With the exception of our own Edward Skidelsky, James Wood is the best of the younger book reviewers in Britain (I hesitate to call him an essayist, since he seldom, if ever, leaves his desk, writing exclusively about fiction and the great literary dead). When The Broken Estate was published, in 1999, it was seized on, in the main, by a combination of friends and enemies, who were eager to proclaim Wood either a contemporary Hazlitt or a humourless charlatan, depending on whether or not they had been at Cambridge with him. It was all rather ridiculous and unseemly. Which was a shame, because at his best - and he is at his best here on Gogol, Chekhov and Virginia Woolf - Wood is the rare kind of critic who commands urgent attention. There is something hypnotic about his style, a freakish virtuosity manifested in his immense command of language and its myriad effects. There is, too, a kind of evangelical fervour in his work, and it is no surprise to read of his struggles with a Christian fundamentalist childhood in Durham, and of an anguished loss of faith in his early twenties (he writes that the "child of evangelism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference").
When Wood first emerged in the early 1990s - editing the literary pages of the Guardian alongside Richard Gott - he helped absolutely to transform literary culture. For an invigorating period, established reputations - Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Rushdie - were polemically challenged; contemporary British fiction traduced and dismissed as in terminal decline, and politics discussed with ideological engagement. Predictably, publishers hated these Guardian pages; advertising revenue collapsed; and Wood and Gott became figures of contempt in literary London, where the smart career move is always to be nice about other writers in the expectation that, when you eventually publish something yourself, they will be nice about you, too.
The Wood and Gott years eventually ended as abruptly as they had begun, with Gott stepping down as literary editor after the Spectator risibly accused him of being a KGB "agent of influence", and with Wood moving to the New Republic in Washington DC, where he was free to write longer, more stylised reviews, the like of which could not be published in Britain where brevity is such a virtue.
Yet, reading these "essays", these brilliant, sometimes overwritten, exercises in close reading, I was struck, again and again, by the loneliness of his position as a public critic writing for an audience that has all but disappeared. As a critic, Wood seems to be suspended uneasily between the academy, for which he is insufficiently theoretical, and the shrinking world of scholarly journalism, for which his standards are too exacting and his prose style too baroque. Where is his constituency? Who is his common reader?
The trouble is, I suspect, that you cannot be V S Pritchett at the beginning of the 21st century, however well you write - there simply isn't the audience. Perhaps, in search of the readership he deserves, Wood will now turn, as he has long promised to do, to fiction. One wishes him well.
Jason Cowley's novel, Unknown Pleasures, is available through the NS at the discounted price of £7.99 (freephone 0800 731 8496)