A stern and righteous reader

The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief

James Wood <em>Jonathan Cape, 318pp, £16.99</em

The office of public critic has never been an easy one to execute. Still, until very recent times, it clearly existed. We knew we needed uncommon super-readers to serve us common readers. We counted on great figures, often both writers and critics, who seriously devoted themselves to the common pursuit of true judgement and the correction of taste; who set out to explore the limits of the imagination, and purify the language and the thinking of the tribe. Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Sainte-Beuve all performed and elaborated the great and necessary office. So, in more modernist times, did Virginia Woolf, Pound, Eliot, and then Leavis, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling. And behind them lay the great magazines, the reviews of critical surveillance: Edinburgh and Quarterly, Criterion and Scrutiny, Dial and Partisan Review.

Today it is largely over; we have almost entirely lost such figures and such magazine venues. We live - we're proud to do so - in a non-judgemental, an equalising, a levelling, a willingly and articulately self-dumbing age. We won't say elite; we're ideologically under-critical. Criticism has left the public arena for the closets of the university; and there it has become something else. Disliking judgement in the old sense, it has now become literary theory: tribalised, compartmentalised, heavy with professionalised discourses, a variant of philosophy subservient to all the fashionable ideologies. The contemporary criticism kit, of post-Marxism, post-feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, race and gender reading, can be ordered from any local campus. Newspaper criticism has mostly become journalism, part of the great game of listing and merchandising that passes now as "culture". We have just a few large players - shall we say George Steiner, John Carey, Peter Kemp, Peter Ackroyd - who perform as public critics used to: as ideal proxies, ultimate intelligent judges and readers, displaying what we might surely expect of a critic: literary learning, comparative standards, a power of intelligent judgement, a primary belief in the worth of the literary arts.

Lately, we have had James Wood, who - in a variety of British and American newspapers and magazines (the Guardian, the New Republic, the New Yorker) - has spaciously and transatlantically performed the office as it has not been performed for some time. It's of great advantage to himself and the rest of us that he doesn't come heavily drilled in all the conventional contemporary literary theoretics. A serious religious education and a fast transition straight from Cambridge to the Guardian have given him intellectual stamina and public access, and it's as a newspaper critic and essayist he has made his mark.

His religious education, considered in the long last essay in this collection, is evidently a crucial matter. Wood writes from a standpoint of secularised religiosity, sees literature as the nearest thing that these secular days have to belief, tells us fiction lives most strongly in the shadow of a religious doubt. For Virginia Woolf, he explains, the novel acts religiously but performs sceptically. He, as critic, seeks to do likewise. So this sequence of 20-plus essays is subtitled "essays on literature and belief", and Wood writes with unusual care and solemnity - as if he requires from literature a good deal more than most.

He is capable of being intensely annoying (not least when, during his Guardian tenure, he adopted to excess the folkloric notion that nowadays Americans know how to write novels and the English don't). The reader of this book will need a fair tolerance; Wood is opinionated, sometimes to extreme degree. The fact remains he is a true critic: an urgent, impassioned reader of literature, a tireless interpreter, a live and learned intelligence, good writing company. He has adopted the essay as his own; he uses it to write, in the way the serious writer does. That's to say, he drives his ideas hard; he hungers for metaphor, and often ends up in ungainly stylistic poses; he frequently risks becoming absurd. Writing on Virginia Woolf, he remarks: "To describe literature critically is to describe it again, but as it were for the first time . . ." He adds that thus the critic's language, itself metaphoric, often comes into conflict with the original. The same may be said of Wood, whose style and interpretations are all quite decidedly his.

The essays drawn together here cover a very wide span. From a piece on Sir Thomas More (occasioned by Peter Ackroyd's biography), we go to a selected number of the 19th-century novelists (Gogol, Flaubert, Melville), then to key writers of the early 20th: Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf. As befits a busy reviewer of current books, he offers us important essays on contemporaries, including Iris Murdoch, Updike, Roth, Pynchon, Martin Amis, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, W G Sebald.

The Wood test is not an easy one, but at best it displays true critical sensitivity and insight. Take, say, the essay on Jane Austen - of whom we hardly need another study. Yet Wood, who as a critic is generally warmer to fiction's bias toward representation than he is to its counter-universe of irony, clearly finds Austen's own irony salvaged by her manner of performing it, and he has interesting things to say about that fact. Her books, he notes, are modern, interiorised; and they are not therapeutic but hermeneutic. Her heroines are also novelists - as it were, reading the same text as the author, possessing observation, a mobile inner consciousness, even the power of happiness: the same clandestine happiness possessed, he suggests, by Austen herself. This is good. But the essay on Gustave Flaubert is anxiously dry, and far less understanding.

So it goes on. A fine essay attacking the critical extravagance of Anthony Julius's book on T S Eliot's anti-Semitism is followed by a totally (and wonderfully) unfair piece on George Steiner: an essay that takes such pleasure in its clever dismissals, its intricate underminings, its observation of the great Steineran trope that it quite loses the truth of Steiner's huge intellectual importance. A learned and well-informed piece on Iris Murdoch comes to a conclusion exactly opposite to the one I would have drawn from the same evidence. There is a cunningly brilliant study of the anxieties of Martin Amis, a British writer who, in attempting to assimilate the vernacular energy of contemporary American fiction, has devised a remarkable prose but who has failed to lose, Wood says, that uneasy British instinct for broad burlesque. Perhaps the writer who comes out best is the haunting W G Sebald, whose mournful reticence is part of his power.

In general, comedy, irony and magical extravagance disturb Wood. In the matter of Julian Barnes, is it necessary to rebuke him, yet again, for his Englishness, for not quite perceiving how British fiction is cursed by its mannered constraint, its failure to relax, linguistically, emotionally in front of the chaotic human landscape - as does, say, the fiction of Willa Cather? But in some ways such transatlantic comparisons are evidently beginning to run their full course. In reviewing some of the most ambitious of the Americans on their own soil, Wood has come to observe many of the same flaws of language or imagination he noted in their British contemporaries. Thomas Pynchon is clearly a writer of high importance, yet doesn't some of his recent rompishness possess an almost Amis-like or Barnesian flaw? And if the critics are right to see in Pynchon and DeLillo a "paranoid style", isn't paranoia at some level an abdication of fiction? What of Toni Morrison and her magical realism - doesn't the magic take us beyond the realistic limits of the novel, allowing her as a writer to oppress her characters with her own essence?

Wood is never easy to please; he goes in for sharp and intensive interrogations, and is not above shifting the goalposts of realism when it suits him. The autobiographical frankness of parts of this book raises curiosity further; why does this invigilating, displaced religious intelligence need literature so much? The texts Wood reads and worries over push him into acts of serious intelligence, and he has made his positions matter. Yet what matters most is that, even in our own uncritical times, we do have a strong and serious debate about literature - especially our own literature, the best of the writing emerging now. And that Wood strongly and genuinely gives us.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers