AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

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JAMES WOOD ON HOW CRITICISM WORKS

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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.

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Aesthetics for Distant Birds, Workshop #4: “Fiction and Criticism” [FULL VIDEO]

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Aesthetics for Distant Birds:
An Online Workshop Series
Fourth Meeting – “Fiction and Criticism”

Co-organizers: Aaron Meskin, Jonathan Neufeld, Thi Nguyen, and Alex King (that’s me) Continue reading


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WHAT MAKES KAFKA PHILOSOPHICAL?

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What follows is a guest post by Espen Hammer on his recent edited volume Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives.

When reading works of literature, philosophers often look for very general assertions of a quasi-theoretical nature. Thus, Camus’s The Stranger – to pick an obvious example  ̶  is supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of human existence. Or, if that doesn’t satisfy them, they typically start discussing entirely abstract questions of meaning, representation, and reference – of interest to academics steeped in Frege, Russell, and Davidson yet devoid of any concrete relation to actual texts of literary significance.

Kafka, however, on which a recent edited volume of mine entitled Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives (OUP, 2018) focuses, is peculiar in that his texts so vigorously seem to resist such general accounts. To be sure, many philosophers have tried to see in Kafka a kind of visionary thinker either of human existence as such or under specific circumstances, in particular those of modernity. Classical accounts of The Trial have focused on theology (“this is what the human condition looks like without God”), psychoanalysis (“this is what guilt and paranoia looks like”), and sociology (“this is the fate of the individual in a society integrated through anonymous, bureaucratic measures”). The list, of course, could be made very long. Note, though, that all the suggested interpretive keys stand in danger of violating our sense of Kafka’s mystery and ineffability. They all do what philosophers too often do: they reduce the text to a unified set of graspable, general meanings. Continue reading