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Essay-review of James Wood's «Serious Noticing: Selected Essays, 1997-2019». This piece is Chapter 25 of «Umpteen Essays in Search of a Novel, 1983-2023»

  • National Book Critics Circle


The definitive collection of literary essays by The New Yorker’s award-winning longtime book critic. Ever since the publication of his first essay collection, The Broken Estate, in 1999, James Wood has been widely regarded as a leading literary critic of the English-speaking world. His essays on canonical writers (Gustav Flaubert, Herman Melville), recent legends (Don DeLillo, Marilynne Robinson) and significant contemporaries (Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante) have established a standard for informed and incisive appreciation, composed in a distinctive literary style all their own. Together, Wood’s essays, and his bestselling How Fiction Works, share an abiding preoccupation with how fiction tells its own truths, and with the vocation of the writer in a world haunted by the absence of God. In Serious Noticing, Wood collects his best essays from two decades of his career, supplementing earlier work with autobiographical reflections from his book The Nearest Thing to Life and recent essays from The New Yorker on young writers of extraordinary promise. The result is an essential guide to literature in the new millennium.
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Virginia Woolf & James Wood: Critics and the Age
James Wood
Is James Wood a “generational” talent, an innovator practicing literary criticism at as
high a level as has ever been done? With becoming immodesty but without noisesome
bravado, he openly aspires to rank among “the greatest writer-critics” the English language
has produced: “Johnson, De Quincey, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Emerson, Arnold, Ruskin, Woolf,
Lawrence, Eliot, Orwell, Jarrell, Hardwick, Pritchett, Sontag.” Does his reach exceed his
“Critic” is an inadequate word for what Wood is. “Celebrant,” in the quasi-liturgical
sense, seems more like it.
An art critic’s function isn’t limited to reporting—displayed objects’ shapes, colors,
sizes, materials, and textures; a good critic also sheds light on how objects (or missing
objects) align or misalign with curatorial goals and processes—how those objects are
“Exegesis, exodus,” Sterling Brown says, “whatever dey calls it” isn’t the only
function a critic fulfills. Sometimes, Wood says, criticism means telling a good story about
the story you’re telling. A literary critic like Wood provides an “aesthetically responsible
account” of the work in question, judges that work in relation to other books in an author’s
oeuvre, the historical or other context from which that author or work arises.
Wood’s own tastes and temperament have been characterized as “eccentric.”
“Ecumenical” is a better word. Wood is likewise criticized for his “narrow” range of
interests. Yet, the wide-ranging Serious Noticing ticks off all the essayistic boxes in terms of
classic themes and categories: death, whether of parents or other family members; diatribe;
growing up and going away; music criticism; portraiture, self-portraiture and profiles; and
reading and writing.
In the essay “A Critic’s Manifesto,” Daniel Mendelsohn draws the curtain back on
what gets reviewed where by whom. A literary career made up of pieces first appearing
periodically and later collected between hard covers has only so much to do with a writer’s
tastes and temperament. Much depends on venue, audience and occasion as well as on the
precarious supply chain. Writers propose. Editors dispose. For the Times Literary Supplement
Woolf reviewed some awful books. For Good Housekeeping she reviewed some great ones.
(Woolf was a very relenting housekeeper, each drawer of her shockingly untidy home
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office—where she wrote, standing up, seven days a week, ten or twelve hours a day, eleven
months a year—crammed with rejection slips, random jottings on the backs of envelopes,
fountain-pen revisions in longhand to typed drafts of articles, short stories, lectures, book-
length manuscripts, all at varying stages of incompletion.)
Around the turn of the 20
century, some of the essays collected in Du Bois’ Souls of
Black Folk originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Today, a journalist emailing well-crafted
pitches to large-circulation monthlies like that would be lucky to receive a personalized
rejection slip, in the form of an apology, stating that too many good books are vying for too
little space in ever fewer features pages decimated by declining ad revenues. To have
collected between 1997 and 2019 twenty-eight essays as “scrupulous, painstaking and
detailed” as those in Serious Noticing is no small feat, and “represents an act of political
resistance,” carries “moral resistance in every sentence.”
