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James Wood: The Fun Stuff And Other Essays (Jonathan Cape)

Among the many things we're told may be doomed because of the internet is the art of criticism.

Who needs professional critics when any Tom, Dick or Harriet can disseminate their opinions, whether half-baked or over-cooked, to countless fellow insomniacs around the globe?

There is, of course, a chasmic difference between what the likes of James Wood do and those whose response to a serious work of literature is Pavlovian at best. Wood, our own Brian Morton is quoted as saying the jacket of The Fun Stuff, a collection of 23 essays, is one the few critics who will be read 50 years hence. But by whom? Not by Brian or me who, most actuaries would agree, will not be around to appreciate him.

Criticism has ever been art's Cinderella discipline and this is increasingly the case in this timorous, touchy-feely age. Among those whom Wood singles out for punitive treatment is Edmund Wilson, who in the 1930s and 1940s bestrode American letters with Caesarean confidence, as keen to rattle the cages of friends such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Nabokov as he was to champion Pushkin and Marx.

Like Wilson, Wood is steely. Unlike him, however, he cannot read Russian. Nor, one suspects, do female authors throw themselves at him in the hope of getting a positive review, as Anais Nin did with Wilson. The more he knows about a subject, Wood writes, the less "helpful" he finds Wilson, as, say, is the case with Chekhov. Wood reckons his predecessor at The New Yorker is similarly wanting on Kipling. By and large, he seems to prefer almost any other literary critic – be it VS Pritchett, William Empson, Lionel Trilling or Randall Jarrell – to the man this reviewer has always found diverting and illuminating.

Wood's reputation is that of an iconoclast, which is unfair. When he is at his best, which is often here, it is as a close reader. Some may dismiss this as nitpicking but it is hard to think of a great work of literature that is stuffed with cliches, bad sentences, repetition and unmemorable metaphors. Wood, for example, is no fan of Paul Auster, of whom he offers a parody, which is one of his trademarks. Reviewing Auster's novel Invisible, he concedes it has charm and vitality "in places" but is unimpressed overall. Auster, he adds, "does nothing with cliche except use it". Moreover, his sentences are "thickly lacquered with laziness" and he scatters hints "like mouse-droppings".

Tough as Wood can be – and should be – there is no malice in him, or none that I can detect. Rather he takes literature seriously, as he ought if we are to believe in its potency. Another totem he targets is Alan Hollinghurst, of whom he has approved in the past. But he is not impressed by his most recent novel, The Stranger's Child, which for all its ambition he dismisses as "a frustrating book, both a large and a curiously small novel". Worse, though, is Hollinghurst's bad habit of "pinning tidy little tails onto his characters' exclamations", of which he provides a number of examples. Then there is his repeated use of words such as "narrowly", "levelly" and "muddle" which cannot be deliberate and which must strike attentive readers as slipshod.

But Wood is not always censorious. Indeed, one is struck by how often he is enthusiastic. Among the essays included here are warm and perceptive and insightful appreciations of Thomas Hardy, whose work has scores of great metaphors ("a flowing stipend of brilliance"), and Tolstoy's War And Peace, though Wood's unfamiliarity with Russian reduces him to speculation ("This sounds like good English -"). Nor does he restrict himself to praise for the dead. Among the contemporary writers he sanctions are Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Geoff Dyer, Lydia Davis, Joseph O'Neill and Ian McEwan.

Of late the last-mentioned has divided opinion, McEwan's detractors finding it difficult to suspend disbelief or regard as plausible certain twists in his plots. This is not worrisome to Wood who talks of the "diabolical success" of Atonement, agreeing with Martin Amis that its opening section is McEwan's "best piece of writing". It is as close as Woods gets to gushing and one forgives him, knowing how much harder it is to convey pleasure than to stick in the boot.

The Fun Stuff opens and closes with two personal essays. The first, which gives the book its title, is subtitled Homage To Keith Moon, The Who's drummer, now deceased, whose high-octane style, Wood insists, "is a lucky combination of the artful and artless". I shall take his word for it. Much more to my taste was the final, well-judged and candid essay in which he describes helping to pack up his father-in-law's library which, he says, was not a working library, like that owned by Susan Sontag or Edmund Wilson (or himself), but "an underemployed collection for a working mind". In short, the kind of library in which a book such as this would happily sit.

The Fun Stuff And Other Essays

James Wood, Jonathan Cape, £18.99

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