The Boy Who Cried Woolf

Review: James Wood, ‘The Nearest Thing to Life’

James Wood
James Wood /
• September 26, 2015 5:00 am


When he was a young man, James Wood stumbled across the book that would change his life. It was, he wrote:

not a novel or a book of poems; was not the Bible or Shakespeare’s Collected Works, or The Hobbit or Dune, or any of the high or low stories that are canonically invoked when readers and writers look back in fondness. It was a book called Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction, edited by the brilliantly wayward poet and man of letters Martin Seymour-Smith. I found it in 1981, when I was fifteen, at Waterloo Station, on table piled with discounted books.

Novels and Novelists featured comprehensive summaries of 1,348 different novelists, their works scored "according to Readability, Plot, Characterization, and Literary Quality." If you get a copy of it (which is not very hard to do), you will be immediately tempted to use it just as the young Wood did: marking what he had and had not read, writing "I agree" in the margins when appropriate. Even today, he confesses, he still has not lived up to Seymour-Smith; books remain unread and some always will.

Thanks to this encounter, James Wood was perhaps the only child in the world who grew up with the positive desire to be a literary critic. And he did—writing for the Guardian, the New Republic, and the New Yorker, producing three collections of critical essays, a book on the novel, a somewhat sterile novel of his own, and now The Nearest Thing to Life, a collection of semi-personal lectures on the novel and on life.

As a critic, Wood is careful. He reads carefully, quotes copiously, and admits mistakes. He will give a book a harsh review but still mention it in his year-end best-of list, as he did with Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?. But this care also makes him, if you try to read his reviews back to back, a little hard to take. For this reason, his willingness to acknowledge the debt he owes this fussy, even catty little book endears Wood to the reader, or at least to this reader. Perhaps because the essays are personal, perhaps because he is moving into a new phase of his career, perhaps because it is a smallish book that was released without much fanfare, or perhaps because he sees no young critics rising up to slay him, he has relaxed.

The five essays in The Nearest Thing to Life discuss the novel, criticism, the Church of England, and Wood’s own English boyhood. The novel, Wood’s great love, is of course written about in very exalted terms—both in general (the novel is our greatest way of seeing the world; the novel is our way of understanding mortality) and in particular (books by Henry Green and Penelope Fitzgerald both receive special treatment here). What the Church of England means to Wood is a little harder to define. Wood is an atheist who displays no desire to return to the church of his youth, but he is also drawn to religious themes, wrote an introduction to The Book of Common Prayer, and wrote a novel called The Book Against God about a parody of himself who is a pathological liar, always wrong, and on the losing end of every argument about religion.

On his accidentally permanent relocation to the United States—intending to stay "a few years," he has instead lived here for 18—Wood writes: "It’s feeble to say I didn’t expect to stay as long; and ungrateful, or even meaningless or dishonest, to say I didn’t want to. I must have wanted to; there has been plenty of gain."

When I left England eighteen years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have known? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth is the slow revelation that I made a large choice many years ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life—is indeed how life is lived. . . . [It] is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done.

This essay is, of course, about a particular kind of loss and a particular kind of choice. Still, reading in the context of the others, it raised a question about the forms we pour our selves in, and our memories too; that James Wood has a whole life stored not only in the boyhood landscape now lost to him, but in books and particular moments and words in books that hold special meanings only for him. Wood’s memories seem to be locked in things he can’t touch; in his books, his lost Durham, and the Church, whose form and language are important to him but whose meaning is dead.

Dwelt in long enough, books themselves become a space in which life happens; and so it’s pointed out to you, this passage by D.H. Lawrence, say, as a place where something important happened—not in the book or for the book but for one particular reader at one time in his life. The experience of reading on a Kindle can also provide this sense, where you will be reading along and suddenly the device will announce to you that many people have underlined the passage that you happen to be reading. At that point the book is transformed from a mostly solitary experience to one uncomfortably filled with ghosts. There is no easy way to know what those other readers think, merely that they, too, are here. Or were here.

At one point, Wood tells us that he views the other people in his life "novelistically." This also seems like something that comes from living in these spaces. Trained to see through novels—what Wood calls "serious noticing"—you see, eventually, only novels. The realism of any given novel becomes a kind of circle (though not necessarily, for that reason, merely self-fulfilling). Other lives, lived through other mediums, might be shaped differently. Of course, novels are no more artificial than towns, but they are more difficult to share. The point is that inhabiting these spaces is also not something you choose to do when you do it; but there is no way to go back afterward. Wood does not seem to regret it. Why should he? But it, too, is irrevocable.

The tradeoff made by the professional critic is sometimes considered to be one where a clinical expertise substitutes for enthusiasm. My favorite instance of this stereotype comes from Tobias Wolff’s 1995 short story "Bullet in the Brain," when a critic’s copious reading has made him into such an irritating person that he provokes a bank robber into shooting him in the head:

"Fuck with me again, you’re history. Capiche?"

Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, "Capiche—oh, God, capiche," and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.

I read "Bullet in the Brain" as part of a how-to-write-fiction workshop, and there it would be fair to say we all regarded poor Anders as a cautionary tale. There was something wrong about a life spent as a critic, and spent reading, unless one was reading as a writer (writers were, in the essentials, pure of heart). But reading Wood, it seems more likely that the tradeoff made by someone who dedicates most of his life to reading has little to do with enthusiasm and more to do with the time spent on what is, ultimately, a solitary exercise and experience. The best that can be hoped for is to communicate a certain reading experience to another reader. Buried in all of this striving for communication is a presumption about the worth of the enterprise that can never really be proven or even articulated.

A true story: while I was working on this review, a man in my office read The Nearest Thing to Life, and not—let’s say—for a friendly reason. When I asked him what he thought afterward, he exclaimed, "It’s so good!" I agreed. "I believe in fiction!" said this man, who the day before had been talking to me about how much he disliked novels. I also tracked down a copy of Seymour-Smith from the library, though I’m not sure I can read it without feeling as if I’m looking over a 15-year-old boy’s shoulder. Still: something happens here.

Published under: Book reviews