The prosecution charges Wood’s essays are “apolitical,” that Wood’s essays are
apolitical. Which is in itself highly political. Literary politics is about perceived asymmetries
of power—power of access to media coverage, who wants it, who’s thought to control it
from editorial offices at The New Republic or the London Review of Books—whose novel is or is
not getting reviewed much less short-listed or long-listed for the Booker Prize.
A [half-week’s pay] [$750] essay-review isn’t always a party manifesto. Wood doesn’t
view each and every artifact under consideration through a rigidly deconstructionist lens just
because his father-in-law went to school with Jacques Derrida. So, why should a reader
expect Wood’s essay on Tess to yield the same political insight of “Orwell’s Very English
Revolution”? There’s room in criticism for both E.M. Forster and James Wood, for both
Aspects of the Novel and Serious Noticing. “There is room in a novel for storytelling,” Virginia
Woolf discovered, room “for tragedy, for criticism and information and philosophy.” The
same holds true for an essay.
Can’t criticize Wood for lack of “chops.” Langston and others accuse Baldwin of
“overwriting and over-poeticizing.” In comparison, Wood sometimes seems to be
“underwriting,” if only because that type of droll lends toward understatement rather than
antic comedy. Stylistically, Wood is transparent. Whereas Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age
can sound like a back-translation from English into German and back into English again.
Wood’s fearlessly aphoristic as Gore Vidal. His essays are less “rowdy with anecdote” than
those of United States: Essays, 1952-1992, is all.
Whatever the verdict, Wood proves beyond a reasonable doubt that our pre-digital
generation—essayists ranging from 45 to 70, those born between the Cold War and the
Vietnam, within living memory of Topeka v. Brown, 1960s counterculture, The Troubles in
Northern Ireland, the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK or RFK—our generation has
produced ourselves a Man of Letters.
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Virginia Woolf
“Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” is among the best essays in Serious Noticing. Nothing
about Woolf’s greatness is mysterious. Yet, cult myths envelop her. Myth One concerns the
“difficulty” of Woolf’s writing. What’s problematic is that those left cold by her literary
criticism worship the fiction while the others remain unresponsive to the novels those essays
alone made possible. Woolf’s writing seems pretty straightforward. It’s her personal life,
Myth Two, perpetuated by movies like Orlando, Carrington and The Hours, that gets
complicated. Myth Three depicts Virginia Woolf as a victim of patriarchy. Woolf remains
vital to the intelligent self-interest of writers both male (E.M. Forster ) and female
(Marguerite Yourcenar) precisely because she transcends cult status, as both woman and
woman of letters. What Woolf really needs is de-mystification, a glimpse behind the false
starts and stops, an unveiling of what her friend Tom Eliot called the androgynous “mind in
the masterpiece”.
Hermione Lee’s biography takes a holistic view: who Virginia Woolf was, why and
what she wrote and even how she died are inseparable from where and when she lived; the
letters, diary entries, book reviews and fiction all cross-fertilize each other; each diamond
facet of her psyche—masculinity or femininity, sociability or alienation, granite solidity or
rainbow iridescence—is just a single aspect of the prismatically flawed woman who she was.
How did Woolf become creator of a body of work greater than the sum of its parts?
She apprenticed as a book reviewer. Before she turned 15 Woolf started a diary. In that diary
she compiled immoderate booklists and reading notes. At 22, Woolf published her review of
a William Dean Howells novel, her first. She transformed from night school teacher into
literary journalist, reviewing as and when they appeared The Golden Bowl and other works by
Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy and many others. Then she journeyed to the
“dark places,” reviewing as fast as Constance Garnett could translate them major Russian
novelists and short-story writers. Wood argues two phases in Woolf’s work, before and after
she discovered Chekhov. Until her death in 1941 she reviewed for The New Republic and the
Times Literary Supplement—the “Major Journal” she called it—dropping whatever else she was
working on to meet their deadlines. Far from peripheral, these essays first collected in the
Common Reader series and eventually in the 6-volume Essays of Virginia Woolf are central to her
overall body of work, both the fiction, which now seems more accessible than it once did,
and the nonfiction, which now seems nowhere near as facile as it pretended to be.
Feminist literary theory is as helpful to an understanding of a married bisexual like
Woolf as queer theory is to an understanding of a twice-married bisexual like Countée.
Woolf’s mother aspired to a literary career of her own, but was worn down by childrearing,
by do-gooding. Woolf remained ambivalent toward her father, even after his death, despising
him one moment, admiring him the next. Was he a tyrant, self-centered, prone to temper
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tantrums, gluttonous for compliments? Sure. But he also named as her godfather James
Russell Lowell, American ambassador to Great Britain. As Thackeray’s former-son-in-law,
Sir Leslie Stephen just assumed his daughter would grow up to be a writer. To typecast
Woolf in the role of victim violates her sovereignty.
Harder to argue with in Woolf’s case is feminist theory’s ongoing discourse with the
body, that envelope of sensory input by means of which Woolf experienced the world whose
physical beauty she hymned so exquisitely. The auras presaging crippling migraines, anorexia,
Woolf’s recurring bouts of depression, her complete breakdowns all relate to her eventual
suicide. The lanky cricket-playing tree- and rock-climbing tomboy never did outgrow her
adolescent cringe before that body-image in the mirror. Her autobiographical writings hint at
the sexual trauma of being molested by her older half-brother. Throughout her life, she was
famously indifferent to clothes, yet there were debutante appearances to keep up in formal
ballrooms, wearing long dresses, with white gloves and satin shoes and with pearls around
her neck.
Ten years after the House of Lords passed the Suffrage Bill, Woolf delivered her Room of
One’s Own lectures at Cambridge. Her brothers graduated their father’s alma mater as a
matter of course; she as a matter of course did not. Woolf may be forgiven for feeling
underwhelmed in 1918, for feeling as unconvinced as an African-American born between
the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the Voting
Rights Act or the election and re-election of Barak Obama (b. 1961) were synonymous with
equal rights and protections. Alex Zwerdling defines feminism as “a comprehensive
movement of thought about women’s nature and status—legal, educational, psychological,
economic, professional, marital and political.” The role of women in literature is a theme
Woolf returns to again and again, in Three Guineas and elsewhere.
Just as Bearden, Du Bois and Ellison all laid claim to both the European and African
strains of their American heritage, Woolf’s progressive celebration of writers like Austen, the
Brontës, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot and others co-exists with her radically
conservative admiration for centuries of dead white males who paved women’s way, both
those her father personally introduced her to whenever they visited the London townhouse
or Cornwall summer home—Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, George Meredith, Trollope and
Tennyson—as well as those she was set free to discover in book form as she essentially
home-schooled in her father’s vast uncensored library—Boswell, Sir Thomas Browne,
Coleridge, Defoe, De Quincey, Sterne. “They do a great service,” she shrugs, “like Roman
Inconvenient truth is, Woolf abhorred the idea that novels of interpersonal
relationships were somehow Woman’s natural place, like the kitchen. She insists that
activism consists as much in writing essays, criticism, biography and history as in signing
petitions or stuffing envelopes.
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Woolf’s early period, 1905-1922, was spent reverse-engineering by way of book
reviews narrative solutions to aesthetic problems she knew she’d confront as she went about
envisioning the great novels of her middle period, 1922-1932. In Woolf, there is no dualism
between “creative writing” and criticism, fiction or nonfiction. V.S. Pritchett says Woolf’s
less successful fiction (The Years) can be very pedestrian indeed. Her best nonfiction, on the
other hand, “has a wildness in it.” Jacob’s Room ponders the nature of letter-writing; Orlando
contemplates literary biography. No matter what genre she happens to be working in,
meditations on form and method are the one constant in what might otherwise seem the
bewildering variety of her work. Much of Woolf’s fiction is essayistic, a poetry of “thought
and the possibilities of thought.” Blurring boundaries between poetry and prose, Woolf is
best understood as a writer of what Pritchett calls “imaginative prose.” Her overall body of
work is very much of a piece.
She and her contemporaries knew they were “on the verge of one of the great ages of
English literature.” Woolf published Jacob’s Room in 1922—the year T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland,
Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s Within a Budding Grove appeared. Her reading spanned the history
of the novel since Richardson. She peeped behind the hedgerows of Jane Austen’s
parsonages; lost herself in philosophical speculation reading Moby-Dick; admired Whitman’s
Leaves of Grass. She relished the English novel’s comic genius but yearned to transcend its
“tea-table” vision of life. The furthest thing imaginable from a late Victorian cheerleader,
“simple, uncritical, enthusiastic,” Woolf wrote that Henry James, a family friend, might say
less, suggest more, let one thing stand in for twenty. Between the ages of 40 and 50, she
created half a dozen classics of the English language, several of them masterpieces.
