Jonathan Cape £18.99

Review: The Fun Stuff and Other Essays, By James Wood

A would-be rock star of US letters gets to the root of George Orwell's class consciousness, savages Paul Auster, and demands excellence

James Wood is a useful throwback. His literary criticism recalls an era before academia and imported theory dominated, when men and women of letters held sway. With its combination of seriousness and accessibility, his approach works well for a general reader – if occasional fogeyness is discounted.

So this latest collection, selected from contributions to The New Republic, The New Yorker and the London Review of Books, repays close reading. Indeed, scouring texts for insights is Wood's own key critical technique. It helps him to consistently pass the decisive test for critics, of being able to shift vague perceptions about an author from the back of a reader's mind into tight focus at the front.

Take his essay on George Orwell, which crystallises doubts over the genuine extent of Orwell's revolutionary commitment. While Orwell argued passionately against the status quo, his strategies for its overthrow were oddly freighted towards calls to end the privileges of the rich. The suspicion must be, Wood tells us, that Orwell was keener on social levelling down, rather than redistribution towards the working classes.

Wood airs the nasty little secret of Orwell's dismissal of the idea of extended education for the workers (of precisely the kind that delivered so much social mobility in the immediate post-war era). In The Road to Wigan Pier, Wood reminds us, Orwell stated that the working-class boy "wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography".

Like Orwell, Wood is an Old Etonian, which helps him tease out the ways in which Orwell's politics were skewed by his abhorrence of toffs, despite harbouring some of their more unpleasant prejudices himself.

As befits an old-fashioned pedagogue, Wood is keen to instruct as well as opine. In his essay on W G Sebald's Austerlitz, Wood unpacks the ways in which Sebald achieves his ghostly, mesmerising narrative voice. First off, Sebald displaces and layers Austerlitz's story to enhance the enigma of his central character, in a markedly similar way to the celebrated Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Digging deeper still, Wood goes on to elucidate Sebald's parallels with a less prominent Austrian, the 19th-century writer Adalbert Stifter, whose archaic romantic prose influences the unsettling Gothic register Sebald deploys so brilliantly.

In the main, Wood is sympathetic and engaged, but he does not shy from conflict. He disses Zadie Smith by explaining in detail why Joseph O'Neill's Netherland is not a liberal humanist post-9/11 novel as she posits, but rather a sophisticated interrogation of the groundless, shifting cultures of our post-colonial world. Smith must count herself fortunate. When it comes to Paul Auster, dreadful as his prose is, Wood's takedown would make a cage fighter blench.

The collection's 23 pieces range wide, with Wood discoursing on everyone from Leo Tolstoy to Geoff Dyer. Experimental writing is represented by Lydia Davis and the modish László Krasznahorkai. There is esoterica including Robert Alter's translations of the Bible, as well as a rumination on how little a library truly says about its owner, prompted by Wood's disposal of his father-in-law's collection of largely unread tomes.

The title essay does not concern literature at all – or at least, not directly. In part, it is an appealing exercise in self-deprecation. Wood enjoyed a traditional musical education in an English cathedral town, where he sang in the choir and learnt piano and trumpet. Apparently the least rebellious of little boys, what he really wanted to do, with every fibre of his cloistered being, was to play the drums in a rock band. And the drummer he admired most of all was that Dionysius of percussion, Keith Moon. Wood offers us a wonderful technical analysis of the "inspired vandalism" of a drummer who refused to limit himself to keeping time. Wood himself hops over disciplinary boundaries in his parsing of Moon's whaling of the skins, comparing Moon's anarchic running together of musical phrases in "his tremendous bubbling cascades" to poetic enjambment.

The collection is not faultless. At times, Wood resorts too readily to the same authors from his canon to illustrate his points, the aforementioned Bernhard among them. Elsewhere, he recycles observations about Tolstoy and Orwell in different essays. And yet, as he points out in his Moon piece, the writer's working life – not to say the critic's – is radically different from the riotous displays of rock musicians, anchored as it is in hermetic environments which carry the whiff of the examination room. That means that the perfect literary critic can only be a chimera, permanently sequestered in the study, unable to share our worldly concerns and therefore to communicate with us well at all. The minor flaws here, then, are reassurance that Wood is merely one of the finest critics around.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London