Criticism and the Age: James Wood’s Essays of Two Decades

New Man, El Lissitzky


A generation of journalists emerged amid debates about “canonicity.” Novelist William Giraldi (b. 1974), film critic Dave Kehr (b.1953), Greek into English translator Daniel Mendelsohn (b. 1960), and essayist James Wood (b. 1965), to name just four, represent the Generation of 1960. Quantified as a unit of a quarter-century or so, G60 timelines somewhere between Czeslaw Milosz’ Captive Mind, Duke Ellington’s Piano Reflections, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bandwagon (all in 1953), and Elsa Morante’s novel History, Yuji Takahashi’s recording of John Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano, and Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (all in 1975). Asynonymous with Baby Boomers, Gen X, or even “Generation Jones,” members of G60 range from forty-five to seventy, were born between the Cold War and the Vietnam War, within living memory of Topeka v. Brown, 1960s counterculture, The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the independence in 1960 alone of seventeen African nations, the deaths of Albert Camus, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright that year and the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, or RFK.

They vary in gender, ethnicity, and national origin yet have much in common. G60 was formed by waves of globalization their parents experienced decades before “globalism” was even a word. Continents or even oceans apart, G60 grew up listening to similar music, on vinyl or over the air waves of stations like WKCR 89.9, some of it classical—Hindustani Dhrupad or North Indian raags, the English liturgical tradition from John Taverner (1490-1545) to John Tavener (1944-2013) as sung by boy trebles of the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge—some of it jazz or progressive rock from the 60s and 70s. Accordingly, for some of the G60, there’s no apartheid between “high” and “low” culture, pop, or classical. There are only two kinds of music: what you write to; and what you cook with.

My great-grand-uncle Orlando Roberson, a singer with the Ink-Spots, recorded with Fats Waller in 1929. In those days, a composer like Aaron Copland or Darius Milhaud would frequent Harlem cabarets, dives, and speakeasies jotting down jazz and blues rhythms and chords on napkins. Thanks to “Orlanda” and his composer-performer friends, straddling the worlds of classically trained artists who sang both African-American spirituals and Schubert lieder onstage, my sense of the boundaries between “white” and “black,” Tom Jones and Rolling Stones, classically trained and self-taught, show tunes, cabarets and down-and-dirty rent parties, is indelibly blurred. It worked both ways: Gershwin quoted the Afro-American spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” in “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess; William Grant Still drew inspiration for the opening measures of his Afro-American Symphony from Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Maybe for Keith Jarrett’s generation it was still called “crossover” when you followed “Sundial, Part 1” from Staircase (1975), with its overtones of Charles Ives’ polycacophony and the hush of Eastern mysticism, with a recording of the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87. For Wood, who notes the influence The Who had on Pearl Jam, the influence Who drummer Keith Moon had on Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers, the difference between Moby-Dick and “Moby Dick” is simply the difference between a novel justly admired by Virginia Woolf and the live-album drum solo from The Song Remains the Same. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear Wood describe either/or as Melvillian, even Shakespearean.

G60 shares a tradition of intellectual rigor associated with places like the University of Chicago. Classically educated, musically and linguistically, James Wood doubtless learned Latin the way Harlem Renaissance poet Countée Cullen learned it as he translated Ode 9 from Book I of Horace, which was the way poet-translators did it for centuries dating back from Chaucer to the Tudors, Hobbes, Dryden, Pope, the Victorians, the New Critics, and onwards to Gregory Rabassa. Wood was likely given lines to translate from Latin into English; then lines to translate from English into Latin. A few semesters later, he might graduate to the Anabasis of Xenophon or fragments from The Greek Anthology. At the Chorister School of Durham University, Wood was probably taught the rudiments of grammar and vocabulary, then drilled on passages increasingly difficult to puzzle out, both in writing and at sight, from prose and poetry ranging from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Civil War to Ovid’s Tristia and Metamorphoses to Cicero’s Catilline Orations through Virgil’s Aeneid, Eclogues, and Georgics. Likewise, a student steeped in Talmudic tradition might naturally become, if not a lawyer, then a translator of an Alexandrine like Constantine Cavafy. The Tridentine mass in official use from 1570 till 1964 was perhaps so familiar even to a writer like Giraldi born after Vatican II that an almost identical “classical education,” drilling declensions and conjugations aloud, might have seemed as natural as reciting the Catechism. When Wood makes casual reference to “reading Tacitus on Tiberius” it’s assumed each of the other three gets it.

