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
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game