To the Lighthouse (1927) is the novel students are most likely to read. Visual thinkers
see a triptych in three panels. Music-lovers hear Woolf’s Fifth as a sonata-form work in three
slow movements. The majority opinion is that Lighthouse is possibly the greatest and certainly
the most perfect of her middle-period compositions. E.M. Forster dissents. Lighthouse was
his personal favorite, but he thought The Waves (1931) her greatest book.
Myth One, that Woolf is a “difficult” writer, persists. Of all the writings in her vast
body of work, The Waves, admittedly among Woolf’s most radically experimental, is probably
also her least esoteric. As critic, Wood says “Woolf was always in competition with what she
was reviewing.” In Jacob’s Room she was only just learning how to use multiple points of view,
to show characters on differing wave-lengths, at cross-purposes with themselves or with
each other, characters daydreaming, talking to themselves, silently or aloud. How “to
represent the brokenness of the mind’s communication with itself,” as Wood puts it, to
make this “interior monologue” appear unobtrusively natural on the printed page? Working
this problem as she drafts Mrs. Dalloway, her first middle period masterpiece, Woolf admits
in A Writer’s Diary that Ulysses (1922) had already achieved some things she’s still struggling
with in 1925. But Joyce’s genius seems of a lesser kind. “A first-rate writer, I mean,” she
sneers, “respects writing too much to be doing stunts.”
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It helps to remember how deeply rooted in domesticity Woolf’s writing was. Woolf
didn’t just “inherit” greatness, like a trust fund, or have it thrust upon her, like chattel
slavery. Woolf willed herself to greatness. Her genius was the result of both nurture and
nature. And if, in the meantime, she was to continue living in the manner to which she’d
grown accustomed, raised in an upper-middle class late Victorian household, she needed
money. The sale of a manuscript meant she could finally get that busted water heater fixed.
The critical success of Lighthouse was gratifying. But it also sold more than any of her
previous novels. Which meant she could buy a car for those weekend jaunts to the English
Add to all that the book reviews, reading books for review, running the increasingly
burdensome Hogarth Press and it becomes obvious Woolf spent most of her waking hours
either writing or obsessing about writing. Virginia Woolf had literally no time to waste on a
book she feared would be “fundamentally unreadable.”
Around the time Woolf was writing The Waves, novelist Countée Cullen was visiting
London. Though resident in Paris, Countée admired the vast cool understatement of
London, its dull roar of heavy traffic through narrow streets, which one of Woolf’s fictional
characters calls a “splendid achievement in its own way.” They had a friend in common, a
woman keenly interested in Africa, who helped Countée find publication in English journals.
Our mutual friend was also an expert on Woolf.
The spectrum of tradition and individual talents is a continuum. What Wood calls
“neutered Gissing” realism, modernism and surrealism coexisted simultaneously, both within
Georgians like Woolf and between Edwardians like Mr. Bennett and the fictitious Mrs.
Brown. Langston was the exception that proves the rule, but young African-Americans
looked backward to poets like Sandburg, not forward to modernists like Pound. Skeptical of
what Arna called “the whole T.S. Eliot coterie” yet unavoidably influenced, consciously and
otherwise, by high modernist activity all over Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain
during its Generation of ‘27, the Harlem Renaissance was at once a rearguard and vanguard
Based in Paris every summer between 1926 and 1939, Countée lived near and knew
Leo and Gertrude Stein, hosts to many “advanced” writers. Countée was steeped in the
French he studied at the Sorbonne, and passed on to younger writers like Jimmy. But you
won’t find a single reference to Mallarmé, Valéry or Proust in Countée’s European
notebooks or general correspondence, much less to Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse or The
Waves. We know for a fact that Countée slept in a Russell Square boarding house, behind the
British Museum, and strolled about Bloomsbury at a time when Woolf was madly revising A
Room of One’s Own.
Creative nonfiction fans can easily imagine Countée when Woolf, who’d just finished
writing Lighthouse, was conceiving of The Waves as a “new kind of play . . . prose yet poetry.”
