James Wood Named Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature

Harvard English professor James Wood joined a list that includes writers Samuel T. Coleridge, William B. Yeats, and J. K. Rowling when he was designated a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature last week.

Since 1820, the Royal Society of Literature has conferred its fellowship—which includes access to the society’s building in London and the post-nominal honorary letters FRSL—on luminaries in the field of writing and literary criticism.

Wood, who teaches the popular lecture course “Postwar American and British Fiction” and perennially oversubscribed seminars, was elected a fellow alongside several others, including feminist critic Elaine Showalter and decorated novelist Margaret Atwood.

When the new fellows are sworn in, according to the Royal Society of Literature’s website, they sign a book using either Lord Byron’s quill or Charles Dickens’ pen.

In addition to his post at Harvard, Wood writes about contemporary fiction for The New Yorker.

“I was delighted,” Wood wrote in an email about his recognition, “not least because I thought it might finally please my 84-year-old mother, for whom reviews and teaching jobs in far-away lands have little significance, whereas the old, bourgeois lure of letters after one’s name—well, that’s tangible!”

Wood’s colleagues and students cited his talent as a teacher and literary critic as reasons for his election.

English department Chair W. James Simpson wrote in an email, “James Wood is one of the Anglo American world’s foremost critics of contemporary fiction. The English Department is privileged to have James teaching our concentrators, and applauds his election to the Royal Society of Literature.”

Samantha J. Gridley ’12, an English concentrator, said that Wood is “personable, engaging, and so brilliant.”

She described Wood’s courses as “less like having a class and more like sitting down for coffee—without the coffee—with a brilliant mind.”

Describing Wood’s seminar “Consciousness in Fiction” as “unlike any English class,” Simone X. Zhang ’12 said that Wood’s practice of asking students what they found most striking in a text made the course resemble a book club more than a University class, as Wood liked to joke.

Gridley and Zhang both praised Wood’s ability to spark insightful discussion based on short literary passages.

Wood would “pick out the most minute excerpts and make you leave class thinking ‘wow,’” Gridley said. “He really wanted us to fall in love with the novels.”

—Staff writer Marina N. Bolotnikova can be reached at mbolotnikova@college.harvard.edu.

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