JUNE 5, 2020
What do writers do when they seriously notice the world? Perhaps they do nothing less than rescue the life of things from their death […] Which is to say, they rescue us from our death.
— James Wood
JAMES WOOD IS PERHAPS one of the most intelligent and passionate literary critics working today. He is known for his brutally direct reviews (the Boston Globe once called him the “Elegant Assassin”) that were a trademark of his early career, as was his insistence that fiction hold itself to a standard that is not dependent on cultural temperament or weighed down by cliché. He takes the obligation of the critic seriously, and is the professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard. Whether reviled or revered, he is always treated with regard, and after he takes you through a critique of a subject with deft enthusiastic and near surgical precision, it is difficult not to feel that, even if you disagree with his argument, you are that much smarter for just having taken the time to read the piece in the first place. He has elevated the critical essay into a work of art and some have said that to read Wood on literature is in fact to read literature. And read it carefully and well in an age when our attention span seems to diminish with each new app.
Even with the status Wood enjoys in the literary community, the recent publication of Serious Noticing: Selected Essays 1997–2019 occurred without much fanfare, yet for Wood enthusiasts it feels a long time in coming. The collection contains 28 essays selected by the author and his British publisher. Each one appeared previously in either The New Republic, The New Yorker, or The London Review of Books, and all but six essays have been included in previous collections. The title of the book comes from the third essay. After all, serious noticing is the business of the writer and it would have been a shame had the collection not repurposed that gorgeous title.
The pieces are not ordered chronologically as one might expect, nor are they broken into sections. Instead, they are loosely organized around three unrelated themes. The first is realism, and contains Wood’s widely known takedown with the brilliant opening line, “Hysterical Realism.” The second is made up of a set of three essays that explore what it means to be unable to truly go home again. The third section contains essays that, according to Wood, need to be read more widely. This is where we find recent essays on Garner, Ferrante, Levi, Erpenbeck. This is the most diverse and vibrant part of the book. Five of the only seven essays that feature a female subject appear here, and all but one of the previously uncollected essays are in this section.
In its entirety this is a masterful “greatest hits” collection. As if this were not enough, the structure of the book is itself a gentle nod to one published in 2012, The Fun Stuff, as that essay collection and this one start and finish with the same pieces. One has the very strong sense that no essay placement was accidental.
The unexpected gem in the collection is the introduction, a previously unpublished exploration of the role of the critic. It begins in the classroom, where Wood says he learned to read poems and novels in a very careful, particular way. Discussions were led by a poststructuralist critic and more often than not began with the question: “What’s at stake in this passage?” It is only through looking at what is at stake (both in terms of critical reading as well as evaluative reading) that the true work of the critic can be accomplished. He continues:
I like the idea of a criticism that tries to do three things at once: speaks about fiction as writers speak about their craft; writes criticism journalistically, with verve and appeal, for a common reader; and bends this criticism back towards the academy in the hope of influencing the kind of writing that is done there.
It is an active and iterative process that moves through a subject and back into the world; this goal is one Wood regularly achieves. With the briefest of instructional tools provided in terms of how to read and how to evaluate, the heady collection begins.
They are independent pieces, and it is easy enough to read any particular essay in any order, but there is a certain, almost meditative, pleasure in reading the book cover to cover. The essays start to converse with each other as the reader becomes increasingly comfortable with Wood’s style and his subject matter. Austen between Orwell and McCarthy? Yes. Virginia Woolf then Primo Levi then Marilynne Robinson? Absolutely. There is no need to trust that Wood knows what he is doing; his writing is so incisive and pointed that the connections make themselves apparent.
The movement from the drumming of Keith Moon in the first essay to the emptying of his father-in-law’s library in the final essay also contains the same connective threads. Both pieces deal with lives ended; both wonder about the legacy that remains. Wood celebrates Moon as a life lived loud, and as he sorts through his late father-in-law’s library, he realizes that the more he sees the books in the collection, the less he sees the man. The man seems to have become smaller, eventually completely hidden by the books and projects not completed; Wood himself is beset with the question of what will become of him, and of his collection of work, when he is gone. Without the person who found meaning in them, are the books anything more than the artifacts of a life? It’s a hard question to answer, in part because the answer is likely one that we don’t want to hear.
Reading Wood is itself an immersive experience, but listening to him read is a full-blown soak. At the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Wood read to a small but focused group a week after his book was published. The essay he selected was not a literary review, but one of his core autobiographical pieces. Hearing him read about his childhood, his aging father, his mother’s decline — all the while bearing witness to the “plagiarism of inheritance” that turns each of us into our parents even as they become unrecognizable with age — raised the question Wood insists on asking about all literary work: what is at stake here? In retelling the details of a life, the things he noticed then and the things he noticed after the fact, he provides an answer to the question: what is at stake here in this effort of serious noticing? The answer? Everything.
At the end of the evening, I shared with Wood that the essay in the collection I found most delightful was the one on Don Quixote. Laughing aloud while reading a critical take on perhaps the best known and least read character in the canon was easy, and completely unexpected. Acknowledging the almost reverent treatment of the texts by other critics allowed Wood to break away from them and look at just how funny the book actually is, going so far as to call it the founder of “secular comedy.” Wood presents the folly of humans as the source of some of the best humor. When I told him that I was most surprised by my desire to read Cervantes after reading “Don Quixote’s Old and New Testaments,” he smiled and said that sometimes just telling the stories can be the most fun. Ah yes, I thought, if fun isn’t serious noticing, then I don’t know what is.