News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Review of The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood, 1999. Wood's writing has improved markedly since this collection in which he takes his subject too seriously, overburdens everything with jargon, and fails to clearly expound ideas in a sort of hysterical effort to be concise, be a rolling stone, and be chemically pure.

Wood grew up in an English evangelical family and took his religion seriously until becoming an atheist early in his teens. This and Britain's curious fetish with moral this and moral that leads an earnest moron at the Boston Globe to ask him in a recent interview, In what sense can such novels as Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" and Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" be said to be morally lacking? The article leads with: DESCRIBED BY ONE fellow litterateur as a critic of "extreme ethical rigor," The New Republic's James Wood, a 39-year-old Briton currently teaching at Harvard, has made a name for himself…

A much better interview is here.

If I ever get published as a critic, I'm going to make a point of skewering the parrots and sycophants who elbow their way onto book covers with fabulous encomiums to distinguished literary bunglers.

John Danville of the Irish Times makes James Wood out to be, "a close reader of genius... illuminating and exciting and compelling... one never doubts the soundness of his judgments..." I might agree if only I could understand Wood’s tangled verbiage and figure out what he’s trying to say. This literary critic proves incapable of writing an intelligible paragraph over the course of more than 300 pages.

No I didn't read them all. Call it an educated guess.

Susan Sontag informs us, "He is one of literature's true lovers, and his deeply felt, contentious essays are thrilling in their reach and moral seriousness." Are they contentious? How can anyone tell? And what is moral seriousness?

The encomiums go dizzily on and on. He's "magnificent... a storyteller of the act of reading, recreating the experience on the page for us." Note the dubiousness of that sentence. Is it likely that a genuinely good critic really reads and interprets a story in the same manner as yer average novel-devouring toilet-reader?

Having plowed through the first several chapters of this monster several years ago and suffered terribly in the process, I opted to look at a later chapter, picking one at random, so as to be clear of my former prejudices. I ended up with his chapter Iris Murdoch's Philosophy of Fiction.

Poring through it reminds me of reading an article of shoddily written Mandarin at the learning stage when your reading and critical skills are still not quite up to par. Read quickly, the stuff sounds sort of okay, but on closer examination it gets murkier and murkier, especially as you slow right down and start asking nosy questions. Take the very first two sentences: "English fiction since the war has been a house of good intentions. Inside are thick theories and slender fulfillments." A house of good intentions? Thick, thin? Uggh...

The sixth sentence reads: "Thus Angus Wilson possessed a serious liberal politics, and an ethical respect for the individual, which illuminates his criticism of the novel; that he never really created a single character of free and serious depth."

What the...?

I took to writing several years ago presuming that intelligibility is one of basic aims of good writing. But it ain't necessarily so. As an author, there's a constant temptation to distinguish oneself from the sweating proletariat via short cuts, to soar high above wrapped in the sacred mantle of the artiste.

I gave into this temptation meself, rationalizing the whole inglorious episode, just after I started out. Like James Wood, I cobbled together the same sort of mystic, multi-layered, fuzzy-wuzzy, doggerel poetry stuff. I'd write a sentence and then rewrite it and edit it, plume it up, chop it down, finesse and massage it and otherwise constantly build it up and break it down, refurbishing all the time. Rereading a sentence too many times, the initial sense and emotions it pricked fade to dull or non-existent. So you 'improve' it by replacing the old with a new, fresher metaphor or a more pungent, less clichéd usage.

But do this several times over and you radically depart from the intended meaning of the sentence. By cannibalizing the original, cutting it up and grafting on new embellishments, you end up with Franken-sentence after Franken-sentence without realizing that you're several layers removed from the meaning of the original sentence. A couple of weeks later, even you the author don't know what you originally meant and are now at a complete loss as to what your gang of Franken-sentences mean as well. Of course, if you can’t read it, nobody else can. This ought to be a recipe for failure. It was for me. But James Wood has built a reputation for "extreme ethical rigor" on the back of these Franken-sentences.

In reworking sentences I had aimed to squeeze as much content as possible into each one and thus reduce each to a sort of verbal essence and thus up their value. But I ended up cramming too much into too little space, with the result that I deleted parts of logic trains (rendering sentences confusing to nonsensical) and references (rendering sentences wooly to incomprehensible) all in the name of condensing meaning and achieving some sort of novel literary efficiency. James Wood was at the same game of trying too hard to make each sentence count. The way this thinking goes, if a sentence does not contain an original thought, then it must contain some sort of gimmick. If bereft of a Penetrating Opinion!, then you must work up a play on words, infiltrate some wild alternative vernacular, adorn the scheme with some fabulous neologism.

Cliché and pedestrian English had to be rooted out. But in so doing, I invented a pointless new language, for no one could understand it; not even me. Silly stuff.

