Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

James Wood on How Criticism Works


Photo credit: Claire Messud

What follows is an interview of writer and literary critic James Wood, who is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard. He is interviewed by Becca Rothfeld, a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard, and an essayist, literary critic, and contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Times Book ReviewThe Atlantic, and more. 

James Wood is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker, the author of two novels and six books of criticism, and the most exhilarating literary critic alive. He made his name writing long, ambitious, and often searingly negative essays, among them his famed takedown of so-called “hysterical realists”  and his evisceration of Paul Auster’s hypermasculine posturing. But I know Wood primarily as a lover of literature, and in recent years, he has done much to champion contemporary novelists, among them Ben Lerner and Teju Cole. Wood is a voracious quoter, and in his pieces he allows the works he loves to speak in their own voices. I love Wood for many reasons, some of which I fleshed out in my review of his latest essay collection, Serious Noticing. By way of summary, I love his beautiful prose, his appreciation for well-wrought sentences, and his argumentative and philosophical acumen. My favorite essay of his—perhaps my favorite piece of literary criticism in the world!—is his ravenous take on Moby-Dick and God. (The son of a minister, Wood’s vexed atheism rears its head in many of his essays.) In this interview, I spoke to him via email, initially about why he prefers to do interviews via email, ultimately about both his broader aesthetic commitments and what he thinks criticism amounts to.

You mention you prefer to give interviews in writing. I share this preference, so I can guess why you might have it, but let me ask nonetheless: why do you prefer written to spoken interviews? Do you prefer writing to speaking in general? (I think I might!) 

I get pretty dismayed by how loose and incoherent my recorded speech sounds. Style is confidence (among other things), and – a true paper tiger, alas! – I lack confidence in person but discover it anew on paper. So in conversation, I tend to hesitate, back up on myself, qualify, pretzelize myself into sub-clauses, and bend my speech toward my interlocutor – I tend to make myself what, in part, I think my interlocutor wants to hear. In writing, you can shear all that anxiety away. It’s why I’m able to say things in reviews that I could never say in person to an author. I’m a little in awe of, but also repelled by, someone like Edmund Wilson, who apparently had equal confidence on paper and in person, quite happy to tell people to their faces (or in correspondence) exactly what was wrong with their books. I don’t want to be that person, but there’s something impressive about the honesty and consistency. On the other hand, there’s something delicious about the kind of confidence that one can make for oneself on the page – a performance of a kind, a display. I wonder if you feel the same way when you review books?

How are you?! Has the pandemic made it harder or easier for you to read? What have you been reading (besides the two books you’ve written about recently)?

I suspect – speaking anecdotally – that a number of people like me, whose privileged lives have not been so grievously disrupted (yet) by this pandemic, and whose time is premised on time for reading and writing, have been surprised to discover how hard it has been to read and write. It doesn’t make sense – the one thing we have been given is more time, and life should stretch out right now into what Robert Lowell called (a completely different context, but one of my favorite phrases of his) an “oasis… of lost connections.” But for whatever reason, I’ve found it harder than usual to read. And I have absolutely no desire to re-read The Plague

Instead, partly because it’s part of an ongoing project, and in part because I feel maybe steadied or braced by the comparative academic dryness, I’ve been trying to brush up on early theological skepticism. So I’ve been reading Hobbes and Spinoza, in particular reading those passages when they are taking apart things like miracles and the authority of Biblical revelation. It’s all part of a book I’ve long wanted to write on “God and the Novel” (which really means, for me, “Atheism and the Novel”). It’s a Casaubon-like enterprise that I fear is as infinite as the deity, not least because it’s incredibly difficult to know where to start – specifically, when does something like modern atheism really begin? Hobbes and Spinoza, as you know, were considered atheists, but they didn’t consider themselves to be non-believers; on the contrary, they thought they were shoring up the right kind of belief in the right kind of God. (Kant and Hegel probably thought the same, as far as I can tell.)

But away from reading, it’s of course been a terrible time politically, and depression has been moving ghost-like through our household, afflicting especially my teenage kids, whose lives (unlike mine) have been choked off. The hard thing for them – and the hard thing for a parent to reassure them about – is to grasp that this interruption or postponement isn’t permanent. It feels permanent to them, and so despair can easily set in. You’re a graduate student, so you know what the atmosphere on campus was like in March: I really grieved for my undergraduate students. On the other hand, I felt as if I had a more intimate proximity to them than ever before, which was precious. It’s a very strange and quite beautiful thing – which will pass as I get older, sadly – when one’s students are the same age as one’s own college-age children. A few magical years.

