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Birnbaum v.

James Wood

Our man in New Hampshire talks with critic and author James Wood about his professional dilemmas, what makes for appealing style in fiction, and which stings more, getting panned as a critic or as a novelist.

Wood is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting lecturer in English and American Literature at Harvard. He was formerly the chief literary critic for the Guardian and has previously published a collection of critical essays, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, and a novel, The Book Against God. His newest book is The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. He lives in the Cambridge, Mass., area with his wife, novelist Claire Messud, and their two young children.

In The Irresponsible Self’s 23 essays, Wood, who has been called “perhaps the strongest and strangest literary critic we have, “ surveys a range of writers from Shakespeare and Coleridge to Jonathan Franzen and Tom Wolfe, with some obscurities (Giovanni Verga, to name one) in between, to balance off the somber, pulpit-pounding persona he acquired with his first book. Granted it’s a small pond, but James Wood may be the biggest (and growing) fish in the literary criticism pool. In a recent, self-confessed love letter to Wood in the New York Observer, Adam Begley gushes, “People (including me) have been saying for years that he’s the most promising young critic around, but now that he’s pushing 40, let’s drop the qualifiers and say it loud and clear: He’s the best. This transplanted Englishman is a blessing to the culture…Heroically ambitious and infectiously high-minded, [The Irresponsible Self is] also a genuinely enjoyable book.”

The joy and pleasure of talking with Wood about books and literary matters soon became evident (as our talk below exhibits) by his thoughtful, non-programmatic and mostly jargon-free responses—which is to say I saw and heard him thinking anew on the issues and concerns under discussion. And, at no point in our al fresco chat (with Rosie asleep nearby), did Wood stoop to lecturing or pontificating. It needs to be said that such intellectual honesty is unsurpassingly refreshing, most especially coming from a critic of James Wood’s fierce reputation.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum

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Robert Birnbaum: Off camera [before the tape started to roll] we were talking about the years in which you were interviewing and you had actually gone to New Mexico and Mississippi and, no doubt, Chicago.

James Wood: Yeah, yeah.

RB: Any other places?

JW: No, outside America, one of the best trips I did was going to rural Ontario to interview Alice Munro. That is a straight drive out of Toronto, westwards towards a tiny milling [pause] town—She lives in the house that she was born in. She is very much a writer—I am into writers who know their communities. She is a writer who really knows her community.

RB: I don’t see you talking about place. There are a whole group of writers—Richard Russo (one, two) for instance, was mentioned recently in the Times. He is the kind of writer I don’t see you talking about. Do you read them?

JW: That’s true. I do read them. I read The Risk Pool. I haven’t read the latest one which seems to be—writers like that, like Kent Haruf, who now has—

RB: [Jim] Harrison, [Richard] Ford. You do mention Ford.

JW: Ford is complicated because—you shouldn’t demand of writers that they stick to one place. But some of Ford’s itinerancy is there in the fiction. The last two novels are sort of New Jersey real-estate novels.

RB: The story collection [A Multitude of Sins] was more Southern.

JW: Yeah and Western. There are certain kinds of writers like that whom I find myself probably prejudicially distrustful of because I hope that they will be Chekhovian, but fear that they won’t be. Know what I mean? I fear that they will be more—Russo is an example. And again this is a prejudice because I haven’t read the latest novel in particular—that they will be more sentimental than I want them to be. Possibly more sentimental than—

RB: What would be the cut-off point for sentimentality?

JW: [laughs] Good question.

RB: A little sentimental?
Wood, by Robert Birnbaum
JW: [laughs again] Yeah. I think you can be a little bit sentimental. Take Ford for example. I read The Sportswriter at the age of 21. It was a 21st birthday present from an American. I had hardly been to America at that point. I went once only. And she inscribed in it, “A very American read for your 21st birthday.” And I was captivated by its Americaness, I think. I think now in the way of writers that you encounter fairly early in life, in one’s reading life, I guess, in that way I am probably clearer eyed about Ford now and I think there is a streak of male sentimentality in his fiction.

RB: [laughs] That’s a criticism I haven’t understood. Katherine Powers said that of Jim Harrison. So I then asked Harrison what it meant. He ended up concluding it was a kind of reverse or female chauvinism since mostly he heard it from women.

JW: [laughs]

RB: He says it means that he has no basis for writing about women.

JW: Right, right. I don’t have that. I like [Saul] Bellow, for instance, and I think it is fair to say that Bellow doesn’t really write about women. There are a couple of exceptions, essentially in the big novels. Certainly in Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift, the women are there either as ex-wives to harry the male heroes or sort of ideal mistress figures who—well it’s the old Bellow joke, “I only want be married in the evening at dinnertime.” They are there to provide a nice supper and a quick roll in the bed.