Writers still living as their G60 successors came of age between the McCarthy Era of the mid-50s and the death of Edmund Wilson in the early 70s were shaped by alternating cultural currents: colonialism, Freud and/or Marxism (“Cullen Supports Communists!” a 1932 newspaper headline screamed.) At school, aspiring writers of the G60 read Animal Farm and 1984, Nausea, or The Myth of Sisyphus. Before becoming a memoirist himself, Mendelsohn might have read Holocaust memoirist Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975), a hybrid of dirge and personal history Wood calls “beautifully unclassifiable.” An aspiring translator in the days when the field of Translation & Interpretation was only just emerging as a scholarly discipline, he might also have read George Steiner’s After Babel (1975).

In that twilight of the pre-digital era, a time when families routinely dined together while discussing current events with the TV turned off and the land line off the hook, the expectation was that you read a daily newspaper. The papers of record in aspirational households Stateside and around the “colonial rim” were the Times of London and the New York Times. Essay collections like Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979) were reviewed in the Times Book Review and Times Literary Supplement. Prior to appearing in book form such essays—if by French writers like Roland Barthes then translated by poet Richard Howard or short-story writer Lydia Davis; if by Italian writers like Calvino then translated by William Weaver; if by Spanish- or Portuguese-language writers like António Lobo Antunes of the Boom in Latin American literature then translated by Gregory Rabassa—were published in the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma (est. 1951), Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps modernes, critic Victoria Ocampo’s Sur or Octavio Paz’ Vuelta (est. 1976). The Partisan Review of the 1950s gave way to the New York Review of Books after a strike at the New York Times in 1963. Suspension of publication at the Times Literary Supplement during the Times of London strike in 1979 gave rise to the London Review of Books. T.S. Eliot’s Criterion inspired Roger Kimball’s New Criterion.

The great postwar essayist at her or his peak as G60 came of age, now canonized in anthologies like John Gross’ The Oxford Book of Essays or Phillip Lopate’s Art of the Personal Essay, was “not a quoter,” Wood says, “but a performer, not merely a critic but an artist.” And not merely an artist but a virtuoso. The appearance in print of a piece by some famous art, dance, literary or music critic was itself an event—a “happening,” like Allen Ginsberg reciting “Hum Bomb” pre-YouTube—as eagerly anticipated as an exhibition, dance recital, poetry reading or jazz set. Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. were not just public intellectuals; they were performance intellectuals. It’s an hours-long train ride from Old Bethpage, Long Island, to Princeton, New Jersey; but so were the Andrew Porter opera reviews in New Yorker issues Daniel Mendelsohn ripped brown paper wrappers off of.

Call it a generational shift; call it a transfer of power. “On Becoming Them,” Wood’s autobiographical essay, might arguably describe Giraldi, Kehr, Mendelsohn and other G60 members who went on to assume senior contributor, editorial or curatorial positions at the institutions that shaped their thought: Boston University’s AGNI, The Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Museum of Modern Art, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker. Wood became what Daniel Mendelsohn aspired to be. G60 is now The Establishment.

Balanced between the journalistic, their prose styles see-saw from writerly to scholarly. They inform, entertain, inspire, and persuade with “verve and style, for a common reader.” They are respectful but not uncritical, either in support of or in opposition to predecessors like Julian Barnes, Harold Bloom, Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Cynthia Ozick, Muriel Spark, or John Updike. Wood agrees with Nabokov that Tolstoy isn’t very good at certain things: metaphor, for instance. Bellow, “as novelists go . . . is no depth psychologist.” Giraldi looks backwards to Harlem Renaissance impresario Carl Van Vechten and forward to Wendy Lesser (b. 1952). Wood also keeps a Maileresque eye out for more recent talent in the room—Paul Auster, Zadie Smith (b. 1975), David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), Colson Whitehead (b. 1969).

Among musicians, the debate was never whether the pedigree of Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961) was impeccable or whether his stewardship of Jazz at Lincoln Center brought new life to an art form whose future seemed in doubt in the early 80s. The debate was about whether or not G60 trumpeter Wallace Roney (b. 1960; died 31 March 2020 from coronavirus), interpreting Herbie Hancock’s “Little One” with remnants of the second Miles Davis Quintet featuring drummer Tony Williams was “merely a good student,” doomed to what Wood calls “the plagiarism of inheritance.” Wood drew fire, in n+1, for his role in the state of literary criticism dictated from the editorial offices of putatively rear-guard publications like The New Republic. Is Wood a “generational” talent, an innovator practicing literary criticism at as high a level as it’s ever been or one of what Joni Mitchell calls those “victims of typewriters”? How does the author of Upstate compare with Edmund Wilson, sage of Talcottville, founding father of The New Republic?


“Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” is among the best essays in Serious Noticing. Nothing about Woolf’s greatness is mysterious or unintended. Yet, cult myths envelop her. Myth One concerns the “difficulty” of Woolf’s writing. What’s problematic is that those left cold by her literary criticism worship the fiction while the others remain unresponsive to the novels those essays alone made possible. Woolf’s writing is pretty straightforward. It’s her personal life, Myth Two, perpetuated by movies like Orlando, Carrington, and The Hours that gets complicated. Myth Three depicts Virginia Woolf as a victim of patriarchy. Woolf remains vital to the intelligent self-interest of writers male (E.M. Forster, Stephen Spender) and female (Elizabeth Hardwick, Eudora Welty, Marguerite Yourcenar) precisely because, as both woman and woman of letters, she transcends cult status. What Woolf needs is de-mystification, a glimpse behind the false starts and stops, an unveiling of the androgynous “mind in the masterpiece,” as her friend Tom Eliot called it.

Wood’s point of departure is Hermione Lee’s biography, which takes a holistic view: who Virginia Woolf was, why and what she wrote and even how she died are inseparable from where and when she lived; the letters, diary entries, book reviews, and fiction all cross-fertilize each other; each diamond facet of her psyche—masculine or feminine, sociable or alienated, granite solid, or rainbow iridescent—is just a singular aspect of the prismatically flawed woman she was.

How did Woolf become a woman of letters, creator of a body of work greater than the sum of its parts?  She apprenticed as a book reviewer. Before she turned fifteen Woolf began a diary. In that diary she compiled immodest booklists and reading notes. At twenty-two, in the Guardian, where Wood got his own start, Woolf published her first review of a William Dean Howells novel. She went from night school teacher to literary journalist, reviewing The Golden Bowl and other works by Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, and many others. She then journeyed to the “dark places,” reviewing as fast as Constance Garnett could translate them major Russian novelists and short-story writers. Wood argues two Virginia Woolfs, before and after she discovered Chekhov. Until her death in 1941 she reviewed for The New Republic, for the Times Literary Supplement—the “Major Journal” she called it—dropping whatever else she was working on to meet their deadlines. Far from peripheral, these essays first collected in the Common Reader series and eventually in the six-volume Essays of Virginia Woolf are central to her overall body of works; her fiction, seem more accessible than it once did; the nonfiction nowhere near as facile as it once pretended to be.

Feminist literary theory is as essential to an understanding of a married bisexual like Woolf as queer theory is to understanding a twice-married bisexual like Cullen. Woolf’s mother aspired to a literary career of her own, but was worn down by childrearing, by do-gooding. Woolf remained ambivalent toward her father, even after his death, despising him one moment, admiring him the next. Was he a tyrant, self-centered, prone to temper tantrums, gluttonous for compliments? Sure. But he also named as her godfather James Russell Lowell, American ambassador to Great Britain. As Thackeray’s former-son-in-law, Sir Leslie Stephen just assumed his daughter would grow up to be a writer. To typecast Virginia Woolf in the role of victim violates her sovereignty.

Harder to argue with in Woolf’s case is feminist theory’s ongoing discourse with the body, that envelope of sensory input by means of which Woolf experienced the physical world whose beauties she so exquisitely hymned. The auras presaging crippling migraines, anorexia, Woolf’s recurring bouts of depression, her complete breakdowns are all related to her eventual suicide. The lanky cricket-playing tree- and rock-climbing tomboy never did outgrow her adolescent cringe before that body-image in the mirror. Her autobiographical writings hint at the sexual trauma of being molested by her older half-brother. Throughout her life, she was famously indifferent to clothes, yet there were debutante appearances to keep up, wearing long dresses, with white gloves and satin shoes and with pearls around her neck in formal ballrooms.

Ten years after the House of Lords passed the Suffrage Bill, Woolf delivered her Room of One’s Own lectures at Cambridge. Her brothers graduated their father’s alma mater as a matter of course; she, as matter of course, did not. Woolf may be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed in 1918, for feeling as unconvinced as an African-American born between the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the Voting Rights Act or the election and re-election of Barak Obama (b. 1961) were synonymous with equal rights and protections. Alex Zwerdling defines feminism as “a comprehensive movement of thought about women’s nature and status—legal, educational, psychological, economic, professional, marital, and political.” What struck Woolf’s male friends as “radical” in her own time now seems, a hundred years after suffrage, self-evident: stunting a girl’s development hinders a society’s. The role of women in literature is a theme Woolf returns to again and again, in Three Guineas and elsewhere. But the inconvenient truth is she despised the idea that novels of interpersonal relationships were women’s natural place, like the kitchen. Activism, Woolf argues, consists as much in writing essays, criticism, biography, and history as in signing petitions and stuffing envelopes. Woolf’s progressive celebration of writers like Austen, the Brontës, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and others co-exists with her radically conservative admiration for centuries of dead white males who paved women’s way, both those her father personally introduced her to whenever they visited the London townhouse or Cornwall summer home—Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, George Meredith, Trollope, and Tennyson—as well as those she was set free to discover in book form as she essentially home-schooled in her father’s vast uncensored library—Boswell, Sir Thomas Browne, Coleridge, Defoe, De Quincey, Sterne. “They do a great service,” she shrugs, “like Roman roads.”

Woolf’s early period (1905-1922) was spent reverse-engineering by way of book reviews narrative solutions to aesthetic problems she knew she’d confront as she went about envisioning the great novels of her middle period (1922-1932). In Woolf, there is no dualism between “creative writing” and criticism, fiction, or nonfiction. Admired critic and short-story writer V.S. Pritchett commented that Woolf’s less successful fiction (The Years) can be very pedestrian indeed. Her best nonfiction, on the other hand, “has a wildness in it.” Jacob’s Room ponders the nature of letter-writing; Orlando contemplates literary biography. No matter what genre she happens to be working in, meditations on form and method are the one constant in what might otherwise seem the bewildering variety of her work. Much of Woolf’s fiction is essayistic, a poetry of “thought and the possibilities of thought.” Blurring boundaries between poetry and prose, Woolf is best understood as a writer of what Pritchett calls “imaginative prose.” The ars poetica of Woolf’s collected essays yielded what Wood calls “the most substantial body of criticism in [20th century] English.” Her overall body of work is very much of a piece.

She and her contemporaries knew they were “on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature.” Woolf published Jacob’s Room in 1922—the year T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Proust’s Within a Budding Grove appeared. Her reading spanned the history of the novel since Richardson. She’d peeped behind the hedgerows of Jane Austen’s parsonages; lost herself in philosophical speculation reading Moby-Dick; admired Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. She relished the English novel’s comic genius but yearned to transcend its “tea-table” vision of life. The furthest thing imaginable from a late Victorian cheerleader, “simple, uncritical, enthusiastic,” Woolf wrote that Henry James, a friend of the family, might say less, suggest more, let one thing stand in for twenty. “There is room in a novel for storytelling,” she insisted, room “for tragedy, for criticism and information and philosophy.” Between the ages of forty and fifty, she created half a dozen classics of the English language, several of them masterpieces.

To The Lighthouse (1927) is the novel Wood’s students are most likely to read. Visual thinkers see a triptych in three panels. Music-lovers hear Woolf’s Fifth as a sonata-form work in three slow movements. The majority opinion, shared by Wood, is that Lighthouse is possibly the greatest and certainly the most perfect of her middle-period compositions. E.M. Forster dissents. Lighthouse was his personal favorite, but he thought The Waves (1931) her greatest book. 

Myth One, that Woolf is a “difficult” writer, persists. Of all the writings in her vast body of work, The Waves, admittedly among Woolf’s most radically experimental, is probably also her least esoteric. As critic, Wood says “Woolf was always in competition with what she was reviewing.” In Jacob’s Room she was only just learning how to use multiple points of view, to show characters on differing wave-lengths, at cross-purposes with themselves or with each other, characters daydreaming, talking to themselves, silently or aloud. How “to represent the brokenness of the mind’s communication with itself,” as Wood puts it, to make this “interior monologue” appear unobtrusively natural on the printed page? Working this problem as she drafts Mrs. Dalloway, her first middle period masterpiece, Woolf admits in A Writer’s Diary that Ulysses (1922) had already achieved some things she’s still struggling with in 1925. But Joyce’s genius seems of a lesser kind. “A first-rate writer, I mean,” she sniffs, “respects writing too much to be doing stunts.”

You have to remember how deeply rooted in domesticity Woolf’s writing was. Woolf didn’t just “inherit” greatness, like a trust fund, or have it thrust upon her, like chattel slavery. Woolf willed herself to greatness. Her genius was the result of both nurture and nature. And if, in the meantime, she was to continue living in the manner to which she’d grown accustomed, raised in an upper-middle class late Victorian household, she needed money. The sale of a manuscript meant she could finally get that busted water heater fixed. The critical success of Lighthouse was gratifying. But italso sold more than any of her previous novels, which meant she could buy a car for those weekend jaunts to the English countryside.

