In the fifteen years since he first began reviewing books for a living, the British writer James Wood has established himself as perhaps the strongest, and strangest, literary critic we have. In his frequent essays for The New Republic (where he is a senior editor) and various other publications on both sides of the Atlantic, Wood combines an elegant literary style and magisterial command of the canon with a fierce moral passion that threatens, at times, to come slightly unhinged.
Wood, who was brought up in an evangelical sect of the Church of England, combines an evangelical fervor with a high-church notion of literary seriousness. “The child of evangelicalism,” he has written, “if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference.” As a critic Wood is never indifferent. Not for him the polite gratitude for the halfway decent literary novel, let alone the grubbier pleasures of the juicy read. Even books he acknowledges to have “brilliance,” such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld, can ultimately be deemed to be bad—not just bad for us, but a threat to true literary enterprise itself.
Wood leaves little doubt what that enterprise should be. He is that rare critic nowadays who goes beyond the necessary ad-hockery of book reviewing to propound a theory of fiction. Even when he seems to be engaged in mere plot summary and quotation, you can feel him thinking, arguing, positioning the work in question around his own powerful center of gravity.
Wood’s big idea, expounded in his 1999 essay collection The Broken Estate, is that in the middle of the nineteenth century the distinctions between religious belief and literary belief began to blur. Thanks to books like Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus, writers and theologians alike began to look at the Gospels as fictional tales—valuable not as a source of literal truth but for their poetry and moral lessons. At the same time, writers, with Flaubert leading the charge, began to turn literature itself into a quasi religion. Is it any surprise, Wood asks, that it was precisely at the height of the European novel that writers began to worry the line between religious and literary belief?
For it was not just science but perhaps the novel itself which helped to kill Jesus’s divinity, when it gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative—and then in turn a new skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative.
Wood may oppose this blurring, but his own critical terms bear a distinct theological stamp. Above all, Wood is obsessed with the question of free will in fiction. For Wood, “fiction is a special realm of freedom.” True literature does not just somehow grant its characters freedom to outrun their creators’ intentions. It also acknowledges the freedom of its readers to stop believing—to “close the book, go outside, and kick a stone.” Our freedom to deny a writer’s …