Thursday, May 22, 2008

Truth in advertising ...

... Mark's not exaggerating: SO MUCH TO SAY. (Hat tip, Dave Lull, who draws my attention to Steven Augustine's response - in the comments below - to the James Wood Email posted by Nigel Beale. I also see no reason to doubt that the email is genuine.)

Dave also sends me this post at Ed's: Roundup. Steven Augustine has a comment there also.

Lots to consider here.


  1. "I also see no reason to doubt that the email is genuine."

    With all due respect (and being somewhat involved) I see at least two:

    1) Are we to believe that Wood is naive enough to have been duped by a relatively unknown Litblogger into scoring points against another relatively unknown Litblogger in a petty *flame war*? Does Wood, with no small fund of credibility at stake, go dashing into flamewars, or wherever bloggers have the temerity to disagree with him (in otherwise courtly language, I might add) , fighting battles for Litbloggers running blogs boasting content on a level he'd otherwise sneer at? Strains credulity.

    Occam's Razor would indicate a hoax, though I'm far from claiming that James Wood is not human enough to have done something pointless.

    2) The tone and quality of the letter itself: is this document really the work of (arguably) America's foremost literary critic? Michiko K., sure: I could see her writing something like this (before an added pass or two through the vernacularizer). But *James Wood*?

    Before I go into that email, here are the two comments (unedited) I posted on Nigel Beale's blog, when I still believed it was a casual blog and not a creepy space rigged for unintentionally amusing revenge:



    (Thanks for the heads-up about this post; I was right on the verge of foreswearing blog-comment-jousting for a few days to get some work done and there’s a good chance I would have missed this until it showed up the next time I self-Googled-larf).

    So…you quote Uncle Jimmy thus:

    "Everything flows from the real including the beautiful deformations of the real; it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy dream and so on," but no, fiction is real only "when its readers validate (my italics) its reality."

    First off, Wood’s use of the word "reality" is meaningless (and therefore useless). Even if I’m in a coma and imagining all this and you’re a blue donkey in a rakish cap, Nigel, that’s "reality"-based, as it flows from my mind which is as real as anything else in the universe. Is there *anything* that can be imagined that doesn’t refer to "reality" in some way? Are "unreal" thoughts even possible?

    Therefore, please, can you (or Uncle Jimmy), establish a meaningful distinction between that which is "real", and that which is not? Of course you can’t (and, if you can, you win a prize, since Nietzsche couldn’t do it and neither could Plato). So, out goes Uncle Jimmy’s decorative argument (he’s good at those).

    I’ll have to trust brainy old hands at novel-writing, such as DeLillo, Updike and Kundera, to know exactly how far to go in framing a character’s "reality" (and thereby delighting the keyed-to-it reader in doing so) over the opinion of a clever little critic who’s managed, thus far, to write one mediocre novel. If Wood has superior knowledge of the novel’s proper "reality"-range and general mechanics, why couldn’t he put it to practical use and write a masterpiece of a novel?

    But common-sense questions like that are glossed over, because there’s not quite enough razzle-dazzle in using common-sense, is there?

    ---second comment (submitted within a few minutes of the first)--


    Uncle Jimmy tries to explain why Wolfe's use of the Wood-prescribed character-appropriate-stream-of-consciousness-voice doesn't work when Wolfe tries it: ‘Everyone is scrawled with the same inner graffiti,’ he says, rendering Wolfe’s characters flat, indistinguishable from each other..." And that's utter nonsense.

    I'm no Wolfe advocate (I find his novels, as you know, too much like what everyone would be writing if they obeyed Uncle Jimmy), but Wood either hasn't read more than ten pages of a Wolfe novel (try "Man in Full") , or he's indulging in a little bad-faith, theory-supporting truth-twisting, because one thing Wolfe does *well* is character-particularizing. "Charlie Croker" and "Peepgas" and "Roger Too-White" and "Conrad", et al, are vividly constructed, with a craft-fair-doll-maker's attention to detail.

    Which is the heart and limitation of Wolfe's minor art (minor art is useful, too, of course: consider porcelain-making vs Cubism): his novels "says" pretty much what they appear to be saying at first glance by generating characters it's very difficult to misunderstand doing things it's very difficult to misinterpret. Hard to imagine re-reading a Wolfe novel (after chucking it in the airport waste bin) because you "get it" the first time through.

    I've been through "Underworld" gods-knows-how-many times and the intellectual pleasure remains fresh *because* I haven't nailed the thing down yet. Ditto "Sabbath's Theater" and "Libra"and "Vineland" and so on.

