JAMES Wood is a literary critic to die for. Earnest, passionate, and erudite, Wood’s lucid, distinctive voice has cut a wide swathe through what often seem like the mutterings and tergiversations of contemporary literary discourse. Still in his thirties, this British expatriate is now the in-house critic at The New Republic and his first collection of essays, The Broken Estate, was published with the cultural imprimatur of The Modern Library.
Part of Wood’s appeal is that he blends the business of literary interpretation with the muscular assertions of a moralist—a rare combination these days. Less than a month after the events of 9/11, Wood wrote a short, scathing denunciation of contemporary American fiction, deriding the two dominant schools of writing—the postmodern zaniness of “hysterical realism,” with its weakness for pop culture and irony, and the misguided attempt to write the Great American Social Novel. “Both genres look a little busted,” he wrote. “That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not ‘how the world works’ but ‘how somebody felt about something.’” Of course, Wood’s moralism has earned him plenty of enemies. One critic claims that “in the garden of modern letters,” Wood “wields a chain saw,” and that “he sees books to be reviewed as waiting to be put out of their misery.”
But in The Broken Estate Wood goes beyond morality to invoke larger metaphysical justifications for his critical enterprise. In the final essay of the collection, Wood offers autobiographical clues about the sources of his convictions. He recounts a youth immersed in Christianity, in both the evangelical world of his family and church, and the more liturgical form he encountered as a chorister at Durham Cathedral, where he experienced the sonic and architectural splendor of Christian culture. Though he claims his was a happy childhood, not all was well with the young Wood. The overbearing evangelicalism of his parents “excited in me two childish responses: fear and slyness.” By the age of fifteen, he felt the need to tear himself away from belief in God and embrace a thoroughgoing atheism.
Left to itself, Wood’s account of his loss of faith is poignant but hardly original. It is in the introduction to The Broken Estate that Wood lays down a more provocative intellectual challenge. Explaining the title of the book, he argues that the “old estate,” which encompassed Western history from the advent of Christianity to the nineteenth century—differentiated the truth-claims of the Bible from those of fiction. The emergence of the realistic novel in the 1800s, Wood claims, did as much as Marx and Darwin to subvert the authority of religion. “At the high point of the novel’s triumph, the Gospels began to be read, by both writers and theologians, as a set of fictional tales—as a kind of novel. Simultaneously, fiction became an almost religious activity.”
Wood argues that the break with the old estate has led to a terrible cultural impoverishment. Religion becomes either “comforting poetry” or “empty moralism” while fiction, burdened by the need to supplant religion, falls into aestheticism.
It is a compelling insight. But the irony here is that Wood, who in one of the essays in this collection castigates T.S. Eliot as an anti-Semite and religious fundamentalist, bases his book on a supremely Eliotic point, a reworded version of the poet’s famous “dissociation of sensibility” argument.
Moreover, it isn’t clear whether Wood really believes that the broken estate should be mended. The glory of fiction, he writes, is that it doesn’t compel belief. Because its depiction of reality is always bracketed by the “as if” and “not quite,” fiction merely requests our belief. In the end, the reality portrayed in fiction can only be validated by its readers: “fiction is proved by what it discloses, and is thus always a running test case of itself.”
Over against fiction Wood places religion, which stands or falls on its absolute truth claims. “Once religion is revealed to you, you are never free.” But instead of stepping forward as an atheist and attacking believers outright, Wood pays a sort of backhanded tribute to those who accept the “logical claustrophobia” of Christianity, and mourns the cultural vacuum created by the advent of secularism.
Wood seems to content himself with the twofold task of celebrating the great writers who “move between the religious impulse and the novelistic impulse” and “draw on both,” such as Melville, Flaubert, Joyce, and Woolf, and denouncing those writers who fail to do so.
Such a critical program is noble in its way—his essays are filled with brilliant readings and epigrammatic wisdom—but it seems oddly lacking in ambition after Wood has raised so many urgent cosmological issues. One reason for this loss of nerve may be that his distinction between fiction and religion is muddled. In A Palpable God the novelist Reynolds Price agrees with Wood that fiction requests that we suspend our disbelief. But Price goes on to note that scripture simply tells the story, leaving it for us to believe or not.
By always speaking of “religion” rather than “faith,” Wood’s diction plays on modern suspicion of institutional religion, which sees belief in terms of coercion and enslavement. Unfortunately, he dances away from the fact that for many of us faith is also “proved by what it discloses.” To say this is not to collapse faith and fiction into a single category, but to say that they are analogous. The difference lies in what they ask us to believe. Faith, which always comes accompanied by doubt, embodies the freedom of trust. But faith remains a “test case” throughout one’s life.
For a growing number of writers and artists, the need to distinguish between the novelistic impulse and the religious impulse has taken on new meaning. They, too, draw on both, give both their due, and thus mend the broken estate.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.