William Deresiewicz has a thoughtful essay on James Wood online at The Nation. Wood is often characterized as the greatest literary critic of his generation, the heir of New York intellectuals such as Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe. In the course of discussing Wood’s book How Fiction Works, Deresiewicz allows that Wood is a gifted writer and a friend of literature. But Wood, he argues, also has limits. One of the most noteworthy is his disinclination to examine literature in a wider social and political context:
For all his interest in fiction’s ability to tell the truth about the world, there is something remarkably self-enclosed about his criticism–a sense that nothing exists beyond the boundary of his consciousness, and that his consciousness contains nothing but books. In a preface to the new work, Wood assures us that he has used “only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study” to produce the volume. The statement is truer than he knows. Wood has read all the novels and all the volumes that bear upon the novels, and he seems to think that is all one needs to do. But there is a world outside his study, and the books in his study, and one can’t understand fiction without understanding that. The novel, more than other literary forms, embodies a massive engagement with the world—has massive designs upon the world—and demands a comparable engagement from its critics.
Deresiewicz makes many other thought-provoking criticisms of Wood and, by extension, of the cultural moment he takes Wood to represent. I can’t recall the last time I read such an eloquent defence of political criticism.