    Same with great movies: is Marcello, in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, a shallow arse, a trapped artist, a victim of or collaborator-in his subculture? Is the movie a paean to a certain kind of postwar, wistfully decadent beauty, or a savage attack on it? Is it about plenty or deprivation? I've seen it 30 times, probably, and will see it again. Versus some well-intentioned movie (with absolutely unambiguous themes and characters) like "Shine" or "Ray" or "The Talented Mr. Ripley," for which once is enough, thanks.

    I'm saying that Uncle Jimmy is a middlebrow theorist using highbrow language to communicate his theories, and, aesthetically, he's sort of a "The Talented Mr. Ripley" kind of guy. He has no real idea what to make of Godard, Fellini, Cassavettes, Visconti, Pasolini, et al (to extend the metaphor) and his *inability to grasp* the aesthetic becomes a (defensive) mission statement.

    Wood's disavowal of Wolfe is pretty funny, really, and an important forensic clue (a bit like, you know, closeted politicians who Gay-bash).

    (I certainly hope I've given you your money's worth, Nigel!)


    Well, those were the comments. I'd like to draw the jury's attention to A) the casual tone (ie, I was not writing an essay for a lit journal, I was leaving a profanity-free comment on a litblog) and, B) the importance of the "cinema metaphor" to the overall point of the comments (ie, not very) and, C) the importance of Wood's use of the word "reality" in the quote my comments took exception to... and (as a treat), D) the amount of "ignorance" on display in my comments (we'll come back to that one).


    If that Augustine-excoriating email really was from James Wood (and not concocted by one of Nigel Beale's more literate friends), it shows an amazing grasp of flamewar technology (while falling somewhat short on metrics of good-faith and reason): the first thing "Wood" does, in his "rebuttal", is avoid the *heart* of my criticism and go right for what he must have considered my comment's softspot: that jokey metaphor about his taste in film.

    Clearly, the metaphor was *really* about his taste in literature, which I consider to veer a wee towards the conservative. I don't give a damn whether James Wood has seen "120 Days of Sodom" 1,000 times and knows all the dialogue by heart and dresses for the occasion; what I was, rather obviously, expressing was my sense that novels that flout naturalitic effects (unnaturally), doing away with old-fashioned sops like "moral" along the way, seem to zoom right over his head (or between his legs). Again (and again and again): I cite his (imo) wrong-headed dismissal of DeLillo's preternaturally witty, sobbingly-beautiful "Underworld" as an example of one gap in his literary sensors large enough to fly an 827-page masterpiece through.

    I treasure "Underworld", Wood doesn't. Is one of us wrong? Sadly, no. Is one of us a(n) (apparent) "square"...? Well...

    When I pegged Wood for a "Talented Mr. Ripley" fan, I didn't mean it literally (how the hell would I know, and why would I want to?): I was rendering visual my estimation of his literary taste-range (which I even have the plutonium balls to suggest was very possibly confirmed in his recent review of "Netherland" for the New Yorker).

    "Wood" goes to extraordinary lengths (was he charging Nigel by the letter?) to attack my "ignorance" of his bona fides as a lover of cinema... pointlessly. But, again: that was the most convenient portal of entry (flamewar 101: flamewar is a war of attrition: never attack an argument's strong points).

    Whereas the crux of my argument was/is Wood's use of the word "reality" (both in the quote I originally nutmegged on Nigel's blog, and in general, in what I've read of his), Mr. "Wood" deals with *that* with a flamer's aplomb:

    "I don’t want to argue with Steven Augustine about reality, because that is a wilderness of mirrors..."

    Ah. Well. Hmmm. Now that James Wood has gotten *that* out of the way, he can get to the shocking matter of my blog-type "ignorance" about his taste in films!

    Inconvenient for me, of course, because that was the core of my point, no? His profligate use of the word "reality".

    "James Wood" doesn't want to "argue" with Steven Augustine about Wood's inaccurate estimation of Tom Wolfe's ability to craft characters, either, obviously, but that's small beer.

    Again, here's Wood on "reality":

    "Everything flows from the real including the beautiful deformations of the real; it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy dream and so on," but no, fiction is real only "when its readers validate its reality."

    It's Samurai-bold of Mr. "Wood" to try getting away with sweeping my quibble with his use of the word "reality" under the rug. And to invoke Vladimir "When I hear the word Reality I reach for my fountainpen" Nabokov in the same "reality"-asseverative email, piling irony upon irony, is giddy-making stuff.

    When he (or someone) circles back to the matter of "reality", later in the email, it's not to address my criticism of the above (twice-cited) quote.

    When "Wood" writes (in this email), "Decomposition like this happens to any long -lived and successful style, surely; so the writer’s — or critic’s, or reader’s — task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced,"...

    ...This is nicely put, but it hinges on the same sort of phantom crux (unless the "irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity" are standardized, from mind to mind, or measurable as pi) that his (for me) offending riff about "reality" does. The rather obvious flaw such a gilded argument dazzles us out of noticing is its presumption that everyone being exposed to this "long-lived" style, has the same degree of wear-and-tear on his/her readerly cherry; the same long log of literary experiences; the same mandarin burden of education to overcome in the gleaning of readerly pleasure.

    Wood (or "Wood") is a master of building rhetorical Alhambras like these on philosophical soap bubbles such as the word "reality".

    I've never stared, gaga, at a lavalamp in my life, but whenever Wood mints proscriptions about how far a novelist is allowed to wander from "reality" before the silvery cord of the reader's attention/credulity/infatuation snaps, I'm forced to put on my worst Cam-side, Russian accent and demand, "Whose reality?" (or, "Who's reality?")

    Is it "ignorant" of me to express this opinion? I haven't read *all* of Wood (that'd be a peculiar thing to do, being that I'm neither a fan, nor immortal) but I have read, closely, whatever of his that I have bothered to comment on.

    If I know little about Wood, Wood knows *nothing* of me (beyond the damning clue that I don't hold *his* judgment of the books I treasure over mine) so his wounded plea, "It’s the ignorance I so dislike, sanctioned by that online free-for-all in which quick judgments, based on the thinnest acquaintanceship with the subject’s work, can be prodigally posted," has rather a hollow ring to it, and a boomeranging echo: what *does* he know of me, or what I've read of what he's written? Is Mr. Wood claiming clairvoyance as a second talent?

    His signal flare of a salvo against "Hysterical Realism" (that word again) was my (contemporaneous) introduction to his work; I found it just in some bits and absurd in others and largely irritating.

    I've read, dunno, two dozen essays, reviews, interviews and profiles? (If Wood is offering to hire me to write a carefully-researched, corrective overview, we can discuss the terms; otherwise, I think my various comments, over the years, are not the worst a Wood fan-or-critic could've stumbled upon. Actually, there's one comment, in particular, I thought was rather good... taking him to task for his apparent lack of a viable sense of humor...perhaps I can provide the link later?)

    Anyway: that's rather a precious pose for a critic to strike, I'd say, if "Wood" (or Wood) is claiming that I'm "ignorant" (in more than the literal sense) because I haven't read *all* of his work, and have no right to express strong opinions on what I *have* read until I purchase the lot (which may be a brilliant marketing technique...)

    If he did, in fact, write all that.

    Stranger things, as we know too well, have happened. The email was a disturbing graft of the imperious on the vulnerable, if he *did* author it. I'm still not sure if I'd be delighted if it were authentic.

  2. Anonymous10:24 AM

    I have confirmed with James Wood that he did indeed write Nigel the email. Unless, of course, I'm part of the conspiracy.

  3. Ed!

    From "conspiracy" to farce in one fell swoop... ! The earth indeed moved and the stars came out at noon, but we can all now return to our regularly scheduled programming...

  4. So far, Steven, what we have is your speculation. You ask: "Are we to believe that Wood is naive enough to have been duped by a relatively unknown Litblogger into scoring points against another relatively unknown Litblogger ..."
    Duped? Naive? Maybe he just answers his email? In any event, you have advanced no hard evidence. I don't know what James Wood can do to persuade you that he did indeed send Nigel the email in question. But the prima facie case at the moment is that Nigel, Ed, and - until we have proof otherwise - James Wood himself have testified to the email's authenticity.

  5. Frank:

    You misunderstand me, I think. I accept that Wood wrote that email, I just can't believe he bothered to (therefore, "farce"). Fair enough? (I'm also entitled to believe I made a few points beyond that particular issue...)

  6. "Duped? Naive? Maybe he just answers his email? "

    How the third possibility precludes the first two, I don't quite follow.

  7. It doesn't preclude the other two. It's just a simpler explanation. As for misunderstanding, you put Wood's name in quotes and asked whether we are to believe Wood would write the email. You put the question, I gave my opinion. And that, so far as I am concerned, puts an end on it. This sort of stuff may not be waste of your time, but it of mine.

  8. Hey, Frank:

    Between my first post and my post following it, I was waiting for Ed to confirm that the email was from Wood. Therefore, the first comment with quotation marks around Wood's name, and the follow-up, minus them. Acceptable?