In this collection, Wood does a job of hashing the English language that's far more professional and expert than my own amateurish fumbling. He's raised it to a high amperage indeed and thus it is downright persuasive to the undiscriminating, unseeing reader and yet, at the end of the day, no less, and perhaps even more, impenetrable than mine. Someone must have congratulated him on this stuff. For instead of realizing that his writing was going down a blind alley, he kept at it prodigiously, muscularly (to use an adjective from the dreadful jacket) even, gaily carrying it further and further into oblivion. For the job he diligently memorized all sorts of worthless jargon and other tools of the trade, while no doubt noticing that obscure diction also serves a useful functions as a fear-inspiring weapon that implies imprimatur to those lacking confidence in their literacy. Personally, if I met him, I wouldn't hesitate to incommode him and shut down his delivery with an endless succession of "Excuse me. Ahem, eh, excuse me? Eh, what does that word mean please?"

By resorting to alien five-dollar words, the author heads out of the realm of the familiar, and the reader has less and less of a purchase on what the impatient author is trying to get across. An obsession with the use of impressive Cadillac sized words is a pathology common to young writers and whose reductio ad absurdum would be sneaking Classical Greek into a romance novel for housewives. Now, imagine the old dolls nervously applauding and even vying for the sophisto's attention, and you have the essence of the timid literary claque that brays in high praise for Mr. Wood.

While we're on the subject, clichés are, in fact, not to be avoided like the plague. They have a great utility in sarcasm. You can appeal intelligibly to two or more groups of people at the same time; those who recognize sarcasm, those who do not. Done deftly, i.e. stating a fact with two plausible interpretations in the context, the effects can be very rewarding as the first rank of authors from Shakespeare onward has noted.

An example of what I mean by a defective description is in a sentence where he says "And Iris Murdoch has written repeatedly that the very definition of the great novel is the free and realized life it gives to its characters, while making her own fictional characters as unfree as pampered convicts."
The bit about pampered convicts works reasonably well, whereas free and realized life is incomprehensible.

More lunacy on the following pages: "Murdoch's inspiring, embarrassed hospitality to sublimity, her philosophical seriousness, and her free travel through literatures... the fabric of her worldview ever since... Murdoch has an appealing, though formidable, metaphysics - appealing because vulnerable - which might be called daylight mysticism. It is a pudding of Plato, Kant and Weil. Looking around her, she feels summoned to believe that..."

Pudding? Fabric of her worldview? Worldviews have fabrics? She feels summoned to believe? Who's doing the summoning?

And my favorite: "Murdoch's hungry metaphysics can perhaps survive on the alms of assertion, but her aesthetics cannot."

That sort of nonsensical metaphor and inadvertent comedy is beloved of Christopher Hitchens as well. Maybe it's an English disease, which means it's destined to invade North American shores soon. The tossing out of random sesquipedalian diction (i.e. $5 words) may be good for impressing impressionable students and may offer paramours an excuse to pretend to be impressed, but it seldom hits home with paying customers. Twain said something to the effect of, "the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between a bolt of lightning and a lightning bug." Wood's work is definitely buggy.

Reading James Wood helps make it more clear to me why most writers find writing to be so painful. Writing requires thinking and these people simply can't think.

On page 179 I finally find the first half of a paragraph to be intelligible, "Instead, Murdoch's aesthetics have a strange, quasi-philosophical circularity. At the beginning of 'The Sublime and the Good,' she takes issue with Tolstoy's idea that we should first fix our aesthetics and then, in the light of that theory, choose the artworks which fit it." But it proves to be a false hope and quickly devolves into "Murdoch promises to make her aesthetics provisional - but provisional on an aesthetic certainty secured without the help of aesthetics."
However, when he expresses himself clearly, i.e. goes off-color and doffs the plumage, it's only to find him stating something palpably wrong. Murdoch apparently suggested that the appreciation of Shakespeare should begin with enjoying Shakespeare and then explaining why one enjoys him; as opposed to setting up a body of aesthetics standards and finding artists who adhere to them and then lauding them for it.

The thing runs like this: "She goes on; 'So let us start by saying that Shakespeare is the greatest of all artists, and let our aesthetics grow to be the philosophical justification of his judgments.' But this is illogical. If one simply knows 'independently' that Shakespeare is great (though Murdoch never tells us whence comes this independence: nor can she, of course), that one cannot test one's aesthetic by recourse to Shakespeare."

If Murdoch does not tell us whence, wherefore, or where from comes this independence, I perchance and perforce would be happy to: we all grow up with a body of standards, including standards for aesthetics. Our sense of humor derives from our parents, our schooling, and our friends. The same goes for clothing, wit, story telling, and so forth. Already having these aesthetic standards enables us to make judgments. So this is how Murdoch knows independently that Shakespeare is great. And, actually, she's not independent: she's hardwired into her own national culture and is thereby confident in making her assessments because she presumes that other people, sharing the same culture, will agree with her.

