Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Contra James Wood?

There is a new blog which takes issues with the ideas and opinions of the esteemed literary critic James Wood. I found this post particularly provocative which makes the case for Wood as a (sort of) Blairite critic, promoting reification of literature by granting a phony respectability to the commodity of Novel by labelling it "literary":

"James Wood is the ideal critic for the era in which the novel comes to be defined by its marketing category; it is Wood, preeminently, who puts the fetishism back into the commodity. On the one hand, there’s a great leveling behind the scenes – “literary fiction” is just more product that needs to be moved, preferably in superstore bulk – but selling it is part of a system of “distinction” that depends on the appearance of hierarchy, so that customers get to consume status along with, say, the latest Claire Messud or Ian McEwan novel. Wood’s criticism stabilizes the hierarchy of genres by guaranteeing the literariness of “literary fiction”; his imprimatur allows the novel to appear to have transcended mere marketing. His reviewing functions as a kind of nominating process, in which select works of contemporary “literary fiction” are nominated into the pantheon of great literature that his essays about “classic” texts have already enshrined. Thus, to take just a few examples, Monica Ali, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, and of course McEwan get to share the dias with Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, and Shakespeare. Those stacks of Ian McEwan’s Saturday that you see on that Barnes and Noble table have hovering over them a halo that forms the blurb, “This Is Not A Commodity” —James Wood. And it’s 10% off! "


matt said...

Criticism of Wood is fine but this is ludicrously over the top. Why the frothing hate?

Alok said...

I didn't see any "frothing hate" there. I think it is important and enlightening to see his seemingly apolitical criticism through a political lens. I thought that particular post made a very good point about mainstreaming and commercialization of so-called literary novels..

I don't really agree with most of his critics (in so far as I have read and understood). His definition of realism is actually quite broad and inclusive. It is mostly his critics who have a narrow idea of what literature is or should be.

matt said...

Ok, maybe hate was a bit strong, but there is a certain tone to the criticism that goes beyond mere disagreement.

What I want to know is what is at stake here? Precisely what do the detractors want from their ire - Wood to step down, be replaced by someone more acceptable? If so, who?

Alok said...

At stake I think is the diversity, the authenticity of literary voice which is getting lost in commercialization and homogenisation (look at the booker prizes for example), something which the literary establishment implicitly supports and encourages. Or that's what the detractors claim. Wood to his detractors is part of that establishment and so he is essentially a conservative critic. You should check out the blog "The Reading Experience" and "This Space". They both consistently champion experimental and authetic voices and criticize Wood and other conservative critics