The Irresponsible Self by James Wood

“Comedy, like death and sex, is often awarded the prize of ineffability. It is regularly maintained that comedy cannot really be described or explained, that to talk about it is merely to do it noisy harm.”

James Wood’s aphoristic opening salvo to his second book of criticism instantly reminds one that, not only is he the best literary critic in the world, he is virtually the only one. Over the last fifty years, literary criticism has been undermined to such an extent that it has curled up and died. Sure, the books pages have plenty of reviews, but literary criticism in the grand sense, as exegesis of arguably the most heightened form of human expression, is nowhere to be seen.

In Universities, the intellectual foundations of English departments have shifted to history, continental philosophy and other interdisciplinary props, with literature pushed to the margins. Only a small number of academics are interested in audience outside of a stuffy common room, most of them glad to have the protection from criticism that comes with being irrelevant. It’s a shame, especially as a self-reflexive culture has so much time for criticism. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that this same self-reflexivity also took over the novel (from Nabokov and Borges to Nicholson Baker), making the disinterested literary critic obsolete, but I don’t think so. In fact, having just read Wood’s The Irresponsible Self, I know that it’s not true.

For a book that is so wide-ranging, taking in contemporary novels and classics, including relatively humourless subjects as J.M. Coetzee and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you might be forgiven for asking why it is offered up with the sub-title of ‘On Laughter and the Novel’. The reason is that for comedy to be funny it has to be based on true representation, and true representations are often funny. Comedy isn’t superfluous to existence – it is at its very core. This doesn’t mean that one cannot exaggerate or turn something on its head – by doing so you are still anchored to reality. Only when people stray too far from the truth do you get the kind of awkward, awful unfunniness that Wood’s finds in the genre he has dubbed hysterical realism.

Hysterical realists place their emphasis on plot (full of uncanny connections, supposedly mythical archetypes), their characters are weird gargoyles and, crucially, their “witty” observations are not true, either to the character who observes or at all. The failures of Salman Rushdie’s Fury (“a novel that exhausts negative superlatives”) are anatomised unflinchingly:

Is Solanka [the protagonist] thinking or is Rushdie thinking? This is not a small complaint; not just a pedantic fussing about ‘point of view.’ For this instability of voice, this anarchy of borrowed languages, infiltrates and infects the fabric of the storytelling. A cartoonish and inauthentic voice produces a cartoonish and inauthentic reality [. . .] these vulgarities, these hazy swipes at vivacity [. . .] produces something smaller than life, because distanced and mediated by anterior images: when a man is described as having Bugs Bunny teeth, you see Bugs Bunny, you do not see the man.

James Wood is a courageous defender of the novel as a depiction of life in all its fullness, without recourse to the sham of fullness, which is the spectacle. Despite the impression I may have given, his book is about much more than chastising contemporary excess. V.S. Pritchett, Henry Green, Joseph Roth, Tolstoy: all are extolled for their accuracy and their beauty. Two things that criticism seemed to have foregone, but which live on in The Irresponsible Self.