My Disappointment Critic

By Jonathan LethemNovember 7, 2011

My Disappointment Critic

Illustration © Lisa Jane Persky

"The job of the regular daily, weekly, or even monthly critic resembles the work of the serious intermittent critic, who writes only when he is asked to or genuinely moved to, in limited ways and for only a limited period of time ... What usually happens is that (the staff critic) writes for some time at his highest level: reporting and characterizing accurately ... and producing insights, and allusions, which, if they are not downright brilliant, are apposite ... What happens after a longer time is that he settles down. The simple truth — this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable — is not a day's work for a thinking adult. Some critics go shrill. Others go stale. A lot go simultaneously shrill and stale. A few critics, writing quietly and well, bring something extra into their work ... Some staff critics quit and choose to work flat out again, on other interests and in intermittent pieces. By far the most common tendency, however, is to stay put and simply to inflate, to pretend that each day's text is after all a crisis..."

— Renata Adler, "The Perils of Pauline"


"As [Harold] Bloom has settled into this second career, so his old virtues have gradually fallen from him. An extraordinary amount of the work of the last decade is luxurious with padding and superfluity; there is hardly a book of his that would not have been better off as an essay. He is not a critic anymore, but a populist appreciator ... Above all, for Bloom, writers must be ranked, and the greatness of the very greatest asserted again and again. Moreover, all great writers are essentially alike."

— James Wood, "The Misreader"


"The house of fiction, as Henry James once said, has 'not one window, but a million,' and hence no single aperture gives access to what James called 'the need of the individual vision and the pressure of the individual will.' Different novelists look to different models. Fielding, Sterne, and Stendhal set the pattern for the ironic or self-conscious novel, flaunting its own narrative devices. Balzac became the great exemplar of the social novel, as Scott and Manzoni did for the historical novel. Tolstoy's deceptive simplicity transformed style into a transparent window on the real. Kafka's metaphorical novels and stories turned fiction into fable or parable. Each of these writers depends on exact circumstantial detail, but the strength of their fiction comes not from the phrase, the sentence, the metaphor, as critics like Wood would have it, but from how they actualize larger units of scene and theme, plot and character. It can be misleading to approach fiction primarily through its language, a technique better suited to the study of poetry..."


— Morris Dickstein, letter to New York Times Book Review, May 7, 2006


"Everyone speaks of the 'negative capability' of the artist, of his ability to lose what self he has in the many selves, the great self of the world. Such a quality is, surely, the first that a critic should have; yet who speaks of the negative capability of the critic? How often are we able to observe it?"


— Randall Jarrell, "Poets, Critics, and Readers"


WHAT HAPPENED IS THIS: I wrote a book (The Fortress of Solitude) and James Wood reviewed it. What happened next: I wrote James Wood a long, intemperate letter. (Not an open letter.) And he wrote a curt postcard in reply. Eight years later, I haven't quit thinking about it. Why? The review, though bearing a few darts ("Depthless Brooklyn," "squandered," "before our disappointed eyes"), wasn't the worst I'd had. Wasn't horrible. (As my uncle Fred would have said, "I know from horrible.") Why, I hear you moan in your sheets, why in the thick of this Ecstasy Party you've thrown for yourself, violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review? Conversely, why not, if I'd wished to flog Wood's shortcomings, pick a review of someone else, make respectable defense of a fallen comrade? The answer is simple: In no other instance could I grasp so completely what Wood was doing.

Also, I had expectations. (That fatal state.) I felt, despite any warnings I should have heeded, that to be reviewed at last by the most consequential and galvanizing critical voice, the most apparently gifted close reader of our time, would be a sort of graduation day, even if I'd be destined to take some licks. Taking some, I'd join a hallowed list. I mean this: I'd have taken a much worse evaluation from Wood than I got, if it had seemed precise and upstanding. I wanted to learn something about my work. Instead I learned about Wood. The letdown startled me. I hadn't realized until Wood was off my pedestal that I'd built one. That I'd sunk stock in the myth of a great critic. Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?

As it happened, I wandered into this encounter a self-appointed expert in the matter of expecting — a lot? too much? — and being disappointed. I'd written a cycle of personal essays called The Disappointment Artist, its subject, precisely, the crisis of being so fraught with preemptory feelings in approaching a thing-a book, a movie, another person-that the thing itself is hardly encountered. So was I too ready to see Wood in my own framework, a version of "the narcissism of minor difference"? Or did it make me specially qualified to demand of Wood what I'd demanded of myself: that in the critical mode I sort out self and subject, even if they always again intermixed, at least long enough to spare the pouring-on of inapt disappointment?

James Wood, in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn't bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility. This, the sole distinguishing feature that put the book aside from those you'd otherwise compare it to (Henry Roth, say). The brute component of audacity, whether you felt it sank the book or exalted it or only made it odd. These fantastic events hinge the plot at several points, including the finale — you simply couldn't not mention this and have read the book at all. Or rather, you couldn't unless you were Wood. He seemed content to round up the usual suspects: italics, redundant clauses, and an American kind of "realism" he routinely deplores. Perhaps Wood's agenda edged him into bad faith on the particulars of the pages before him. A critic ostensibly concerned with formal matters, Wood failed to register the formal discontinuity I'd presented him, that of a book which wrenches its own "realism" — mimeticism is the word I prefer — into crisis by insisting on uncanny events. The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive. I doubt Wood's ever glanced back at the piece. But I'd like to think that if he did, he'd be embarrassed.