RB: Consolation?

JW: The male sentimentality I have been talking about is—well, for instance the stories in [Ford’s] Rock Springs. I found too often that Ford relies on a moment of male violence to create the form to his stories, to close them off. Somebody hitting somebody. The last one that was in the New Yorker, somebody driving their car over a—I suppose the Chekhovian ideal, it’s not quite that nothing should happen in a story because actually Chekhov’s stories are full of deaths and births and all sorts of tragedies. I’ll put it this way: When Virginia Woolf read Chekhov she said something like, “The emphasis falls on such unexpected places so that you hardly realize that it is an emphasis at all.” And that’s what I very much love about Chekhov is this extraordinary subtlety and unpredictability. That the sentimental moment [pauses] is always avoided, just at the last second. So I find in Ford’s stories the emphasis falls too sharply and obviously, often on violence. But he is a fine writer, there is no doubt about that.

If one were saying, “Well what is Wood’s taste based on?”—a certain level of intellectualism. Certainly verbal exuberance and complexity. Updike. Bellow. Roth, too. A certain love of voice.

RB: It is troublesome to talk with someone about what they don’t talk about, but nonetheless I can’t help but notice that you don’t write about Haruf, Harrison. [Thomas] McGuane, Russo, Brad Watson, Reynolds Price—all writers who are antithetical to this hysterical realist trend. They are all about character.

JW: Yeah, you are right.

RB: I guess I understand why sentimentality is a flaw but I don’t know how one quantifies it, what the cut-off point is for really feeling strongly and then for an excess of sentimentality.

JW: Yeah, it’s true logically if you look at that book and also what I write generally you would have to say then, the antidote to that is a sort—it’s not exactly plain American realism but there is some plainness to it, someone like Haruf. The long answer to your question is that, that’s not my ideal antidote. Because I think I like a sort of, a slightly more complicated surface, a slightly more intellectual, linguistically juicy kind of texture—I did read Haruf’s novel Plainsong—that I find lacking in some of that American realist fiction. This is complicated because then the question would seem to be, “OK so, you don’t like hysterical realism, you don’t particularly seem to like Shaker American craftsmen—

RB: [laughs]

JW:—what the hell do you like?” [pause] The answer would be, I like Norman Rush, a strange over-verbal writer who sometimes fails but is ambitious. I certainly have liked the Roth of the last decade. I am a great fan of Sabbath’s Theater, it was an extraordinary book.

RB: I am feeling like that Irish journalist [Carole Coleman] interrupting President Bush in their one-on-one. You are too polite, of course, to say, “Let me finish.” But the quote that you cite from American Pastoral, when I read it, I didn’t go much further in the novel. I found it so stunningly brilliant that I did not think the novel could do better.

JW: Yeah, it’s wonderful isn’t it?

RB: A great encapsulation of so much about people and how we perceive them.

JW: Getting people wrong, yeah.

RB: I have had people read it aloud. I had Peter Carey read it when we talked about My Life as a Fake.

JW: Ha! Fantastic. I like Peter Carey, by the way, a lot. Um, who else? I have been hard on Updike in the last few years but I certainly like the earlier Updike a lot. Bellow is another. So if you were putting those writers together it would be hard to get a general picture but one would say—if one were saying, “Well what is Wood’s taste based on?”—a certain level of intellectualism. Certainly verbal exuberance and complexity. Updike. Bellow. Roth, too. A certain love of voice. I suppose what I see with someone like Haruf, the craftsmanship, the omissions, the self-withdrawal that’s gone into it. But I rather like, in Bellow or Rush, the sense, right from the beginning, that this is a style. Some people can’t stand that but I see that even on my own terms that ought to be contradictory to the love of Chekhov.

RB: That’s a burden, isn’t it? The need to be consistent when someone asks for the books you like to read. That’s terrible.

JW: It is terrible, and I think, it’s surely not loyal to the exceptionalism of the novel. It’s why when I read about myself in reviews I always want to say, “Yes, but.” Because just like any reader, my exceptions define me and that’s the only way to describe the novel. It’s the freest form there is. If it’s true that I often chastise writers for breaking in essayistically and telling us about characters when they should be leaving well enough alone, it’s also true that I like Lawrence, who does that a great deal. I like Bellow, who does that a lot. If it’s true that I like stylish prose, it’s also true that I revere Chekhov who in some ways is about—well, not exactly about self-withdrawal because he is quite a stylist but certainly about handing over something to characters themselves. [pause] If it’s true that I don’t like didactic fiction as much as people don’t like didactic fiction, what do you make of Roth, who is always coming in and saying—jabbing at you.

RB: [laughs]

JW: It seems to be able to take any amount of stress, the novel form. That’s what I love about it.

