Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Taylor Lannamann, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed James Wood about his book The Nearest Thing to Life (Brandeis University Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Taylor Lannamann: In The Nearest Thing to Life, you consider how the majority of our meaning-making seems to take place in retrospect. When you left Britain for the United States, for instance, you had no intention of staying away for over eighteen years. You write about how your departure from home consequently felt momentous only in recollection. Is literature—like life—naturally backward-looking in this way?
James Wood: As one gets older, so one’s life begins to develop a sense of form: suddenly, one can look back at a specific choice (for instance, in my case choosing, many years ago, to come to America and not stay in England), and see that what seemed relatively unimportant then, now seems momentous. After all, something else would have happened. And perhaps it was not much of a choice anyway; most of our choices aren’t really such things. Life is mysterious, because it gets made around us, even as we fetishize our freedom. Literature, I think, enables us to discover a clarity about the unfreedom of other people—fictional characters—which we struggle to have about our own, actual unfreedom. So we become a little freer, just in the contemplation of these fictional choices and mistakes.
TL: You write that “to notice is to rescue, to redeem; to save life from itself.” How do you think a writer can do justice to those rare details that appear resistant to description? Have you ever encountered something so delicate or sacrosanct that to write about it would be to diminish it?
JW: This is a question that truly absorbs me. Perhaps everything should, ideally, be somewhat “resistant to description”? (This seems to be the conclusion of Maurice Blanchot, whose work I love.) I don’t think that there is anything, in principle, so delicate that to write about it would be to diminish it. But I do like writers who seem to register, in their language, that words fail us. (A reason I have been so hard on Updike, over the years, is because I dislike the metaphysics of his always-available style: the implication that words are always on hand to do the job of plush description.) It’s not hard to see where I get this prejudice from: I grew up amidst music and theology. In different ways, both music and theology are involved in non-representation. Music is a language, but it doesn’t refer to meaning, so that one always feels that something is escaping it, semantically; and theology (or at least, the kind I like) is continually trying to find approximate descriptions of the ineffable.
TL: A fantastic moment in The Nearest Thing to Life comes when you describe an influential book you found on a discount table in Waterloo Station: Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction. You were fifteen and, it seems, eager to understand how one writes about writing. The Nearest Thing to Life is an artful display of your own literary conception, an approach that prizes “writing through” a book rather than simply analyzing it. What else, other than reading Novels and Novelists, helped you perfect your craft as a literary critic?
JW: That was a wonderful book! But it was mainly useful as a kind of force-feeder, cramming me full of names and titles that were only vague reputations to me, at the time. I learned to write about books by reading other people on books: as a teenager, I loved reading Orwell, and Woolf, and all the book reviews I came across in magazines and newspapers. Perhaps the biggest influence on me was the superb English short story writer and critic, V.S. Pritchett, who wrote for The New Statesman and The New York Review of Books between the 1950s and the 1980s. His Collected Essays (it’s over 1000 pages long) should be read by anyone trying to write about fiction for a general audience. Pritchett never even went to university, left school at 17, but in his life he wrote brilliantly about almost every single great writer in the Russian, English, French, and Spanish novelistic tradition. (And read French and Spanish fluently.) That’s range for you.
TL: You say in the book that “a story is story-producing.” How might a robust literary conversation reach beyond the small worlds of academia, publishing, and artistry so that stories can generate and regenerate in new contexts? In this regard, do you see contemporary criticism as engaging in an act of dissemination or an act of demarcation?
JW: Well, it must be both, and I’m certainly much more interested in dissemination than demarcation: “gatekeeper critic” seems to me one of the more horrid phrases. But I’m not sure that the worlds you describe are as small as all that; and because they don’t strike me as especially small, so I don’t feel a great need to expand them. Saul Bellow always used to say, when people asked him about how readers should follow all the difficult intellectual references in his work: “let them catch up.” That’s surely how we all learned to read—by catching up; it’s how I pored over that Novels and Novelists when I was fifteen, looking at all the titles of books I’d never read; and it’s how others are learning to read now. It’s not a huge world (say, compared to TV, or rock music), but it’s not a tiny one either.
TL: The inclusion of various autobiographical moments throughout The Nearest Thing to Life deeply enriches the book’s analytical concerns. As you write about literature, do you find that your life emerges naturally on the page?
JW: That’s very nice of you to say! Actually, I naturally suppress a fair amount of myself on the page, partly because I grew up in a tradition suspicious of self-display: ‘going on about oneself’ was considered somehow ‘selfish’ or narcissistic. So I tend to keep myself out of most of what I write, preferring instead the way that criticism (or philosophy, to take another example) enacts a kind of implied autobiography: the steady revelation of a sensibility, a set of emphases and prejudices. But in this case, it felt natural to talk about my childhood, partly because so often I was writing about the passing of time; or about how one senses that life has a form; or about loss and death (the book was written while my mother way dying, and is dedicated to her—she appears in the last chapter, in the back of Durham Cathedral, waiting to take me to tea).
TL: Early in the book, you wonderfully consider the relationship between fictional characters and their readers:
Reading fiction feels radically private because so often we seem to be stealing the failed privacies of fictional characters. For sure, Shakespeare anticipates and contains all of the unruly life to be found in the modern novel. But Shakespearean soliloquy is uttered privacy (which has its roots in prayer, and ultimately in the psalms), while fictional stream of consciousness is, or tries to resemble, unvoiced soliloquy. And unvoiced soliloquy seems to meet our own unfinished thoughts, with the request that together we—the reader and the fictional character—complete, voice, a new ensemble. Their failed privacies become our more successful privacies.
If the writer fails to craft a character—or an instance of stream of consciousness—that mingles with the reader’s own “privacies,” then does the act of reading become voyeuristic? In order to forge “a new ensemble” between character and reader, does the author have to—in some way or another—leave a sense of incompletion in his or her creations?
JW: You’ve again put your finger, unerringly, on a topic that really obsesses me: I wish I could properly explain the weird magic, the alchemy, that is fictional vitality. Why is it that some fictional worlds just seem credible and alive, after only a few pages, and others don’t? Why do some characters genuinely interest us—interest us enough to become solidly other—and others remain dead and flat? Is it just a matter of authorial skill, or technique? Probably not. Sometimes, as say in reading D.H. Lawrence, it’s because we find that the novelist himself is the most compelling character; that he or she is in some way magnificently alive. But in general I think you are right, that in order for us to do some of the crucial construction of that character, the words have to be both very alive and somewhat incomplete—so that there is room for readerly activity, readerly contribution. I suppose this is why I am so drawn to moments of quiet subtlety in fiction (in people like Chekhov, Henry Green, Penelope Fitzgerald); I like those moments when writers are very tactful, very respectful of the reader, and presume a great deal of freedom on our part. Such writers seem almost to turn away from us, slightly—to say, in effect: “I don’t care whether you quite understand this yet. But in time, you will.”