Strangely enough, another misrepresentation, made passingly, stuck worse in my craw. Wood complained of the book's protagonist: "We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book ... or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman." Now this, friends, is how you send an author scurrying back to his own pages, to be certain he isn't going mad. I wasn't. My huffy, bruised, two-page letter to Wood detailed the fifteen or twenty most obvious, most unmissable instances of my primary character's reading: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Mad magazine, as well as endless scenes of looking at comic books. Never mind the obsessive parsing of LP liner notes, or first-person narration which included moments like: "I read Peter Guralnick and Charlie Gillett and Greg Shaw..." That my novel took as one of its key subjects the seduction, and risk, of reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated, I couldn't demand Wood observe. But not reading? This enraged me.

(As for "thinking about God," was there ever a more naked instance of a critic yearning for a book other than that on his desk? Can Wood's own negative capability not reach the possibility that in some life dramas "God" never made it to the audition, let alone failed to get onstage? Pity me if you like, but I can't remember even considering believing in either God or Santa Claus. The debunking was accomplished preemptively, preconsciously. Hence, not a subject in my Bildungsroman. Sorry!)

"The conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman." Here, fobbed off in one casual phrase, may be the crux: the conventional mental. Wood is too committed a reader not to have registered what he (apparently) can't bear to credit: the growth of a sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children's lit, in graffiti and street lore. What's at stake isn't a matter of "alternate" or "parallel" literacies, since these others aren't really separate. They interpenetrate and, ultimately, demand familiarity with the Bloomian sort of core-canonical literacy. (I couldn't have written my character's growth into snobbery without Portrait of a Lady and Great Expectations at my back, but James and Dickens were simply not where I boarded the bus.)

What's at stake is the matter of unsanctioned journeys into the life of culture. And I don't believe anyone sanctions any other person's journey into the life of culture. This is the point where I need to confess that my attention to James Wood, in the years since sending my letter, has been as cursory as it was before that uncomfortable passage (uncomfortable for me; I doubt I ruffled his feathers). Earlier I'd been content to sustain a cloudy image of a persuasive new critic who made people excited and nervous by passionately attacking novels that people (including myself) passionately believed in; now I found myself content to revise that in favor of an impression of a unpersuasive critic whose air of erudite amplitude veiled — barely — a punitive parochialism. It didn't make me want to read him, so I'm not qualified to make any great pronouncements. I've only glanced, over these years, and it may be that my confirmation bias is in play when I do. Here's what I see in my glances. When Wood praises, he mentions a writer's higher education, and their overt high-literary influences, a lot. He likes things with certain provenances; I suppose that liking, which makes some people uneasy, is exactly what made me enraged. When he pans, his tone is often passive-aggressive, couched in weariness, even woundedness. Just beneath lies a ferocity which seems to wish to restore order to a disordered world.

Not that any God had me in mind, but if you'd designed a critic to aggravate me you couldn't have done better. About books I'm Quakerish, believing every creature eligible to commune face-to-face with the Light; he's a high priest, handing down sacred mysteries. To one who pines for a borderless literary universe, he looks like a border cop, checking IDs. The irony of Wood's criticisms of Bloom is that Wood's own "narcissism of minor difference" looks unmistakable: Wood is a critic whose better angels are at the mercy of his essentialist impulses.

His postcard to me? I've lost it, but can give a reliable paraphrase, since after my outpouring, rather than address what I'd said, Wood spared me just one or two arched-eyebrow lines. It was as though my effort bore an odor of ingratitude. "I'm sorry you felt that way," he wrote, more or less. "I liked the book so much more than any of your other work." His tone, it seemed to me, that of an aristocrat who never really expected those below him to understand the function of the social order. He's not angry, he's disappointed. Well, that makes two of us.


Addendum: On Bad Faith

My original letter to Wood included the suggestion that he was "in bad faith." This, the confidant who vetted the letter wanted to challenge. He knew Wood and didn't believe that was "the explanation" (though he couldn't propose an alternative). But maybe it was a bridge too far. Reading the above, written eight years after, I see I've reached for the same term. What does it mean to me?

I'm not actually trying to read James Wood's mind, or to change it now. Whether Wood consciously or unconsciously betrayed a standard he consciously recognizes, or could be made to recognize, doesn't interest me. His piece is in bad faith. The instant it was published, with its blanketing tone of ruminative mastery, and yet with all it elides or mischaracterizes, it was so — period. It was in bad faith with my novel, and, I'd say, with novels, an enterprise to which Wood believes himself devoted, a belief I'd have no basis for challenging. So let's call this "resultant bad faith," a term which spares us the tedium and rage of guessing at the interior lives of those with whom we more than disagree.


LARB Contributor

Jonathan Lethem is the author of eight novels, the most recent of which is Chronic City, and a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc., from which the above essay is taken, is published by Doubleday.



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