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
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot