IN AXEL’S CASTLE, Edmund Wilson bemoaned Ezra Pound’s poetry for being “partially sunk by the cargo of its erudition” — a metaphorical bon mot that expresses Pound’s limitations as a poet better than most scholarly volumes. I prefer criticism that engages with literature by being itself literary: criticism that frowns at Theory and eschews the merely exegetical. Virginia Woolf’s essays do this, as do Randall Jarrell’s and V. S. Pritchett’s. (Pritchett: “Beckett’s novels are lawsuits that never end.”) Because these critics tend to be novelists or poets their perspective on books is firmly rooted in the creative instinct, and they therefore encourage an active, imaginative participation from the reader (much like fiction). Their essays are above all art: essays that, as Woolf put it, we have not finished just because we have read them. The critic James Wood, writing about Woolf, said that
In her criticism, the language of metaphor becomes a way of speaking to fiction in its own accent, the only way of respecting fiction's indescribability. It is a language of forceful hesitation. Its force lies in the vigor and the originality of Woolf’s metaphors: its hesitation lies in its admission that, in the world of criticism, a region of pure summation does not exist. In this sense, literary criticism can never offer a successful summation, though it always strives to; for it is too proximate to its subject. It shares its language. All criticism is metaphorical in movement, because it is interested in likeness. It asks: what is art like? What does it resemble? If the artwork describes itself, then criticism's purpose is to redescribe the artwork in its own, different language. [...] It is to share in making literature.
In this respect James Wood is clearly Woolf’s heir, and in the passage above might as well have been speaking of his own approach to criticism: busily attentive to metaphors and similes in the works of others, he is brazenly eager to engage with an artwork by reveling in the traffic of its language — or by decongesting it with his own, smoother avenues. In his essay on Edmund Wilson, included here in Wood’s new collection, The Fun Stuff and Other Essays, he doubts the usefulness of Wilson’s “grand, all-seeing approach” to literary criticism because, in its quixotic strain for comprehensiveness, it too often fails to pause over details. Instead, Wilson “seems to rear panoptically above his subjects, like a statue overseeing a city square, sternly, anciently surveying the busy activity, compressing and elucidating vast amounts of mobile information.”
Wood’s approach is the exact opposite of Wilson’s, and his willingness to speak in the accent of literature brings his subjects wondrously alive and close to us — in part because he gets so close to their language. In The Broken Estate, his first book of essays, he writes that with Moby-Dick Herman Melville “nearly touched every word once, or so it seems. Language is pressed and consoled in that book with Shakespearean agility. No other nineteenth-century novelist writing in English lived in the city of words that Melville lived in; they were suburbanites by comparison.” In another essay in that book, he offers this impression of Harold Bloom: “It someti...read more