Fight! In the English Department!
But English department newbie James Wood, who The Washington Times considers “the most incisive literary critic of our time,” can prove that friendship is possible even after giving a negative review.
In a New Republic critique of Zadie Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man, Wood scathingly noted that the novel felt like “a newspaper designed by a kindergartner.” A year later, in the fall of 2003, he took a lecturing job in the same department where Smith was employed. “We were both quite nervous about meeting each other,” Wood explains, adding that he usually avoids meeting the authors he disparages. But the two “got on very well” and were quick to find that they had “lots of areas of agreement in literary matters,” Wood says. One of these agreements proved to be over The Autograph Man itself—in a recent interview with London’s Time Out, Smith doled out some criticism of her own work, commenting that her novel “comes off phony” and that “to write it was not fun at all.”
Wood’s disapproval of the book is part of his rejection of what he has called “hysterical realism,” a form that skirts character development in favor of a plot that “privileges...the fantastic, the paranoid,” he says. To Wood’s delight, though, Smith has since sent him excerpts—since the two are, after all, friends now—of her newest novel, On Beauty, due out in September. Wood notes that Smith seems to have reverted to her comedic roots in the new novel and hints that it may be set at Harvard. “I liked it very much,” he says, although he has only read a couple of pages.
Let’s hope the friendship lasts after he reads the rest.