The Case Against James Wood

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.

The Choice

The Choice is an absorbing documentary about the 2008 election available on PBS’s Web site. I wasn’t able to sleep the other night and wound up watching the whole thing. It tells the life story of the two candidates and recounts their paths to their respective nominations. McCain comes off as a sympathetic figure on an individual level, albeit one who has had to make compromises with the religious right in order to please his party. The material on Obama is especially interesting. It describes his experiences as both a community organizer in Chicago, “the capital of black America,” and as president of the Harvard Law Review. A former editor of the Review who went on to become White House counsel describes the political battles inside the law journal as more nasty and vicious than anything in Washington. Obama, however, managed to unite the fractious staff, which we can hope is a sign of things to come should he win the presidency.

A bunch of other PBS documentaries, including several about Bush and Iraq, are available here.

It’s David Gergen’s world. We just live in it.


Lynn University).
David Gergen, chick-magnet (Credit: Lynn University).

Maybe you’ve seen David Gergen on CNN, talking about American politics. Maybe you though he was just another political TV guy. Boy, were you wrong. He inspires mad passionate crazy love on the part of women everywhere. Just ask Jessi Klein:


The moment I realized my feelings were more serious was in late September, right after the first presidential debate. Gergen was on for hours, and I found myself on the couch, riveted, a glass of Cabernet by my feet, hands wrapped around my knees as I leaned forward to capture every word, every thought, every—oh, be still my fluttering heart, was that a little chuckle?

And then all of a sudden my face felt hot. I was blushing. I was loving David Gergen.

How do I love David Gergen? Let me count the ways.

I love his low, quiet voice. That unmodulated buttery whisper that sounds like it’s elbowing its way past a cough drop that’s permanently lodged at the back of his throat. You know how Bed Bath & Beyond sells those white noise machines that help you sleep? And they usually make ocean noises? I want one that’s just David Gergen gently muttering about the economy.

She’s not the only one who feels that way. Check out her comment thread for even more Gergen-mania.  (“I found myself rushing for pen and paper to carefully spell out his beautiful name D-A-V-I-D G-E-R-G-E-N. . . . Thank you for recognizing the beauty of this amazing man.”)

Canada’s courtier press

Canada’s most boring election campaign in living memory is about to come to an end. The public was tuned out, and the contest was even more devoid of policy differences than usual. Elizabeth May’s participation in the debates was good to see. With that exception, however, the entire campaign seemed devoid of purpose and significance, a fact only driven home by the excitement of the Obama campaign south of the border.

one of the most disappointing things about the campaign was the way the media covered it. Before Michael Ignatieff went into politics, he gave a speech to a press freedom organization in Toronto (the name of which I forget), at which he pointed out the unsatisfying nature of so much campaign journalism. The press follows the politicians around in a little bubble, reporting in microscopic detail on all the day to day campaign events, while ignoring everything that goes on outside the bubble. When Ignatieff made this remark to a convention hall full of journalists and political types, they burst into applause. Yet the coverage of the campaign now ending was all bubble, all the time. The endless attention given to so many polls that barely differed, yet were treated as omens of great foreboding, was an especially numbing element.

Against this backdrop, I was interested to read Chris Selly’s roundup of newspaper endorsements:

Endorsing Stephen Harper and/or the Conservatives:

Brampton Guardian (thanks Sean)

Calgary Herald

Edmonton Journal

Fredericton Daily Gleaner (”with many reservations”)

The Globe and Mail

Kitchener-Waterloo Record (thanks Jenn & Olaf)

Montreal Gazette

National Post (majority)

Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa Sun

Prince George Citizen (majority)

Sudbury Star (minority)

Sun Media (Calgary, Toronto, and Winnipeg)

Vancouver Province (majority)

Vancouver Sun (majority)

Windsor Star

Winnipeg Free Press

Endorsing Stéphane Dion and/or the Liberals:

Toronto Star

Given how complacent the newspaper coverage was, I suppose it should come as no surprise that so many papers lined up behind the status quo. The rote predictability of the Star‘s endorsement will shock no one, but it is good to see at least one paper break from the pack. Someday, it may not be crazy to imagine a single Canadian newspaper endorsing the NDP, Greens, Libertarians, or in some other way breaking from the endless grey conformity that now defines so much Canadian campaign journalism. 



How much does the Iraq War cost?

Joseph Stiglitz, author of Globalization and its Discontents, tries to calculate an answer:

Shortly before the current Iraq war, when Bush administration economist Larry Lindsey suggested that the costs might range between $100 billion and $200 billion, other officials quickly demurred. For example, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels put the number at $60 billion. It is now clear that Lindsey’s numbers were a gross underestimate. 

Concerned that the Bush administration might be misleading everyone about the Iraq war’s costs, just as it had about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and connection with al-Qaida, I teamed up with Linda Bilmes, a budget expert at Harvard, to examine the issue. Even as opponents of the war, we were staggered by what we found. Our estimates range from slightly less than a trillion dollars (our conservative estimate) to more than $2 trillion (our moderate estimate).

If Stiglitz is right, then Bush has found a way to combine his disasterous war with his code-red economic mismanagement. That takes a rare talent, something you can’t teach.

Lewis MacKenzie: The Sorrow and the Disgrace


Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda, 1994 (Credit: CBC).

 Lewis MacKenzie and Roméo Dallaire are both retired Canadian military generals who served in United Nations peacekeeping operations. MacKenzie was sent to Bosnia in 1992 while Dallaire was posted to Rwanda a year later. Following their UN deployments both men became active in politics, MacKenzie running as a Progressive Conservatives candidate in 1997 while Dallaire was later appointed a Liberal senator. Beyond that similarity, however, their post-UN careers have followed opposing paths. Dallaire has become the spokesman for a cause larger than himself, and has worked tirelessly to bring the issue of genocide prevention to public attention. MacKenzie, by contrast, has for years engaged in a tasteless media campaign directed against Dallaire. Now MacKenzie has appeared in the pages of Maclean’swhere, like a dog returning to its vomit, he once again revisits his sad and misguided obsession.

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John McCain by the numbers

Fun facts about the supposed Republican maverick:

95 percent of the time McCain voted with George W. Bush in 2007. 

100 percent of the time McCain voted with George W. Bush in 2008 so far. 

Thom Brooks has more.

Meanwhile, in other news, Obama is slated to appear on Saturday Night Live this weekend.

A satisfying anti-Palin polemic

“Whatever the Christian conservative way of life is, Palin is living it. And so her grotesque and fascinating candidacy broaches an interesting subject, which is the moral insufficiency of integrity.” When Leon Wieseltier is on there’s no one quite like him. (Note also the unintentionally funny comments complaining about his use of big words).

Let Her Speak

Kudos to conservatives Joe Clark and Andrew Coyne for their principled stands on the Elizabeth May affair. Praise also to Stephane Dion, for being the only major party leader to unambiguously support the Green Party’s presence in TV debates.

Zizek on Nitebeat

I recently came across this TV interview with cultural studies superstar Slavoj Zizek. From the looks of it, Nitebeat is or was a late night talk show. They must have been hard up for guests that night, because the host clearly has no idea what to make of Zizek. Yet the world’s greatest Slovenian philosopher rises to the challenge, and gives a funny, entertaining and insightful interview. What he says about tolerance, in particular, I found thought-provoking.

Bonus trivia for acquaintances of the Sans Everything blogging team: Zizek has the same hand gestures as one us. Can you guess who it is?

For those who can’t get enough, there is also a hilarious Q & A with Zizek at The Guardian.

Hat tip: Prologus.