‘Demands to be read’ – The Fun Stuff by James Wood

tfsjwI first encountered the now seemingly inescapable James Wood a couple of years back, stumbling upon one of the essays in this collection while researching my own piece of work on Cormac McCarthy. Discussing McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road, Wood at first offers some faint praise of the style and prose, before going on to berate McCarthy almost incessantly for not following the same line of theodicy that he himself would have. I hated this essay. There was something so smug and ugly about it. Who was this Wood guy to be telling McCarthy, one of the greatest writers of all time, what he should do with his greatest work? I decided to review The Fun Stuff to see if Wood was quite so egotistical in everything he wrote, and, maybe, to enact my own tiny slice of revenge on a critic who badmouthed my favourite novel.

Unfortunately, Wood isn’t going to let me get away with that quite so easily. Although at times, and I’m thinking in particular of the McCarthy essay and an equally troubling display of anger towards Paul Auster, Wood does appear on the page as a bristling ego, upset at authors for not doing what he wants when he wants it, he does actually, at times, blow your mind a little, too.

This collection is bookmarked by two fascinating essays, on quite unique subjects in the world of literary criticism. In the opener, ‘The Fun Stuff’, Wood discusses what he sees as the wonder of Keith Moon, drummer with rock legends The Who. It’s a surprising choice of subject matter for a man who usually writes on contemporary literature, or the classics, such as Orwell, Tolstoy, Hardy and Alter. But when he writes about Moon’s skills as a drummer, at one point comparing his enjambment to ‘an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to; a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong’ it is difficult not to get swept away in the passion of Wood’s  words. Whether a fan of The Who or not, by the end of this almost lust-fuelled essay, you want to sit and listen to them, to tap your feet to the drums. It’s fantastic to see Wood write with such heartfelt care and admiration. It’s a shame that rarely shows up in his literary considerations.

The final essay also takes us away from straightforward literary criticism. Instead, we witness an introverted account of the task of clearing out his late father-in-law’s library. As an owner of over four-thousand books, the recently deceased relative was somewhat of an obsessive collector. Rather than this essay descending into the discussion of grief that one may have imagined, we instead end up considering what a person’s possessions, particularly books, say about them. It is a measured and interesting discussion, which actually made me, a self confessed hoarder of every book I ever read, wonder exactly why I keep them all.

There are a few other highlights, too. His essay on Aleksander Hemon made me want to go out and discover everything I could about the author. The pieces on Orwell and Ian McEwan were original, thought-provoking, and, in many ways, correct. Unfortunately, though, Wood does too often fall into drab repetition of old arguments on writers such as Hardy, Ishiguro, and Sebald, almost as though his reputation is now such that he need not make the effort to say anything new.

Any Cop?: When he lets his passionate side show, the prose styling, and the long rushing sentences of Wood make him a difficult critic to ignore. However, he seems to prefer to write about the things he disdains, and when he does this, he can seem smug and self-important. He does almost demand to be read though, whether it is to mock his mini rants against our favourite authors, or marvel at his magnificent talent when he gets it right. It’s strange that a book by one man can have work so fantastic alongside some that is only maddening.

Fran Slater


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