RB: I understand the danger of pulling this out of context but you do mention somewhere in The Irresponsible Self something about the frailty of the novel, which is not something I would associate—

JW: [laughs] I know what you mean.

RB: I am sure it was a finer point than what I comprehended.

JW: I wonder what point I was making? [pause] That was probably me in my Jamesian mode. [both laugh] See I love James, and James can drive people insane.

RB: My mother, for example.

Wood, by Robert Birnbaum

JW: Whenever someone says, “I don’t like James,” I always say to them, “I completely understand. I can tell you exactly now what you don’t like.” And one can with James always say, “Here are the 10 things he can’t or doesn’t do as a writer.” But in the Jamesian ideal, I suppose, which he comes back to again and again in his introductions to his novels, there is this notion in a way that the form of the novel is a very delicate web. By pressing too hard in one way, you’ll put things out of kilter. By pressing hard I mean simply by over explaining or perhaps having a duff melodramatic scene or character. And so I think that phrase came up in the hysterical realism piece where I was talking about the way in which [pause] you can have one zany character, it seems, but you can’t have 10. And you can’t have 10 precisely because the thing begins to sink.

RB: In the 19th century, was there that kind of self-consciousness about the novel form?

JW: Well no, there wasn’t really. And that’s why James is interesting. There wasn’t anything like that self-consciousness, really until James and Conrad. And if you go back to [pause]—well that’s not quite true. The decisive thing was probably Flaubert, where there was a new kind of self-consciousness. Where in a way, for the first time you see art being turned into a religion but also into a stylistic agony—Flaubert at his best doing a hundred words a day. Agonizing over repetitions. Prose has become poetry at that point. And you can see in his letters, Flaubert is frankly envious of, as he sees it, the great writers who didn’t need to worry about that kind of thing. He says Cervantes, Moliere, and Shakespeare, they could just toss it off. Surely any writer that abundant, can just, they are not thinking. I [Flaubert] am, on the other hand, however am caught in this modern dilemma of agony, of artistic self-consciousness. And James met and corresponded with Flaubert and in some ways is an inheritor of that Flaubertian agony, too. Though it didn’t seem to stop his productivity.

I said to my wife, “Why aren’t bestiality jokes, I mean, they are not really funny?” And she rightly said, “They pretend to be realistic but they are not actually realistic. And that’s because no one has every actually met anyone who fucked a sheep.”

RB: Were the essays in The Irresponsible Self written for the book?

JW: No, they weren’t.

RB: Did you have it in mind that—

JW: I had it in mind that I wanted to group some essays around the idea of comedy. Partly because I do—for a serious and a trivial reason. The serious reason is that I do genuinely think that at heart the novel is a comic and secular form. In some ways those two things go together. The trivial reason being that when my first book of essays came out, it was much concerned with the question of belief in fiction, belief in religion, faith. There was a quite a lot of stuff about theology. I got a reputation from that book as a rather austere and fierce—

RB: [laughs]

JW:—critic. Which in a way was true to the spirit of that book but never felt true to the spirit of me. So that it was curious to read reviews in which people said, “Well, Wood brings his fist down on the pulpit.” I have always taken a lively pleasure in comedy generally and certainly in the comic in fiction. This year I have been visiting as a lecturer here [at Harvard] and I put together a class in post-war modern British and American fiction. And I deliberately didn’t want a theme. [I think] the problem with so many of these academic courses are these absurd themes. So students begin to think wholly in terms of these weird notions like the Gilded Age. “So what did you do in the Gilded Age?” “Well, we did the Age of Innocence. And a couple of Henry James and The Great Gatsby. “ “So what is the Gilded Age?” So anyway, I thought I’ll just pick things I like and be up front with the students about the fact this is just stuff I like that they should know about. When I picked it I found that almost all—that I had gravitated to stylists (not surprisingly), and I gravitated towards an idea of comedy. Not exactly belly laughs, but—

RB: Catch 22?

JW: I didn’t do Catch 22, though it’s a novel I like a lot. I did a kind of comedy that is quite consonant with the comedy I talk about in this book: Bellow’s Seize the Day. Nabakov’s Pnin, Naipul’s The House of Mr. Biswas, Murial Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. What else did we do? Henry Green’s Loving, which is a fairly obscure book but I think he ought be better known. And Flannery O’Connor. And it was fun because particularly with something like the Naipaul, which is a very subtle novel, not a funny novel in the way that David Lodge is funny, but if you actually go through it slowly, scene by scene, you find that again and again it’ll make people laugh. If you actually read things out—

RB: The Ian Hamilton anecdote you mention in the introduction of Irresponsible Self, what do you say if one says, “James. I just didn’t think it was funny”?

JW: [laughs]

RB: It’s clever and instructive. So what do you say to that? This, of course, is where you are dealing with the contention that a joke cannot be explained.

