"We could all do worse than to write like Saul Bellow. And when I say write like Saul Bellow, I mean be Saul Bellow. And when I say be Saul Bellow, I mean unzip the skin from his body and wear it as a sort of Saul Bellow suit so that we can get cozy in it and truly inhabit it and understand the Old Macher."
Writer Colson Whitehead
parodies formidable literary critic James Wood
and his 2008 treatise, How Fiction Works
. At this point in his increasingly controversial scholarship, Mr. Wood is probably used to such cheek from those kids writing books on his lawn.
James Wood has applauded the study of literature as an ageless aesthetic rather than a reflection on contemporary culture, fractured selfhood, and globalization--a view cherished by older critics like Harold Bloom
and lately eschewed by the 43-year old Harvard professor's newfangled contemporaries. Wood's hidebound distaste for identity politics marks a schism between late modernism and post-modernism, a rift best viewed from above in this infamous review
of Zadie Smith's Booker Prize-winning White Teeth
. Lamenting the new face of literature that revels in confusion, distortion, paranoia, and so-called hysterical realism
, Wood not only wagged his finger at Smith, but also took literary giants Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace to task for tampering with the novel's "delicate structure." Smith responded to Wood's eulogy for the novel with characteristically wry idiom: "The novel is not an immutable fact of human artistic life, after all, just a historically specific phenomenon that came and will go unless there are writers who have the heart, the brain and, crucially, the cojones to keep it alive."
For now, Wood reigns comfortably as one of the most daunting critics of literature in English, even enjoying a few tentative fans from the under-40 crowd.
But the success of writers like Colson Whitehead, a 31-year old, African-American, Pulitzer Prize-candidate who lists a Run DMC song
as an "important plot point" in his upcoming novel Sag Harbor
, marks yet one more step in literature's shift from the 20th century to the 21st.