Woolf is many things to many people. To the young James Wood in 1997, not just literary critic and novelist-aspirant plotting his own first book-length work of fiction, The Book Against God or his 2008 nonfiction book How Fiction Works, Woolf perhaps represented a relentless professional, each drawer of her shockingly untidy home office—where she wrote, standing up, seven days a week, ten or twelve hours a day, eleven months a year—crammed with rejection slips, random jottings on the backs of envelopes, fountain-pen revisions in longhand to typed drafts of articles, short stories, lectures, book-length manuscripts, all at varying stages of incompletion. Add to all that the book reviews, reading books for review, running the increasingly burdensome Hogarth Press and it becomes obvious Woolf spent most of her waking hours either writing or obsessing about writing, she had literally no time to waste on a book she feared would be “fundamentally unreadable.”

Around the time she was writing The Waves, novelist Countée Cullen was visiting London. Though resident in Paris, Cullen admired the vast cool understatement of London, its dull roar of heavy traffic through narrow streets, which one of Woolf’s fictional characters calls a “splendid achievement in its own way.” They had a friend in common, a woman keenly interested in Africa, who helped Cullen find publication in English journals. Our mutual friend was a Virginia Woolf expert as well. The continuum of tradition and individual talents is itself a spectrum, what Wood calls “neutered Gissing”: realism, modernism, and surrealism all coexisted simultaneously, both within Georgians like Woolf and between Edwardians like Mr. Bennett and fictitious Mrs. Brown. The Harlem Renaissance began around or about the time Pound’s Cantos began appearing and Siegfried Sassoon’s first visit to Virginia Woolf, c. 1917-1924. Langston Hughes was the exception that proves the rule, but young African-Americans looked backward to poets like Sandburg, not forward to modernists like Pound. Both skeptical of what Arna Bontemps called “the whole T.S. Eliot coterie” yet unavoidably influenced, consciously and otherwise, by high modernist activity all over Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Spain the Harlem Renaissance was at once rear-guard and vanguard.

Based in Paris every summer between 1926 and 1939, Cullen lived near and knew Leo and Gertrude Stein, hosts to many “advanced” writers. Cullen was steeped in the French he studied at the Sorbonne, and passed on to younger writers like James Baldwin. But you won’t find a single reference to Mallarmé, Valéry, or Proust in Cullen’s European notebooks or general correspondence, much less to Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, or The Waves. A nonfiction novelist could easily imagine Cullen lodged in a boarding house behind the British Museum when Virginia Woolf, who’d just finished writing Lighthouse, was conceiving of The Waves as a “new kind of play . . . prose yet poetry.” Could imagine Woolf—dismissive as she was of unnecessary obscurantism, obsessing, precisely because The Waves lacks conventional moorings of plot on this side and dialogue on that, that it not come off as too “arty” to appeal to conservatives like Cullen, that The Waves not seem, as Rebecca West said it seemed, like ‘‘pre-Raphaelite kitsch”—oblivious of Cullen as she takes one of her manic walks round Russell Square while Cullen, embarrassed for this madwoman with the runs in her stockings, muttering French phrases to herself as she remembers lines from Dostoevsky’s Idiot, hurries past her on his way to tea with Galsworthy at PEN International.

Formally, The Waves is a fantasia in nine parts, dramatic soliloquies for antiphonal sextet. In the wake of “Time Passes,” the slow, central development section of To the Lighthouse, the leap from Jacob’s Room to The Waves seems less quantum to us than it would have to Cullen. Djuna Barnes published Nightwood in 1936, so The Waves in retrospect seems very much of its time. Its internal logic is more musical than textual, but apart from that there’s really nothing “difficult” about it. The writing is almost solicitous in its consideration for the common reader. Woolf wrote as clearly and simply as the demands of her material would allow. The Waves does not demand but does reward repeated readings. The nature of experiments is that they fail more often than they succeed. “Woolf failed from time to time,” says Wood, who calls The Waves a qualified success. What’s striking about The Waves, ninety years after its publication, is its lucid simplicity. Think of it, Stephen Spender says, as a “prose poem.” You either like it or you don’t, but what’s not to “get”?

What did Wood mean by “mysticism”?  Kirlian photography is a scientific technique that captures coronal imagery, the electrical discharge enveloping all things, animate and inanimate. Woolf’s decades-long struggle as novelist was to color-map the near-visible spectrum of consciousness surrounding all beings from birth to death. Literary ambition ran in her family, but so did manic-depression and other significant psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. Woolf experienced her first breakdown as a teenager, after her mother died, and another around the time of her father’s death. Publication of her first review coincided both with her becoming an orphan and her first attempt at suicide, aged twenty-two, by jumping out a window. Around the outbreak of World War I and publication of The Voyage Out, Woolf overdosed on barbiturates. She’d begun hallucinating.

