Leon Neyfakh's piece on James Wood in this week's Observer probably couldn't help turning out to be a little odd, what with the premise being something along the order of "will young aspiring novelists use HOW FICTION WORKS as a primer for their work?" Now, my genre-saturated answer is that Stephen King's ON WRITING or Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD (or my all time favorite, William Zinsser's ON WRITING WELL, which is designed more for non-fiction but applies to pretty much every kind of writing) won't exactly give up their fiction primer stranglehold anytime soon, but for a certain kind of aesthetic, Wood's definitely the go-to guy.
And that's fine. I read his criticism; not regularly, but enough to sense my own sensibility diverges a great deal from his own most of the time and converges some of the time. But lately I've been thinking less about the content of Wood's work and more how his stature - especially in light of his switch from The New Republic to the New Yorker - has etched his place in literary criticism in marble. It's not enough to be James Wood; now he has become CAPITAL J, CAPITAL W, Esteemed unimpeachable literary critic who must be worshiped or reviled for his strict adherence to the school of realism and strict shunning of anything remotely "hysterical." He got Zadie Smith to change his tune! He's anti-DeLillo and Pynchon! These exclamatory remarks date back pre-9/11! ZOMG!
Maybe being hostage to ivory tower-dom is to be expected when you write for august publications like the New Yorker or the London Review of Books or TNR or teach literature and criticism at Harvard but why should it be expected? I'm being contrary, I know, but I like a little demystification with my literary critics and award-winning writers. It makes them seem human, helps them get past byline-itis and forges an even stronger connection between their work and the reader. I like knowing that Liesl Schillinger is a fan of Dr. Dog, Luc Sante can't quite control his book collection, or Joshua Ferris digs the Hold Steady, or Junot Diaz lurrrrves Grand Theft Auto IV. I don't need to be privy to drunk Facebook photos or train-wreck Tumblrs, because those are classic examples of diminishing career returns, but an offbeat detail or two reveals an extra dimension to the critic or author's way of thinking and writing.
So sure, I'm happy to know what James Wood says about how fiction works, but I wish I knew what James Wood says about how his brain works on matters having nothing whatsoever to do with fiction. Does he spend his down time with Grand Theft Auto IV? Will he go backstage to hang out with his favorite band or opine on some unsung Britcom? Is he a Trekkie or a Dr. Who nut? Does he even have hobbies, trashy or otherwise? Obviously, these questions say a hell of a lot more about me than it does about James Wood, but even a tangential answer might save him from perpetual calcification amongst the critical canon and make him seem, well, more like a regular dude. Albeit a regular dude who spends most of his waking life reading and reviewing contemporary and classic fiction in a way that eludes most of us.
Which is why, for now, I'm latching onto this tiny fragment of Wood's 2004 conversation with Robert Birnbaum:
I said to my wife, “Why aren’t bestiality jokes, I mean, they are not really funny?” And she rightly said, “They pretend to be realistic but they are not actually realistic. And that’s because no one has every actually met anyone who fucked a sheep.”
Maybe this does tell me everything I want to know about James Wood. Because sheepshagging jokes are funny. Hysterically, wonderfully funny.
UPDATE: Vulture wonders whether Wood will create "an army of like-minded young novelists", while Wood begs to differ in the comments.