Reading Note: War Declared!


With a muted thunderclap, Walter Kirn’s review (in today’s issue of The New York Times Book Review) of James Wood’s new book (How Fiction Works) announces the terms of engagement between two literary camps that, until recently, have not had to recognize one another in public. So far, they’ve been able to get away with snubbing — ignoring — one another. Only recently have they taken to showing up at the same parties, or at least on the same coffee tables.

Surely no two of this country’s periodicals have shared a readership for longer than The New Yorker and the Book Review; but until this decade their differences were blurry, kept politely out of focus. Now, perhaps goaded by the frightening challenges that big-time media face in the age of the Blogosphere, the parties are slipping off their gloves. Mr Kirn’s piece crystallizes a long-settling distinction: where The New Yorker (Mr Wood’s outlet) argues for coherence, the Book Review (and, arguably, the newspaper behind it) plumps for fashion. That these alliances — the glossy, Condé-Nast-owned magazine’s with the long view and the long-lasting; the only-lately Painted Lady’s with what Mr Kirn so wonderfully calls “a mess, a mystery or a miracle” — are exactly the opposite of what might have been expected adds exactly the Jovial note that was wanted.

All of which is to suggest that the review in the Review, “A Not So Common Reader,” although written in the sharply judicious prose for which Mr Kirn is famous (and that might, you’d think, have drawn him to the Anglo-American critic’s campaign), is not to be taken very seriously as a description of what reading How Fiction Works is actually like.

The mind and the world, as Wood defines them, are dependable, fixed phenomena, for the most part, possessed of natural, intrinsic qualities that fiction writers in their ink-stained lab coats measure, prod, explore and seek to illustrate using a rather limited range of instruments that can be endlessly adjusted. The role of these researchers’ prejudices and passions — as well as that of their social, psychological, geographic and spiritual circumstances — is barely credited by Wood.

My first thought was right out of Fidelio: I’d been released at last. Now that Walter Kirn had come out and said what it is that the editors of the Book Review hold to be important about literature, I could stop picking on them week after week for not holding other values. Not so fast, interposed the Voice of Duty. Although the battle over Theory is to a great extent one between generations — there is no such thing as an intelligent person over the age of forty who regards Theory as anything but nonsense, except for those who have committed the atrocity of teaching it to defenceless younger minds — there remains the entirely distinct problem of the Book Review;s responsibilities as, effectively, the nation’s book review of record. That is the problem that I address every Wednesday in these pages, and while I can thank Mr Kirn for sharpening my sense of the wrong-headedness of the Book Review‘s editors, the occasion for singing Nunc dimittis has not arisen.

This is very amusing, but a more neutral observer might suggest that Mr Wood proposes the dissection of celebrated novels in chambers free of contamination by Theory.*

If you find yourself asking, “What theory?” consider yourself lucky. To press your luck, follow this link.