Three Ways of Looking at James Wood

By Justin Moyer

Lit-crit contrarian king James Wood -- who testifies to the importance of two-dimensional characters and calls David Foster Wallace "good at becoming the whole of boredom" -- spoke at Politics and Prose Bookstore last week. Here's one reporter's notes from the event presented in three different narrative forms Wood identifies in his 2008 book "How Fiction Works."

"...standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of an antique cheat."

As a muggy August twilight turned into a muggy August night, Justin drove to Politics and Prose Bookstore to interview James Wood. He waited two hours to speak to the literary critic, but found him eager to talk about his children's reading habits even after a lengthy Q & A. "I'm reading a rather old-fashioned children's writer - Joan Aiken - to my daughter, although...I can see her drifting away," Wood said. "She wants to be reading herself and wants to be in that world without a mediator. She's gotten very involved in Harry Potter."

"Actually, first-person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person 'omniscient' narration is generally more partial than omniscient."

Exhausted by my dog's demand for pre-dawn walks, I drive to Politics and Prose as night falls. Over 100 people fill the insufficiently air-conditioned room. We wait for James Wood. I stink of Camel cigarettes. I worry that my mp3 recorder will not work. I worry that, by the time I get to him, Wood will be tired, uncommunicative. Staring at a shelf of books about global warming, I start worrying about global warming. Wood shows up exactly at 7 p.m. When I finally corner him two hours later, he's still going strong, excited to talk. "I really wasn't bitten by literature until I was 14 or 15," Wood says. "Poetry, before fiction - Shakespeare, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin. For a long time in my teens, I tried to write poems. Fiction came along later."

"The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to 'own' the words."

Too tired to cook, Justin ate 5-10 Oreos, called it dinner, leapt into his filthy car, and sped to Politics and Prose Bookstore. The muggy August air stuck to him, or he to it. He slipped into the bookstore a little before 7 p.m., smelling of Camel cigarettes and eyeing his mp3 recorder skeptically. He listened to James Wood speak about character - what it is and why it's so hard to decode -- for an hour. During the Q & A, a loquacious psychotherapist held forth about Freud and fiction but, at his soliloquy's conclusion, offered no question. Wood, ever gracious, responded if there had been one. "I've certainly found...that part of the basic, primitive aspect of teaching is taking a bit of prose and reading it out loud to the class," Wood chirped two hours later. "I don't even need to say much about it."

Listen to Justin Moyer's interview with James Wood here.

By Steven E. Levingston |  August 24, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
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Thanks. What an interesting piece and really fun to listen to Moyers' interview. It's fun to think of the Wood household, a marvelous critic married to such a talented novelist, and their children being read to by their bright, caring parents. Regarding Claire Messud, I thought "The emperor's Children" was one of the best American novels I've read in the last three years.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | August 24, 2009 2:07 PM

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