So wazzup with Murdoch's use of clear and intelligible English? Perhaps his murky English is a sort of camouflage for an absence of ideas on his part. But, to be honest, I don't even think he's dumb, just deluded. I suspect that he's not a mediocrity by nature, but by unfortunate design.
Most of this book is hapless rhetorical flourishes which appeal to the bogus sensibilities of James Wood and his readers apparently, neither of whom stresses precision or logic. Perhaps it's another version of the ivory tower syndrome: a lack of experience with the real world usually results in users for whom words don't have to mean anything. Indeed words can mean anything since, without experience, one can't understand, describe, analyze, or understand the world and its events, let alone its writers and writing. In lieu of a demand for precision, we get bad poetry and indecipherable blank verse.

When I wrote a less erudite version of this high-sounding fluff myself, I couldn't decipher my own writing two weeks after putting it down on paper. It was as unintelligible to me as Wood's essay collection must be to any honest reader. The reason for engaging in this awful stuff was that I did not have sufficient references at my disposal to write decent, entertaining, provocative material. I could think, but only in the conversational framework. With conversation, you don't have to structure material to very rigid confines as you to have to do with an essay. An essay must start from one point, proceed down a rather narrow corridor to its end. Until you've written essays, this may not be apparent. With conversation, you can go anywhere. You can jump back and forth, in and out, etc. So, when you first start writing essays, it's difficult on the one hand to adhere to discipline that you never it here to before. Secondly, you can't bring up and refer to opinions that you formerly developed, because you have yet to develop them. And yet you have a deathly fear of writing cliché and repeating the already written. The Broken Estate is James Wood's first book. As such, I suppose I should commend him on fooling so many of his peers into believing that he actually wrote something of substance. The book is bogus, and a sort of testament to the credulity and pack mentality of most writers and critics.

As such, this book serves as an excellent antidote to the urban legend that writers and poets are ladies and gentlemen of ideas; elevated spirits and seers with a grander vision of society. It's hard lines but unluckily true that most writers and poets are posers, regurgitators, and borrowers, when not outright purloiners. The fact that this book could win such acclaim and that this king of bosh can still get his bosh published in the London Review of Bosh is a testament to the hollowness of a field pioneered by a set of ingenious French quacks such as Sartre, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault. It's a further refutation of the Chomsky and Marx conspiracy theories, by the way, as it demonstrates that the cream of the intelligentsia is no more intelligent than so many talking horses.

I should include myself in this indictment. After all, I've not tried to get published again this year is because my own shortcomings are evident. I keep writing essays regularly in part because I need to enrich my background knowledge, facility with common points of reference (useful cliches, turns of phrase, arch useage, etc.) and so forth upward until I achieve a sort of critical mass after which I will feel confident about going to magazines with articles. As things stand, I'm too much the corn-fed ignoramous.

What got me away from the bosh style of books was the fact my books were rejected time and time again. Deservedly so. Is James Wood published because his professional background appeals to publishers? Simon Winchester got himself published immediately by virtue of being a prominent reporter, as he admits in this quite entertaining interview (he's a better raconteur than writer by far), and then carried on solidly for the next 25 years writing books that never sold (his first book sold 13 copies and he only started making money from books when he reached his fifties). James Wood is also limited to a select readership. He and his readers expect and enjoy bosh. He has trouble expressing ideas; they don't understand the point of ideas. There is thus no demand placed upon him to provide ideas. The circle is complete.

Again, he's not satisfied with the humdrum appearance of prose and wants something richer: i.e. poetry. Fair enough, but the poetry should be firmly grounded in reality and be precise and accurate. He needs to study the form of Wilde, Twain, Nietzsche, and Mencken to see poetry and other wind music in competent hands. He needs to fully abandon the clumsy, non-sequitor filled, obscurantist rhetoric of the iron rice bowl professor who, once installed in the ivory tower, never again has to sing for his supper, his ideational faculties corroded by immersion in sophomores obsessed with polluting themselves and getting their fingers wet.

Although the essay was only 10 pages long, your humble critic couldn't wade all the way through it. After the assault of the first paragraph, I was pissed. A page later I was indignant, beet-red after the next one, two more pages and I was purple going on ultraviolet. By page six I was have trouble breathing and felt an attack of apoplexy coming. I checked my insurance and fortunately I wasn't covered or I might have had to go under the knife, if not underground. It was just too dreadful a dose: harsh for a normal punter, lethal to a sensitive one. I had to rush the book back from the parlor to the reading table in my study, placing it under the northwest leg for balance, where it once again serves a useful literary purpose.
Biff Cappuccino

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