Do you share the widespread conviction that fiction about coronavirus will be terrible? (For what it’s worth, I do not myself share this conviction.)

I’m glad you don’t share it, because like any conviction about fiction, it will be schooled by the novel’s weird exceptionalism, right? Just when one is deciding that an entire genre or movement is crap, along comes a single novel that is so good (or even great) that it becomes the genre, defines it, and renders all the other stuff completely irrelevant. And then there’s always the odd waywardness and indirectness of novelistic response. To the Lighthouse is Woolf’s “response” to the First World War, but is it really a “First World War novel”? Not obviously. The same goes for The Plague and the Second World War. I often think that the true “9/11 novel” – in its fearfulness and apocalyptic terror – was The Road.

What, if any, are your favorite books about disease, medicine, and the like?

That’s a really interesting question. I’d have to nominate Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich – still on the curriculums of medical schools, in order to teach students about the harrowing experience of being a patient – and Chekhov’s beautiful and terrifying story, “Ward 6,” about an over-confident doctor who arrives in a godforsaken town (Chekhov was so good at evoking these desolate backwaters), to take over the medical directorship of the local hospital. He gets especially interested in Ward 6, the viciously punitive insane asylum where the inmates are horribly abused by a bullying peasant placed in charge of them – a kind of kapo. The doctor becomes a regular visitor, and starts talking to one disturbed but educated inmate. The doctor is a Stoic, a reader of Marcus Aurelius, and believes that suffering can be thought away; his imprisoned interlocutor angrily tries to persuade him that suffering is not just philosophical, that the body really exists. Eventually, suffering comes to the doctor – his frequent visits are taken as evidence of his own mental instability, and he is himself locked up in Ward 6, where he dies. The story has the usual wise and healthy materialism of Chekhov the doctor – the body exists, suffering is real – and as is often the case, is also Chekhov’s way of replying to Tolstoy’s somewhat fanatical religious idealism. Lenin said that reading it made him into a revolutionary, though you would also understand if Lenin had hated it: it shows how the jailor can, in the blink of an eye, become the jailed. (Likewise, the revolutionary can be denounced as the latest conservative. “Handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?” as King Lear puts it.)

My 92-year-old father was recently put in the COVID ward of his local hospital in Scotland, which was in fact ward 6 (but he was misdiagnosed, and didn’t have COVID, and didn’t get it while in ward 6, thank goodness, and is now home and okay), and my heart fell every time I phoned him and the lovely nurses would announce, “Hello there, ward 6…”

And I didn’t even get to The Magic Mountain! (What an amazing novel.)

You defend some aesthetic principles in How Fiction Works, though they’re pretty capacious. To what extent do you find yourself appealing to principles, even if only implicitly, when you write criticism? Do you have aesthetic values—subtlety, lyricism, and the like—in mind, even if only in the back of your mind, when you’re evaluating a book? (I don’t really think I do.)

It’s hard to know to what extent those “principles” are principles at all or just bits and pieces of prejudice, experience, reading, instinct and the like. Like any reader, I’m always looking for something vital, something alive, something not dead, but what kind of “principle” is that? The “life principle”? And besides, as you know well yourself, vitality can announce itself in many different ways – in a character, or in a turn of phrase (i.e., in what is represented, or in the medium of the representation). This un-thought quality is what makes criticism easy to do (instinctive, open, amateurish in the strict sense of the word) and weirdly hard to talk about or to teach. My favorite definition of criticism is maximalist, from Kenneth Burke (I should credit Mark Greif for alerting me to it): “The main ideal of criticism, as I conceive it, is to use all there is to use.” Ideally, in criticism, you’re making use of everything that has formed you – life, memory, childhood, anecdotes, bits of experiential wisdom, music, your reading, philosophy, theology, theory, what have you – in order to bring all that to bear on a text that, if rich enough, is simultaneously teaching you something you are learning for the first time at the precise moment of your own “grand explication.” How strange and humbling that is!

What do you take yourself to be doing when you’re writing criticism? Do you feel you’re justifying a judgment about a book—in other words, arguing for a particular proposition about a book’s value—or do you see yourself as doing something more affective, perhaps influencing readers’ orientation? (Are these two things necessarily different, in your view)? Or are you just trying to write a beautiful essay in its own right? Or all of the above? Or something else altogether?

