jerk and a lamewad." Thin gruel, as far as parody goes, and though the editors of Harper’s—a magazine that has to date been very nice to Mr. Wood—will say it is not intended as a takedown, early reaction confirms that many will receive it as such.

Considering the judgments Mr. Wood has passed on Mr. Whitehead’s novels in his criticism—in a New Republic review of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude in 2003, Mr. Wood said Messrs. Whitehead and Lethem are "fond of rampantly dangling phrases," and in a review of David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion from 2004, Mr. Wood said in an aside that "Colson Whitehead’s prose frequently seems unaware of its own illiteracy"—perhaps those people are not to blame for that impression. In Harper’s, Colson Whitehead Accuses James Wood of Being (Gasp!) an Aesthete and a Traditionalist