What is fiction for? This is one of those questions—How does a compassionate God permit cruelty? What do women want? Why is there dandruff?—which are probably not susceptible of an answer but which yet continue to niggle. At the simplest, we may observe that inside every adult there lives on a child who must have stories that thrill or soothe, and that even novels of the grandest seriousness are no more than elaborated fairy tales. But is this a sufficient accounting for, say, Middlemarch—which Virginia Woolf described as one of the very few novels written for grown-ups—or The Golden Bowl, or Samuel Beckett’s Molloy? In his essay collection The Broken Estate, James Wood observes that “fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to makes its case. Belief in fiction is always belief ‘as if.’” Wood follows this with an apposite and characteristically subversive quote from Thomas Mann:
To the artist new experiences of “truth” are new incentives to the game, new possibilities of expression, no more. He believes in them, he takes them seriously, just so far as he needs to in order to give them the fullest and profoundest expression. In all that he is very serious, serious even to tears—but yet not quite—and by consequence, not at all. His artistic seriousness is of an absolute nature, it is “dead-earnest playing.”
Of course, the umbrage that Wood casts, and Mann’s deft flicking of the rug from under fiction’s feet, are not quite the daring pieces of prestidigitation they would once have seemed; shadowy doubt is the condition of all our lives in the postmodernist age, when even the most ringing affirmation of truth is horned willy-nilly in vestigial quotation marks. James Wood, one of the subtlest and most serious of the present generation of critics—if “generation” is not too large a word for such a small band—is uneasy with the current laxities, not only in literature but in what passes generally under the name of religion.
He was born in 1965 in Durham in the north of England, a region that more than others has sought to cling stubbornly to the eternal verities, and was brought up in the evangelical tradition—“Sometimes it seems that my childhood was the noise around a hush, the hush of God.” As the biographical note on the jacket of The Broken Estate quaintly puts it, it was in Durham that “he first received a musical and religious education, as a chorister in that city’s cathedral.” That same note describes him, with due modesty, as a “literary journalist,” previously with the London Guardian and presently with The New Yorker.
In the great tradition of Johnson, Coleridge, and Hazlitt, of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Erich Heller, Wood takes literary criticism to be an overview of the humanities in general. More than any of those great predecessors, Wood …