Twenty-three essays showcase preeminent literary critic James Wood as a hungry, happy bookworm.
If James Wood, today’s preeminent reviewer of literary fiction, were reviewing The Fun Stuff, a collection of 23 of his essays published between 2004 and 2011 in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and the London Review of Books, he would be thorough, he would be specific, he would quote a lot, and he would appreciate the critic’s range and unpushy persuasiveness: “Certainly, the novella 'Agamemnon’s Daughter,' which [Ismail] Kadare wrote in the mid-1980s, around the time of [Enver] Hoxha’s death, is laceratingly direct and bitterly lucid. It is perhaps his greatest book, and, along with its sequel, 'The Successor,' surely one of the most devastating accounts ever written of the mental and spiritual contamination wreaked on the individual by the totalitarian state.” The polite Englishman might not point out, as I rudely would, that only laziness would prevent a reader of Wood’s essay from seeking out that Albanian novelist’s work.
Wood might, however, criticize what in fact he does concede about his own writing: “For me, [Keith Moon’s] playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheleved, careful and lawless, right and wrong.” For me, just another Yankee reviewer, reading or rereading Wood’s pieces one after the other (rather than as intermittent oases in a sea of sludgy literary criticism), is a little disappointing, if only because Wood, with his bright, clear voice, starts to sound slapdashedly slick: “Above all,” he announces in his essay on Marilynne Robinson, “I deeply admire the precision and lyrical power of her language, and the way it embodies a struggle – the fight with words, the contemporary writer’s fight with the history of words and the presence of literary tradition, the fight to use the best words to describe both the visible and the invisible world.” A bit blurby, there, wot?
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