JW: Absolutely.

RB: I’m not asking for an explanation of the joke.

JW: I think it is fine for you not to find it funny, because we know that of all things comedy is the most subjective. In a way, I think I wanted that little quip as an example of something that doesn’t make you peal with laughter. But that makes you smile, in a way, almost in way, in a form of recognition, really.

RB: As in, “Aha.”

JW: Aha, hmm. Maybe the better term is irony. When the poet comes in and says, “I can’t drink anymore. I don’t even enjoy it,” and Hamilton says, “Well none of us likes it.” It’s irony, really. And I think that is different from comedy. But it doesn’t surprise me. My wife and I were talking about this only a couple of days ago. I was telling her that someone who insisted on telling me a joke—

RB: [laughs]

JW: And I said it was one of those jokes that I never, ever find funny. One of the sheep-shagging jokes. And I say to her, “Why is it that bestiality jokes are never funny?” And the joke by the way was something like this: A man goes into a Scottish bar—I mean it’s not an unfunny joke—there is a guy in a kilt who is drinking heavily at the bar. And he is clearly distressed. The stranger says to the man in the kilt, “Why are you drinking so many whiskeys? What’s wrong?” And he says, “See that pier out there? I built that. I built that pier with my own hands, and they don’t call me McKenzie the Pier Builder. See that boat out there? I built that boat with my own hands. They don’t call me McKenzie the Boat Builder. And this very inn that we are sitting in, this tavern, I built it, stone by stone. But they don’t call me McKenzie the Tavern Builder. And yet you mess around once with a sheep and….” It’s not unfunny. It’s pretty funny. But I said to my wife, “Why aren’t bestiality jokes, I mean, they are not really funny?” And she rightly said, “They pretend to be realistic but they are not actually realistic. And that’s because no one has every actually met anyone who fucked a sheep.” So they are actually fantastical. In a way this feeds into the hysterical realism thing. In that essay I say something like they are not exactly stories that can never happen, because they do involve human beings, but they are in some way inhuman stories. I think there is a truth about—I am very drawn—the reason I like the Hamilton thing is because I am drawn to comedy that is sort of rooted in the here and now, comes naturally out of our ordinary encounters, our striving and our yearning and so on, but that has a lot less to do with the kind of John Irving sort of comedy, with people falling off ladders and farcical turns.

RB: I don’t find Irving particularly funny, though I enjoy his storytelling.

JW: Irving will be an example of someone who is called Dickensian and I can never quite—I think it’s because people are being lazy. They call Tom Wolfe Dickensian. That’s because he writes books that are 600, 700 pages with lots of plot. But anyway, comedy is subjective.

RB: I don’t know if you have burdened yourself, as a student of literature and a lover of literature who needs to generalize and thus you are required to be consistent.

JW: That’s part of the problem of writing about fiction. That you are continually taking—that’s actually a good description of the dilemma of the critic—whether in praise or in dispraise. You have only rhetorical authority. People who don’t like me sometimes send me letters, “I can’t stand your air of authority.” I don’t reply to them generally but what I want to reply to them is, “It seems like authority but, of course, it’s only rhetorical because it’s made there, freshly in each piece.” It’s a judicial argument in that sense. You can only win by persuading readers by rhetorical parries of your own and quotation. And the danger of any quotation whether in praise or dispraise is that the reader will say, “You didn’t convince me. I don’t think that’s a good bit of writing. I don’t think so much of what you have quoted.”

RB: You recently wrote a piece on John Le Carre, in which I could not take exception to what you wrote, but I came away unconvinced and still liking the novel. And I wasn’t distressed at you nor did I think I had wasted my time.

JW: I think that’s completely fair.

RB: The same applies, in a way, when I have read Dale Peck. I am amused and there is flamboyance of prose—

JW: Dale Peck is a good example in a way because what he sometimes fails to do is—the rush to rhetoric, away from argument can mean that’s it’s just manifesto. It’s not even an attempt to take a reader along.

RB: He’s an excitable guy.

JW: He is an excitable guy. But Le Carre is a good example because when I am writing about him I am perfectly aware that there are two or three things being prosecuted in a piece like that that probably don’t have anything to do with ordinary readers. One is there is an attempt to separate Le Carre as a genre writer from more literary writers. You may or may not win that argument but you are aware that there are plenty of readers who aren’t going to care. So what? Then there are going are to be readers who do think he is a literary writer and will not be convinced by your argument anyway. Then there will be a third category of reader who couldn’t tell the difference anyway. It doesn’t matter how long you go at them. You can put a passage of Bellow or Roth along side a more formulaic passage of Le Carre and they won’t see it. It’s not that they don’t care. They can’t make those discriminations. And then the danger I suppose as a critic is, you have narrowed yourself down and you are talking to a tiny group of people who are probably already converted. Which is why you don’t want to do that sort of piece too often.

RB: Clearly you are conscious to some degree of your audience or the potential size of your audience—wouldn’t you rather write for the New York Times Book Review than the New Republic? You converted the introduction to Irresponsible Self for publication in the Guardian.

JW: Yes, I did. I made it a bit simpler and thinner.

RB: You do want to be read, yes

JW: I do want to be read. And that’s why if I get the request every so often—once a year, twice a year—to write for the New Yorker, I always take it. Because I am aware that I go from 100,000 to 700,000 readers. And it’s not 100,000 readers anyway, because that’s the New Republic’s circulation. It’s about 5,000 readers.

RB: [laughs]

JW: When I was at the Guardian, the editor used to call the literary editor into his office every so often. And he would say things like, “Well, our poll results, our reader results have just come in, and I want you to know that the book section is read by 16 percent of the readership.” [laughs] Bellow used to say, “This is a country of 250 million people. If I have 10 percent of that, five percent of that I am doing well. I have a lot of readers.” With criticism, it’s harder. I don’t think I would like to write regularly for the New York Times because the great privilege of writing for a small magazine is that I can extend these arguments, go deeply into a text in a way that is just impossible in the Times. And it wouldn’t be permitted.

RB: Does it seem to you that it turns out as “leading critic of our era”—

JW: [grunts]

RB:—that more and more you are alluded to in mainstream literary press?

JW: Yeah, I think that does happen. Sometimes I can go on the web and see that here are lively blog discussions among fiction readers about something I have written. Which is nice because you can see that a person who would never buy the New Republic is getting hold of it online. That’s true. I do like that.

RB: I am privy to these conversations and your work seems to reverberate through the portion of it with which I am familiar. Though I couldn’t quantify what the literary audiences are to these periodicals, 16 percent or five percent whatever, I would argue that they are psychographically far more potent than the numbers. More inclined to be of the decision-making class, et cetera.

JW: Yeah.

RB: Should these people be ignored in favor of the larger number of people who read the sports pages or the so-called entertainment news?

JW: [laughs] We knew that anyway.

RB: Not too long ago I read a piece in which an American was asked what he thought of the American literary press by a Scottish journalist and he responded, “What American literary press?”

JW: Hmm.

RB: I thought, “What is he referring to?”

JW: Yeah, that doesn’t seem fair because one of the nice things about America—and it’s in contradistinction to Britain—is there is still a lively magazine culture here. The newspaper culture is deader and correspondingly livelier in Britain because you have five daily newspapers in a small country. But with the Nation, the New Republic, the New York Review [of Books], the Atlantic, Harper’s, not to mention the smaller journals, there is a chance for long consideration of fiction, less so of poetry but as you know the world of poetry reviewing has been shrinking and shrinking. But fiction, there is a chance still for considered judgment, such that if Edmund Wilson were to come back from the grave, he would be shocked by a lot of things but I don’t think he’d—he wouldn’t necessarily be throwing up his hands and saying, “It’s all over.”

RB: Do you pay attention to the book business?

JW: Um, with a certain kind of steely horror. Yeah I do.

RB: That horror comes from the contemplation of the dismal numbers for sales of fiction?

JW: Yeah.

RB: You would be even more horrified if you saw how recent books of [quality] fiction are remaindered, even before the paperback editions are issued—which strikes me as suicidal.

JW: I know. I think the only reason I don’t go mad with this is, certainly with my own work, I sort of work upwards from the most fatalistic premises. [both chuckle] So I say to myself, “What I am doing shouldn’t be permissible in the 21st century.” I mean, that’s all dead, it’s all gone. It died with Edmund Wilson and died with Mary McCarthy. That’s the first thing. And secondly I say to myself, “The chance to republish essays that have already appeared, in book form, is already is itself an absurd luxury.” Thirdly, everyone knows that when they are published, it’s no different than publishing a book of poems, in terms of readership. The Broken Estate has sold about four or five thousand copies in all. It’s just hanging on in paperback. And it sells about 200 copies a year. It’s barely worth it for a publisher to keep it going. So starting with those assumptions, you should actually be deliriously happy every day.

RB: [laughs]

JW: Because you say to yourself, “Well, you know I published a book of essays in 1999. First of all, it went into hardback. It was published. Secondly, it went into paperback the next year. And it’s still in print. If I can keep it in print for another five years, I’ll crack the champagne open.”

RB: And the novel?

JW: It’s difficult because the novel, in a way one always does for fiction, one always has slightly greater hopes for it so that there is more chance for disappointment. [laughs]

You are writing over the author’s head to the reader. It’s the author’s silly fault if he picks up those reviews. And, of course, he will. They always do.