I think reviewing a book is somewhat different from “doing criticism” as most academics perform it, either in class or in an academic journal. It happens that the kind of criticism I like to do is closer to reviewing than to academic criticism, and that’s fine with me. The literary scholar generally is arguing a new case, a series of fresh propositions. Of course, a long review also shares some of this urge (at the very least, a reasoned argument is being made about the worthiness of the novel in question). But in addition to making a specific argument, you are trying to recreate the experience of reading the book for a reader who may never read it; the reader is living vicariously through you, the reviewer. So you have to make the reader feel it, bring it alive, re-imagine or re-tell it, and that process might occupy half or more of the piece.

This re-description is essentially paraphrase – or even plot summary – and is explicitly discouraged in academic criticism, as not analytical enough. Few scholars writing, say, about War and Peace, would spend half of their book or essay telling the academic audience what is already taken for granted – i.e., what it’s like to read Tolstoy, what happens in the novel, and so on. Their audience would laugh at them, and consider them seriously naïve. And academic criticism is perhaps the poorer for that lack: I think paraphrase shouldn’t be avoided, just done better. After all, the very people who are avoiding such vicarious re-imagining on paper are often doing precisely that as teachers, in the classroom: in order to teach a novel, you must get your audience to learn to love it first. So you try to bring it alive in the classroom. Increasingly, I feel an instinctive connection between the pedagogical experience of teaching and the pedagogical experience of reviewing: it’s about bringing an audience along with you. It’s a shame that so many academics only address each other.

Relatedly, in the introduction to Serious Noticing, you appeal to Arnold Isenberg’s notion of “sameness of vision.” Although something about Isenberg’s view (and in particular, about this phrase) appeals to me, I confess I have some trouble with him, in part because I’m not sure if getting someone to see a text as I do see it amounts to convincing her that she should see it as I see it. Do you think the two are the same, and if not, which should take priority?

I think that’s a very interesting question, one that bears down upon interpretation generally. I like that phrase, too, and I take Isenberg to be saying that, in interpretation, we can’t definitively prove our propositions; we can simply lay out our stall, and try to persuade our audience that this is an appealing and plausible way of interpreting a text: as it were, the persuasion is the proof. But your question makes me suspect that most pedagogy (of the hermeneutic kind) just has to be rhetorically persuasive in this way; and makes me wonder if most pedagogy also proceeds on the implicit assumption that to get someone to see a text as I do is to be arguing at the same time that they ought to see it my way (that it would be better for them, that my reading is richer and deeper and more authoritative than their reading). Such assumptions can easily become oppressive of course, but it would be hard to see how you remove the “ought” from structurally authoritative reading, of the kind that the teacher or critic performs. Even in fields where there is less tolerance for free interpretation as such – say in philosophy or social studies or history – wouldn’t it be fair to say that someone writing about Hegel is trying to get you to see Hegel in the way that she reads Hegel, and is proceeding on the assumption that, as someone who has spent less time pondering Hegel than she has, it would be in your interest (philosophical certainly, ethical perhaps) to share her interpretation of Hegel? The “ought” is always there.

You’re known for being an enthusiastic quoter. What role do you think quotation plays or should play in good criticism?

I like what Stanley Cavell says is the critic’s job – to point at the thing and say, “do you see/hear/feel that?” The quoting is the pointing. Of course, it’s an essential element of the re-imagining or re-telling that brings the work alive: you plunge the reader into the text via quotation. But it’s also an essential part of making a rational argument. Indeed, I’d say that precisely because the critic’s task isn’t quite propositional – because we don’t deal in proofs – our rhetorical or persuasive argumentation has to be as scrupulously quote-heavy as the reader can bear. Just because there is wide latitude in what can be plausibly said about a text, doesn’t mean that the forms of rationality are suspended: on the contrary, we make arguments, and we adduce evidence (i.e., quotes) to support those arguments. That’s a rational procedure, if not the movement of a scientific argument beyond doubt.

There’s something more, perhaps, something almost ethical: I like the selflessness of quotation, the modesty, the absurdly beautiful, almost-tautological ideal that the work of criticism (as Walter Benjamin apparently dreamed) might be made up only of quotation and would thus just be the entire original text, written out word for word, or rather re-written word for word. We have that quasi-tautological experience sometimes, don’t we, when we are copying out a long quotation, and following the syntax of someone else’s prose like a car following a road. I suppose memorization is the same gesture: the move away from self toward someone else, the “humanism of the other.”

What about parodies of texts under review? (I love your Auster parody!) 

And parody is precisely this same faithful copying of the original text, this mimicry – but at the slightest sharp angle. Emphasis on faithful, though, rather than sharp: there are probably more admiring parodies in the world than derisive ones, certainly if you include all the works of art that loyally imitate great precursor works…

Do you think aesthetic judgments—“Bellow’s prose is beautiful,” “Nicole Krauss is moistly metaphorical”—and the like—are statements of fact? Expressions of opinion? Outbursts of feeling? All of these? None of these?