Reading his plays, Woolf was startled by the speed and power of Shakespeare’s English. In Shakespeare, poetry particles supercharge in a gaseous, blank-verse atmosphere, lines fork off the page, as lightning strikes the sky, clouds flash ground-strikes. Conventional imagery like that she might just have jotted down in any one of her thirty volumes of handwritten diaries, and gone about her day. These visions were frighteningly different. These visions were real. Birds sang Greek choruses from trees. King Edward VII “was using the foulest possible language among [the] azaleas.” Woolf sensed these disconnects from ordinary “reality,” increasing in both frequency and intensity, were “partly mystical.” She made such “moments of seeing,” when it was revealed that “the whole world is a work of art,” the bedrock of her writing until finally, destroyed by voices, she could no more. For ten years in short stories like “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” Woolf had experimented with the liminality between states of consciousness—waking and dreaming, sanity and insanity. The Waves may be greater and To the Lighthouse more perfect but Mrs. Dalloway, a masterpiece of “sympathetic insanity,” that first classic of Woolf’s middle period, is the novel that reveals how Virginia Woolf became Virginia Woolf.

Unfolding like Bloomsday over the course of a twenty-four-hour period, Dalloway is the hallucinatory yet precisely controlled recreation of her mental breakdowns and attempted suicide. A World War I veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, suffers the after-effects of shell-shock, as it was then called, or post-traumatic stress disorder, as we would call it now. Haunted by “the visions, the faces, the voices of the dead,” Smith is shown “sitting alone on the [park bench], in his shabby overcoat, his legs crossed, staring, talking aloud,” jotting revelations about the life eternal on the backs of envelopes. In terms of sheer design alone, Dalloway is a breakthrough. Twelve unnumbered sections are structured as rhythmic motifs—Big Ben’s “leaden circles” rippling the London air. What lends the book its power of suggestion is precisely what caused Woolf her greatest difficulty in writing it: its basis in lived experience of mental illness. In cinema, an equivalent of what Wood calls “the picture it gives of a mind in emergency, at the very limits of coherence,” is Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. In fiction, the novels of New Zealand’s Janet Frame, Scented Gardens for the Blind, or State of Siege come to mind.


Serious Noticing rediscovers classics but also discovers contemporaries. Questions of “canonicity” are inseparable from debates about the larger role of criticism. “Critic” is an unfortunate word for what Wood is. “Celebrant,” in the quasi-liturgical sense, is more like it. The so-called canon—defined by Matthew Arnold as “the best which has been thought and said”—the canon is a firehose all the literary critics from all the literature-producing countries in all the world couldn’t possibly drink from. During the 1920s, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Crisis magazine boasted a circulation of hundred-thousand in “an era of rampant illiteracy, when hard labor left Afro-Americans little time or inclination for reading.” Even boosterish Alain Locke understood that African-Americans were “at the critical stage where we are releasing creative artistic talent in excess of our group ability to understand and support it.” Commensurate with the proliferation of writing programs worldwide, the zine scene, both in print and online, nationally and internationally, has expanded outlets for writers exponentially beyond what it was in the days of the Paris Review or the Partisan Review. The textbook definition of inflation is too many dollars chasing too few goods. Are we in an era of cultural inflation where too many producers are chasing too few consumers? Wood argues it’s not the good writer who’s in excess demand; it’s the true critic, not the interloper with an axe to grind, who’s in critically short supply.

Wood’s own tastes and temperament have been characterized, “eccentric.” “Ecumenical” is a kinder, gentler word. Wood is likewise criticized for his “narrow” range of interests. Serious Noticing ticks off all the essayistic boxes in terms of classic themes and categories: Death, whether of parents or other family members (“Unpacking My Father-in-Law’s Library,” which echoes Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library”); Diatribe (“Paul Auster’s Shallowness”; “Hysterical Realism”); Growing Up and Going Away (“On Not Going Home”); Music Criticism (“The Fun Stuff”); Portraiture, Self-Portraiture and Profiles (“Wounder and Wounded”; “The Other Side of Silence”); and, of course, Reading and Writing (“What Chekhov Meant by ‘Life’.”)