RB: What did you learn from publishing a novel? Not writing it—

JW: One curious thing was that contrary to common assumptions, negative reviews of my novel were not more hurtful than negative reviews of my first book of essays. In other words, there wasn’t some kind of—

RB: They hurt equally.

JW: [Laughs] Yeah. In other words there wasn’t some kind of deeper confession of soul going on in the fiction that hadn’t been there in the essays. Actually, almost the opposite. I felt that in the essays, although they looked like very public forms, it was a kind of private confession going on so that when people reviewed them and said they are no good or I don’t agree with him, he’s barking up the wrong tree, I always wanted to get into arguments and say, “No, no, no.” There is an evangelical streak in me that wants to correct reviewers, “You have to see it this way. You have to see that X is good and Y is bad and you have to agree with me.” I suppose that’s the pulpit sound that people don’t like in me. The hammer coming down, breaking up the books like meringues and so on. But with the fiction I felt when people didn’t like it, I could serenely chalk it up to the great ocean of subjectivity in which we swim. “OK, so he is not convinced. He doesn’t think it works. Somehow it didn’t—”

RB: I would be tempted to speculate that you weren’t as deeply personally involved. It was almost as if you were posing—strike that word—acting out, what it is like to be a novelist.

JW: Yeah.

RB: I guarantee you—criticism is criticism, writing is writing and if you are negatively reviewed its sting is the same.

JW: Maybe there’s another thing. [pauses] Well, there are two or three other things to say. One is—I don’t know what other novelists have said to you about this—when you write a novel, of course it is a private form. It comes out of you and so on. But it’s public in the sense that you launch it, you push it off, and you know that it must be free there for people to make what they will of it. So you might be lucky to get a letter from someone, as I did a couple of weeks ago, saying, “This meant a great deal to me because I was dealing with my own father’s death at the time that I read this novel,” and it’s nice to get that, but it’s a slightly skewed response. That’s someone wallowing in subjectivity.

RB: It’s all about them.

JW: Yeah, “It’s about me.” Secondly, I think I had already been inoculated to some extent by bringing my book of essays out. Which got nice reviews here but it had a harder time in Britain, where scores were being settled and knives were being thrust into my back.

RB: [laughs]

JW: And I felt that one thing I have learned from being a critic is that when you write a review, it’s not—you are writing about the author but you are not writing to the author. You are writing over the author’s head to the reader. It’s the author’s silly fault if he picks up those reviews. And, of course, he will. They always do. I always do. But you have to let—it’s painful—the review have its own public existence.

I try strenuously to avoid meeting anyone I have reviewed unpleasantly. I have private rule, which is that once I have met someone for anything, more than half a second, I cannot review them and will not review them negatively. I’ll review them positively if I love their work. There is a sort of law of politesse.

RB: Ideally, you [the reviewed author] accept it and move on.

JW: You do, you do.

RB: On the other hand, I don’t know that I believe it when someone claims that they are not affected by anything less than adulation. These incidents reported of Richard Ford’s ire—

JW: Yes, famous.

RB: Not the recent one, but the one where, because she had written a bad review in the New York Times Book Review, Ford took a copy of Alice Hoffman’s book to the back yard and shot it with a pistol. [Actually, he says he had two copies and he did it twice.—ed.]

JW: [laughs]

RB: So recently there was a lot of clattering about what Ford did to Colson Whitehead.

JW: What did he do to Whitehead?

RB: Reportedly he spit at him at a Poet & Writer’s reception.

JW: Wow, wow.

RB: Allegedly saying, “You spit on my book, I spit on you.”

JW: I think it is totally human for people to be angry like that. Well, it’s like the recent thing with Dick Cheney and Senator [Patrick] Leahy. The mistake in a way wasn’t Cheney’s. It was the senator’s to think that he could go over to Cheney and shake his hand. I don’t know if Whitehead approached Ford. That in a way is to mistake the gravity, to be too flippant about what you do. It is a grave thing that you are doing. You are speaking to thousands of people if you are harshly doing it, about the product of someone’s labor and talent. Of course they should be angry with you. The mistake then is to think that you can go up to them and say, “Well, it’s nothing. I’ll shake their hand.” I try strenuously to avoid meeting anyone I have reviewed unpleasantly. I have private rule, which is that once I have met someone for anything, more than half a second, I cannot review them and will not review them negatively. I’ll review them positively if I love their work. There is a sort of law of politesse.

Wood, by Robert Birnbaum

RB: I was corresponding with Daniel Mendelsohn and he said something to that effect—

JW: Um, he reviewed my novel.

RB: It was about something he wrote recently. Dale Peck.

JW: Right, he reviewed Peck.