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Could imagine Woolf—dismissive as she was of unnecessary obscurantism, obsessing,
precisely because The Waves lacks conventional moorings of plot on this side and dialogue on
that, that it not come off as too “arty” to appeal to conservatives like Cullen, that The Waves
not seem, as Rebecca West says it seems, like ‘‘pre-Raphaelite kitsch” — oblivious of
Countée as she takes one of her manic walks round Russell Square while Countée hurries
past her on his way to tea with Galsworthy at PEN International, embarrassed for this
madwoman with the runs in her stockings, muttering French phrases to herself as she
remembers lines from Dostoevsky’s Idiot.
The Waves is a 9-part fantasia, dramatic soliloquies for antiphonal sextet, doesn’t
demand but does reward repeated readings. In the wake of “Time Passes,” the slow, central
development section of To the Lighthouse, the leap from Jacob’s Room to The Waves seems less
quantum to us than it would have to Countée. Djuna Barnes published Nightwood in 1936, so
The Waves in retrospect seems very much of its time. Its internal logic is more musical than
textual, but apart from that there’s really nothing “difficult” about it. The writing is almost
solicitous in its consideration for the common reader. Woolf wrote as clearly and simply as
the demands of her material would allow. “Woolf failed from time to time,” says Wood, who
calls The Waves a qualified success. What’s striking about The Waves, 90 years after its
publication, is its lucidity. Think of it, Stephen Spender says, as a “prose poem.” You either
like it or you don’t, but what’s not to “get”?
What does Wood mean by “mysticism”? Kirlian photography is a scientific technique
that captures coronal imagery, the electrical discharge enveloping all things, animate and
inanimate. Woolf’s decades-long struggle as novelist was to color-map the near-visible
spectrum of consciousness surrounding all beings from birth to death. Literary ambition ran
in her family, but so did manic-depression and other psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia.
Woolf experienced her first breakdown as a teenager, after her mother died, and another
around her father’s death. Publication of her first review coincided both with her becoming
an orphan and her first attempt at suicide, aged 22, by jumping out a window. Around the
outbreak of World War I and publication of The Voyage Out, Woolf overdosed on
barbiturates. She’d begun hallucinating.
Reading Shakespeare’s plays, Woolf was struck by the speed and power of English. In
Shakespeare, poetry particles supercharge in gaseous, blank-verse atmospheres. Lines fork
off the page. Lightning strikes the sky. Clouds flash ground-strikes. Such conventional
imagery Woolf might have jotted down in any one of her 30 volumes of handwritten diaries,
and gone about her business. These visions were frighteningly different.
These visions were real. Birds sang Greek choruses from trees. Bertie, “King Edward
VII, “was using the foulest possible language among [the] azaleas.” Woolf sensed these
disconnects from ordinary “reality,” increasing both in frequency and intensity, were “partly
mystical.” Woolf advantaged such “moments of seeing,” when it was revealed that “the
whole world is a work of art,” and made them bedrock in her writing until finally, destroyed
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by voices, she could go on no longer.
Unfolding like Bloomsday over the course of a 24-hour period, Dalloway,
hallucinatory yet precisely controlled, is the recreation of Woolf’s mental breakdowns and
attempted suicide. A World War I veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, suffers after-effects of
shell-shock, as it was called, or post-traumatic stress disorder, as we call it now. Haunted by
“visions, the faces, the voices of the dead,” Smith is shown “sitting alone on the [park
bench], in his shabby overcoat, his legs crossed, staring, talking aloud,” jotting revelations
about the life eternal on the backs of envelopes. In terms of sheer design, Dalloway is a
Twelve non-numbered sections structure as rhythmic motifs—Big Ben’s “leaden
circles” rippling the London air. What lends this book its power of suggestion is what caused
Woolf her greatest difficulty: its basis in lived experience of mental illness. In cinema, an
equivalent of what Wood calls “the picture it gives of a mind in emergency, at the very limits
of coherence,” is Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. In fiction, the novels of
New Zealand’s Janet Frame, Scented Gardens for the Blind or State of Siege, come to mind.
For 10 years,” Woolf had experimented with the liminality between states of
consciousness—waking/dreaming, sanity/insanity in short stories like “Mrs. Dalloway in
Bond Street. The Waves may be greater and To the Lighthouse more perfect, but Mrs.
Dalloway—a masterpiece of “sympathetic insanity,” that first classic of her middle period—is
the novel that reveals how Virginia Woolf became Virginia Woolf.
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