A Briton who gazes outward, both east toward that Continent some Britons stubbornly think of as “Europe” and west toward other English-speaking lands of the colonial rim, Wood writes appreciations of Canadians like Rachel Cusk and Australians like Patrick White. From the Mississippi to the Danube, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Hapsburgh Vienna, of which “[Joseph] Roth is the great elegist . . . Robert Musil its great analyst [and] Kafka its dark allegorist,” Wood champions Americans like Norman Rush. Stylistically, Wood has embraced the American vernacular of Mark Twain and Jack London, the “Anglo-Australian demotic” of Christina Stead, James Kelman’s Glaswegian.

As for Wood’s own style, nobody criticizes him for lack of “chops.” Wood harks back to “essentially aphoristic” stylists like Karl Kraus and Alfred Polgar. The James Wood “sound,” compared to the rhetorical temperature at which Giraldi’s American Audacity boils, might strike some ears as “irritatingly phlegmatic.” What may seem like relative “underwriting” on Wood’s part may in fact be “overwriting” of the kind Langston Hughes and others accused Baldwin of throughout his career. Not essentially a humorist, Wood’s drolleries tend more toward understatement than toward the antic comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Fearlessly neologistic, Wood’s prose is almost unfailingly transparent. Poet-critic Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age, by comparison, can sometimes sound like a back-translation from English into German and back into English again. Less “rowdy with anecdote” than Gore Vidal’s United States: Essays, 1952-1992, more thrilling than Trilling, less, well, wooden than Susan Sontag, the trumpeter in Wood seems to have given careful thought to the problem of how to combine density of ideas with spaciousness. Hopscotched around in at pure whim rather than dutifully plowed through from cover to cover over the course of five hundred and twelve pages in need of an index, individual essays from Serious Noticing tend not grate on the reader’s nerves the way pieces from Robert Hughes’ Nothing if Not Critical, so bracing in homeopathic micro-doses as and when they appeared in Time Magazine, can and do collected in book form if read back to back.

Wood’s cardinal sin, according to critics, is one of omission. They say Wood’s essays are “apolitical.” But Wood’s piece on Albanian writer Ismail Kadare deals with strongman Enver Hoxha, who ruled from 1945-1985. “Helen Garner’s Save Honesty” can’t help but touch on the Australian screenwriter’s controversial gender politics. Saying Wood’s essays are apolitical is itself political. Literary politics is about perceived asymmetries of power—power of access to media coverage, who wants it, who’s thought to control it from editorial offices at The New Republic or the London Review of Books—whose novel is or is not getting reviewed much less short-listed or long-listed for the Booker Prize. Wood doesn’t view each and every artifact under consideration through a rigidly deconstructionist lens just because his former father-in-law went to school with Jacques Derrida. So, why should a reader expect Wood’s essay on Tess to yield the same political insight of “Orwell’s Very English Revolution”? What Wood provides is an “aesthetically responsible account” of the work in question. A “completist” of the Edmund Wilson school, “hermeneutic and not therapeutic,” Wood with rare lapses tends to judge a work in relation to other books of that author’s oeuvre, the historical or other context from which that author or work arises, its medium, and materials. Nor is exegesis alone what critics do. Sometimes, “criticism means, in part, telling a good story about the story you are criticizing.” Sometimes a $500 review is just that—a review, not a party manifesto. Or, as Paul Auster advised me in the mid-80s, either publish what you want where you can or publish what they want, take the money and run.

In “A Critic’s Manifesto,” Mendelsohn draws back the curtain on what gets reviewed where by whom. A literary career made up of pieces first appearing periodically and later between hard covers has only so much to do with a writer’s tastes and temperament. Much depends on venue, audience, and occasion, as well as on the supply chain—fall or spring forecasts from trade magazines like Publishers Weekly, a reviewer’s contacts at the publicity department of a house like Farrar Straus and Giroux. Writers propose. Editors dispose. For the Times Literary Supplement Woolf reviewed some awful books. For Good Housekeeping she reviewed some great ones. A well-crafted pitch to the literary editor of The Atlantic Monthly, where some of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk essays originally appeared, will be lucky to receive a highly personalized, sincerely apologetic and unprecedently prompt rejection saying that simply too many good books are vying for attention in the ad-revenue-decimated pages of ever fewer large-circulation weeklies and monthlies. To have collected over twenty years twenty-right essays as “scrupulous, painstaking and detailed” as those in Serious Noticing “represents an act of political resistance,” carries “moral resistance in every sentence.”