RB: I had written that I had met Dale and that I found him to be a nice enough, congenial person. And he responded that he couldn’t meet people that he had written about.

JW: I don’t feel that.

RB: He went on to say [something like] that for him it was only what was on the page that mattered.

JW: Mendelsohn is an example. He gave me a sort of mixed review in the New York Times. He said nice things about my book [the novel] and a sentence or two has been taken out for the paperback, quoted on the back, and he was also, finally, probably negative. But I feel like that comes into the category of fair comment. If I met him it would be perfectly amicable.

RB: I take him to be a commentator who honors something by taking it seriously.

JW: That’s the truth of it. Even a negative review—I hope some of my reviews come into this category—takes a talent seriously and is disappointed by its incomplete fruition. I think writers know when that is being done. For instance, I was very hard on Zadie Smith’s second novel. I knew when I was doing this year at Harvard that she would be here. I knew I had to meet her and I was very anxious about it. And actually all our encounters were colored in a way by my feeling it was preposterous of her to like me or spend any time with me because of my being so unpleasant to her. I felt I had to be continually apologizing. She was extraordinarily nice and generous to me. And we never talked about the review. Thinking through her maturity of response, I had various explanations. One of them was not that she bought my argument. Not that she said to herself, “Oh ho, yeah he’s right I didn’t write a good second novel.” But more that she could see that what I wanted her to be doing was being better than herself. Also, never believe a writer when they say they don’t learn things from negative reviews. I am not just talking about fiction I am even talking about the reviews of my first book of essays. There is almost nothing—there are many things you disagree with but there will be something in very negative reviews of which you wince and say, “Maybe that is a semi-true description.”

RB: Are you edited?

JW: Not much now. Leon Wieseltier at the New Republic has a nice approach to editing. Which is he always wants more. It’s fantastic. Literally, you send it in and he says, “I need another 500 words here. You haven’t made your case well enough.” And that’s why some of these pieces become a bit gargantuan. But the heavy sort of—no, I don’t get that much.

RB: And for the novel?

JW: Yeah I had some good editing. Which is, of course, like being reviewed. From a young editor at Farrar, Straus. The manuscript comes back with a long letter saying this is where I think it’s weak and so on. You have a day or two of hubris in which you go stamping around saying, “The fucker, how can he say these things.” And then you say, “No, actually”—

RB: Do you have any interest in editing fiction?

JW: [pauses] That’s a good question. [pauses again] My fear is that I would be too heavy-handed.

RB: It does require a certain deft touch.

JW: That the kind of critic I am, that some of that energy is transformative. That you want to take a piece of fiction and actually change it. I think a good editor has a mixture of the transformative and the humble. How can you actually work at a publisher without accepting however unconsciously that you are going to be publishing a lot of stuff that isn’t particularly good. You have to. You can’t be zealously evangelical in the way that I am a critic. Otherwise you wouldn’t publish anything. In that way I think that the critic’s task is something different from the editor because it’s the weird combination of being able, ideally, to pluck something out of the present and say this is really good, this is really good, while also keeping an eye on the horizon, on posterity.

RB: What should any reader care whether what they are reading rises to the level of a future classic. Or care about posterity?

JW: For most readers, it’s asking—which is a very hard thing to ask of readers, as it is of writers—how much of what you are consuming week after week do you really think will still be around in 40 or 50 years time? Let alone 100. The danger then, and I know sometimes I am charged with this, is that you then are constantly drawing people away from the present and saying, “Forget all that stuff.” And actually you should be reading Flaubert and Henry James, and that you are just wandering around then in a cemetery of greatness and the great touchstones. As an example, the Tom Wolfe thing, there is a sort of fervor there, a missionary fervor that I have. Which is a way of saying to the reader, “You might think this is really, really good. You have been told by Newsweek and so on that actually it’s Dickensian. But you are cheating yourself. Or you are being cheated, and you only need to compare it with X, Y, and Z to sense that you can do better.”

RB: Your observation about the machinery is keen. Time magazine makes Wolfe a cover story and then points to his being a Time cover story as affirmation of his importance.

JW: I know. It’s great. And you really see with Wolfe, the danger also is his aesthetic—but the danger of going out into America and collecting the news and bringing it back and putting it in your book now means that those books are completely shackled to their times. It’s true that in some way that it’s a small triumph if people say of a certain moment of the ‘80s or certain moment of a certain picture of New York, “Oh well, that’s Bonfire of the Vanities.” But it also means that it is tied to that.

I just spent three days in someone else’s house. We got the chance to go to the beach. And so it was that quintessential experience of being in someone’s bedroom and looking at their bookshelves—which is always fascinating.

RB: Then it’s an artifact

JW: It is.