They can’t be statements of fact, but, yes, they are bursts of feeling; grades of feeling perhaps (with the intended pun on “grade”). Such outbursts are a bit of a weakness of mine, I know! (Along with exclamation marks, which I unfashionably adore.) But why would anyone read a novel or listen to music and then write without passion? Maybe these outbursts do something else, too: they charge the circuit with aesthetic significance. They announce to the reader that this is the sort of criticism that takes aesthetic evaluation seriously, and that therefore takes aesthetic success seriously, is properly open to the beautiful. That’s worth doing in its own right of course, but also because it marks off such criticism from academic or scholarly forms that are wary both of this kind of emoting and of aesthetic evaluation generally. Again, that lack in academic criticism seems to me melancholy. I think every professor of literature should stand in a classroom and announce (in effect): “My god, this is beautiful.” And yes, do it every year, anew.

To what extent do you think fiction should be evaluated politically? To what extent do you think fiction should be evaluated morally? (Are moral and political evaluation the same?) Does moral and political value ever, in your view, affect aesthetic value, and if so, how?

I was taught how to become a better reader at university by a wonderful deconstructionist; one of the assumptions of such reading is that works of great intentional beauty are also, to some extent, hapless works full of repressed or uncontrolled intention, of which one major hapless and uncontrolled part is a political unconscious. This kind of political unconscious might better be named ideological, in the classic sense that ideology is always trying to mask itself, and pass itself off as natural or even invisible. So in this sense, all texts are ideological, and all reading is ideological. I’ve found deconstruction very useful as a way of thinking about any text’s inevitable anxieties (texts being, like humans, anxious contraptions).

The problem is that just as all personal anxieties aren’t equal, so all political anxieties aren’t equal. Deconstruction has an annoying habit of insisting on that equivalence between different texts, so that all texts are read with, as it were, the same political torque (the so-called “hermeneutics of suspicion”). But there are times when one’s reading involves deliberately limiting or resisting the political. (Or at least, mine does – and fairly often.) Let’s say you’re examining how Jane Austen’s prose works; let’s say you are trying to figure out why Austen is often such a funny prose stylist. Such a reading could certainly become political, since comedy is also political, but it probably won’t begin like that, and the political wouldn’t be a strong priority in the way that it would if you were, say, trying to working out whether the marriages that end Austen’s novels are conservative and even reactionary settlements, or perhaps fantasies of radical mobility on the part of their bourgeois heroines – or both at once?…

In the same way, there are works of literature that seem to refuse or resist much obvious politics (off the top of my head: Knut Hamsun’s crazy novel, Hunger, for instance, or Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, or a beautiful lyric poem by Louise Glück) and works that are saturated in politics, that are deeply political from end to end (The Fire Next Time, for instance, or The Possessed). To insist that the first group’s refusal or resistance of politics is just political anyway, and is therefore just as political as the second group’s embrace of the political doesn’t seem helpful to me: the joy of reading and writing about literary texts is their almost ridiculous difference from each other. As Kent says in King Lear: “I’ll teach you differences.” (That play being a touchstone for me, as you can probably tell…)

In Serious Noticing, you write (in reference to Virginia Woolf’s criticism) that the “writer-critic … has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses.” I think this is likely true of all critics, since all critics are writers. Are there any critical essays that you think do a particularly good job of surpassing–or coming close to surpassing–the artworks under review? 

Well, I find Leskov’s tales quite hard to get into (I’ve tried a few times), yet Walter Benjamin’s beautiful essay “The Storyteller,” nominally about Leskov’s tales, is very beautiful, and so lapidary that is it easy to read. You unpack his gorgeous metaphors like little enigmatic tales all of themselves… You might say the same about Roland Barthes when he is writing about photographs in Camera Lucida. The photographs, most of them, are obscure; the text is immortal. But that’s also true when he takes one sentence and writes about it so well. And think of all those superb Elizabeth Hardwick essays about some now-forgotten biography of Gertrude Stein or Stephen Crane… almost wherever I look I see this kind of competitive proximity, with the critic quite often winning…

Notes on the Contributor
Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard and a contributor of criticism and essays to The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the TLS, and more. She has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s reviewing prize and a one-time finalist for a National Magazine Award. 

Edited by C. Thi Nguyen


  1. Absolutely enjoyable reading and thank you for posting this. Beautiful experiences in a long winter night

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