Highbrow Beef: Jonathan Lethem vs. James Wood


“I’d have taken a much worse evaluation from [James] Wood than I got, if it had seemed precise and upstanding,” writes Jonathan Lethem in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “I wanted to learn something about my work. Instead I learned about Wood. The letdown startled me.” Although Lethem’s piece is new, the review in question was published in 2003. The New Yorker critic, then at The New Republic, wrote a mixed but occasionally nasty review of The Fortress of Solitude. So, why has he chosen to hit back now, after having already exchanged private notes about the piece with Wood?

Apparently, Lethem is still thinking about the review in 2011. He had great hopes for Wood’s read on his novel, but the critic’s failure to even mention The Fortress of Solitude‘s element of magical realism struck him as a dishonest attempt to sidestep an important formal issue in favor of continuing his ongoing critique of contemporary American “realism.” Lethem’s eventual point is that Wood has a certain agenda that pushes some of his writing into the realm of “bad faith”: pretentiousness. “Earlier,” he writes, “I’d been content to sustain a cloudy image of a persuasive new critic who made people excited and nervous by passionately attacking novels that people (including myself) passionately believed in; now I found myself content to revise that in favor of an impression of a unpersuasive critic whose air of erudite amplitude veiled — barely — a punitive parochialism.” In the same paragraph, he notes, “When Wood praises, he mentions a writer’s higher education, and their overt high-literary influences, a lot.”

So, who (if anyone) comes out ahead? Is Lethem’s essay just sour grapes, aged to the vintage of a mid-priced wine? Or is he saying something valuable about the way even our best critics let their own agendas poison their reviews? [via GalleyCat]