The Critical View

New professor hopes to bring fresh perspective to English department

What Would Wood Do?
Elan A. Greenwald

James Wood brings a new approach to the English department.

Trash Salman Rushdie or John Updike, and you might make a name for yourself as a literary critic. Some reviewers rely on vitriol to buoy their reputations and lose readers, but those who criticize with purpose and insight often gain a reputation as a savvy critic.

That’s what some say James Wood, critic for The New Republic and formerly the Guardian, has done. Now, as a visiting lecturer in English and American Language and Literature, he wants to bring this undaunted approach to Harvard classrooms.

Wood follows a precedent for literary celebrity that comes through reviewing rather than writing fiction. Known for his thorough analysis and his unwavering stance in the face of greats (Pynchon, DeLillo and Updike have all felt the brunt of his pen), Wood, 37, has been called the last “true” critic. He himself agrees that broader, contextualized criticism—which not only evaluates literature but espouses a theory of art—is less prevalent in these times. The English department, then, has snatched up one of a dying breed.

“It is dying out,” Wood says, “and a lot has to do with the rise of English studies—which isn’t to blame the [universities], of course.” Wood doesn’t ascribe to the “anti-intellectual schtick” of writers like Gore Vidal or Saul Bellow—he sees his year-long guest lectureship at Harvard as a chance to broaden the horizons of many undergraduates.

“I want to bring some of the literary world into the classroom,” Wood says, “and I think that might have been part of the English department’s idea in hiring me.” His fall course, English 90lv, “Consciousness from Austen to Woolf,” explores ways in which novelists represent thought. Originally intended for 15 students, the class was more than doubled to 35 when over 70 people came to the first meeting.

“I don’t like turning people away,” Wood says. “I don’t quite understand the capping thing.”

So far he says size hasn’t hindered the class, even though it is a discussion-based seminar.

Wood’s aim in teaching the class, as well as next semester’s course on postwar American and British fiction, is to present what he calls a “writer’s criticism,” which he differentiates from a scholar’s literary analysis.

“Writers read books for aesthetic success—it’s intensely important to them whether something works or not, whether it’s good or not.” Wood concedes that this approach may seem unusual to students unaccustomed to criticizing “high” literature.

“It encourages students to do what they’re least confident in doing,” he says, “which is making aesthetic judgments.” Wood notes that it is something that he himself was uncomfortable doing at the age of 20.

“I wasn’t sure why something was necessarily working or why it wasn’t.”

Critical Horizons

Wood’s criticism is different from most of this age, and that’s mostly a result of its intent. Rather than simply praising or condemning a novel, he wants to go further—to see what the novel says about us and life in general.

“The novel exists to be affecting,” he says. Accordingly, the ability to criticize aesthetics is important, for it acknowledges this intent.

When a reader approaches a novel through a critical lens “we’re also honoring the novel’s difference from other discourses and other modes of knowing.” To put down Lolita and simply like it is not good enough.

“What works well; why is this moving me?” Wood asks. “The novel exists to move us, to shake us profoundly. When we’re rigorous about feeling, we’re honoring that.”