Is James Wood a “generational” talent? Chronologically speaking, measured in the quarter-century interval between when Wood was born and when he left London for the East Coast, the period coinciding with George Steiner’s twenty-two-year run at The New Yorker before his run-in with Tina Brown, Wood is generational indeed. He’s a fixture of our literary landscape. Seems to have been around for as long as anyone can remember. Even as his stature increases, he shows no sign of letting up. Pritchett called that the mark of a first-rate writer. With becoming immodesty but without noisesome bravado, Wood aspires to rank among “the greatest writer-critics” the English language has produced: “Johnson, De Quincey, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Emerson, Arnold, Ruskin, Woolf, Lawrence, Eliot, Orwell, Jarrell, Hardwick, Pritchett, Sontag.” But does his reach exceed his grasp?

In the early 1920s, there was a group of young writers and artists who bought one-way tickets, and reached that “rise of dreams,” New York City, starving, with a lonely dollar in their pockets, while Pig-Foot Mary hawked homesick chittlins on Lenox Avenue at 135th Street; who showed up on complete strangers’ doorsteps all but unannounced, with hopeful suitcases crammed full of dreams as yet undeferred, with tatters on their knees and grins on their faces; who crashed couches, and sat stoops on Strivers’ Row, gossiping and guffawing, and howled dark laughter; who prowled Jungle Alley, and heard scat-singing, bulldagging, four-hundred-pound cross-dressers wail gut-bucket blues in dives; who, high on reefer and bootleg liquor, danced the Charleston or Lindy Hop at the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom as revolving mirror-balls shattered multicolored glitter all over gowns, white ties and tails while big bands battled for a thousand and one nights; who dedicated infatuate poems to one another, and corresponded from exotic ports of call the world over; who published their first books, and slept warm between hard covers; who declaimed each other’s genius at turpentine jook joints in the lower depths of Dixie; who savaged each other’s books and looks in thinly disguised satirical novels, in magazine columns, in letters privately intended for public consumption; who lost their innocent faith in friendship, fell out with each other, and, sometimes, later reconciled; who watched, helpless, as one of the best minds of their generation was destroyed by gin; who aged, more or less gracefully, and put on weight together; and who, twenty-five years later, shriveled and brown as fallen leaves from early-winter trees, marching in blank, funereal lock-step, gathered together at churches and cemeteries to bury one another.

In the early 1980s, determined to make the most of what New York had to offer, many of us twenty-somethings scraped by on editorial assistant’s salaries. Our rent was $100 a week. We owed no back taxes, had no angry ex-wives dragging us back and forth to family court, no child support to pay. Our biggest problem in life was figuring out what to write and where to publish. And, for some of us, even that wasn’t a problem because we’d become regular—paid!—contributors to Kirkus. For almost half a week’s rent, every two weeks, we got to review any book we wanted out of the slush pile. Our kitchenettes had no kitchens. So, we studied listings in Time Out and the “About Town” section of The New Yorker; knew every joint serving free food at happy hour; knew which day of the week every museum or other venue had “free nights”; knew who was giving away free tickets to see the Rangers play at Madison Square Garden, to see the Comédie-Française play Molière at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to hear Maurizio Pollini play Carnegie Hall. In those days, we had a different friend for every night of the week: friends for ballet, opera and other theater events; Museum of Modern Art friends and Whitney friends; West Village friends for happy hour at Chumley’s or the Lion’s Head, where Gregory Rabassa caroused with Dylan Thomas in the 1940s. We hustled shopping bags full of hard-cover remainders and review copies down to the Strand Bookstore near Union Square, sold them off, then went up to Little Brazil or down to Indian restaurants on 3rd Street in the East Village and so ate well and cheaply seven nights a week. The New Yorker wasn’t just something we aspired to appear in—if Vijay Sheshadri (b. 1954) could publish there, maybe we could too. The New Yorker was what we lived by. Such were the days.

As non-partisan poised between detractors and those who consider him our greatest living critic, as one unthreatened by Wood’s position on the editorial board of the London Review of Books, as one invigorated by rather than covetous of others’ success, I find it empowering that a member of the G60, my generation, a young man who “wrote hackishly,” as so many of us did, has emerged a Man of Letters. A writer “either celebrated or attacked for being conservative,” Wood seems to aspire, as Locke aspired, to serve “his time and purpose well,” to be “a man whose sympathies are wider than his prejudices, whose knowledge is larger than his beliefs, [whose] work and his hopes are greater than he himself.” One can think of alternate biographies Wood might have lived, alternate shapes his career might have assumed had he not left Britain in 1995, “a large choice many years ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time.” More than just a gathering of fugitives, Serious Noticing reads like a series of notes toward the definition of culture, Wood’s personal vision of what Alain Locke, borrowing a phrase from his Harvard classmate Van Wyck Brooks, called a “useable past,” as opposed to “a merely revered one.”