RB: It’s like reading Bret Easton Ellis’s last book. In which the publicity materials provided a list of all the celebrities and so on that were named in the novel.

JW: [laughs] It has built-in obsolescence.

RB: That is what I so like about Russo or Haruf or Harrison. There are no brand names.

JW: Peter Matthiessen said to his writing students at Yale, “Just cut out 90 percent of those brand names.” Obviously fiction that had none would be—there is a danger that there would be a false grandiloquence, an austerity which actually no fiction has. Fiction is a worldly, messy thing. So always that’s the problem for me as a reader and I think it is for a writer. Franzen touched on this in his Harper’s essay. “How do you as an American writer”—particularly acute for Americans—”How do you as an American writer partake of the culture, set your fiction in it, tell readers some things about it and not be of it, not be consumed by it?”

RB: I read The Corrections well before I read your take on it and I had the same feelings—that when Franzen gets to the family and explicating or showing the relationships, that’s when it was at its strongest as a story.

JW: Yeah, the family bits are very good. In that sense then, it would be very interesting over the next ten years to see how writers deal with Sept 11. This is the major event in American culture and obviously for any writer whether in New York or about New York. It’s not just that it happened but that the material shape of the city was changed forever. So it will be interesting to see, it’ll be instructive to see, how writers deal with it.

RB: I really like Jim Shepard’s Project X. When one thinks about how fiction deals with or relates to the significant events of our time.

JW: Yeah. I haven’t read that book, actually. What’s it about?

RB: It’s about two teenagers who end up plotting some act of violence against their school. It’s not didactic. It’s about the kids, the characters. It’s not a cheap lesson in sociology or adolescent psychology.

JW: OK, I’d like to read that.

RB: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is another that deals with that.

JW: Though Shepard is good, isn’t he?

RB: I think so. His recent story collection, Love & Hydrogen, is hysterical. So, do you ever get tired of reading?

JW: [laughs]

RB: Not to mention that you live with a novelist.

JW: You know, I don’t.

[Rosie interrupts, barking at two passing dogs. An interlude of JW opining on her behavior and extolling her virtues. “I love these dogs so much…”]

JW: Because—

RB: Do you read constantly?

JW: Yeah, I do, I was thinking about this the other day. I just spent three days in someone else’s house. We got the chance to go to the beach. And so it was that quintessential experience of being in someone’s bedroom and looking at their bookshelves—which is always fascinating. And I found that every night I was there I would take three or four books to bed with me. And what I was intending to pick were novels I hadn’t read before. One of them was Andre Dubus’s House of Sand and Fog. Not that I had any chance of reading the whole of them or more then 10 pages but just to get a sense of what they were like. So that’s just a long way of saying even with not very good books what’s fascinating to me is whether a novel is going to succeed or fail. And working out the terms of its success, the terms of its failure. It’s exceptionally interesting to me.

RB: How much of your reading is required? And by the way, did you actually read both translations of Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience?

JW: Yeah, I had already read the—I didn’t reread the earlier one. I already read that a few years before. So when the [new] Weaver came in I just read it straight through.

RB: That’s real dedication.

JW: [laughs] It’s a good question, “How much of it is required reading.” In a way, some of it belongs to the border between required and unrequired. Because what I try to do, and Zeno’s Conscience would be an example, is find things to write about which I have always wanted to read or wanted to write about which will serve as an education for me. And there is a good line that an English critic from the Bloomsbury age said about reviewing which is that, “You conduct your education in public.” And I think that is quite true.

RB: Self-imposed or not, how much do you impose on yourself? What I mean is that for example, this month I am going to cut back and just wander among my bookshelves and just choose books on a whim.

JW: I wish I had more time for that. In this summer what I would really like to do, [sighs] as sort of a project and—is this desire or is it self-punishment?—I would like to read Clarissa which I have never read. A thousand pages. Clearly to talk about the history of the novel without having read Clarissa is somewhat fraudulent. There is an element of obligation about it and duty. There is an element of desire. I like to think that a novel that meant so much to so many people—it caused Diderot, for instance, to say of Richardson that he was a master, a genius—that that book could change your life. It might do the same for me. Though I am also prepared to accept that it is going to be a heavy, heavy slog. I’d like to be able to do that. I think I am not going to be able to. I’d like to reread Crime and Punishment this summer, which I haven’t read for 15 years. I don’t think it’s going to happen because of the truly required reading—reading David Foster Wallace’s stories. I have Pamuk’s novel Snow to do for the New Republic. And Muriel Spark’s new novel plus some old ones for the Atlantic. That’s this summer and I just wish there was more time. But then every so often it comes right. There is a new translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot coming out in the fall. The trick then is to buttonhole a literary editor and say, “I’d like to do that,” and under cover of that I can reread Crime and Punishment.


Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum