James Wood's Case against "Hysterical Realism" and Thomas Pynchon

By Staiger, Jeffrey | The Antioch Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

James Wood's Case against "Hysterical Realism" and Thomas Pynchon


Staiger, Jeffrey, The Antioch Review


The undeniable force and sometimes contrarian originality of his judgments, together with a punchy, aphoristic prose that never settles into predictability, have in little over a decade made the Englishman James Wood one of our leading critics, a status ratified by his recent appointments to the staff of The New Yorker and the English Department at Harvard. This combination suggests the dual appeal of his writings, which achieve an elusive blending of commanding insight and lively readability, laying claim to the attention of the academic scholar and the common reader alike. Starting out as the literary editor at The Guardian in England, Wood came to the United States in 1995 to become the book editor at The New Republic, where his challenges to the approbation enjoyed by some of our most prominent novelists soon earned him a reputation for fierceness and independence. Although a flexible surveyor of the literary field, one attached to no one brand of fiction, in his essays and reviews he has been unfolding an ongoing argument for the primacy of realism in fiction, and the authors he has chided either fail to achieve a convincing realism or, what in his eyes is more damning, deliberately depart from it.

It might seem that realism needs no such advocacy, but since the sixties at least, particularly in America, the most advanced fiction has shown an impatience with realism and the subtle psychological exploration of character that goes with it, as if the seriousness required for a deep interest in human motive were incompatible with the promptings of the zeitgeist. It is this strain that has received Wood's most serious scorn. In 2001 he caused a stir in literary circles when he coined the pejorative genre term "hysterical realism" to describe the sort of wacky, antic, profuse mode of narrative that had come to seem the cutting edge of the novel. While his critique of this fiction is powerful, biting, and, in many respects, persuasive, it is also possible to feel that Wood is so out of sympathy with its spirit that his criticism, so illuminating when it comes to works he likes, fails to do justice to the originality of some of our greatest novelists, including Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and, above all, Wood's prime exhibit of the meretriciousness of postmodern fiction, Thomas Pynchon.

The novelty of Wood's critical enterprise does not lie in its approach, which might be described as aesthetico-humanist; the novelty rather consists in his ongoing demonstration of the viability of such an approach in a time when most academic criticism has turned away from aesthetics. By treating literature as art, concentrating on how authors move readers, Wood has shown that literary criticism can be central without being abstruse and self-important. In the extended reviews and appreciations (and sometimes deprecations) collected in his first two books of criticism, Wood provides some intellectual background, some relevant biography, but this is always subordinate to capturing what is distinctive about the author in question. In practice, this means getting down to showing how an author's vision is manifest in the fine points of technique, how a word or turn of phrase can disclose a whole sensibility, a whole complex of authorial empathy and judgment. Although Wood offers astute close readings when warranted, he does not engage in outright interpretation of the works he examines. Rather, he describes what they do, how they achieve their effects, how they move or fail to move the reader. In something of an apology for his approach in the journal N+1, which had attacked him in its inaugural issue for being "wholly negative," Wood gives the name "persuasive redescription" to this procedure, and he sees it as one of the critic's main tasks. "Persuasive redescription" is the kind of summary infused with commentary that we engage in whenever we recount the events of a story in order to highlight the creator's salient effects. It might sound like a modest goal for criticism, but in our day modesty can be subversive. …

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