Jonathan Cape, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Fun Stuff, By James Wood

A master of 'lit-crit' dissects the mechanics of good and bad writing in this essay collection.

In the longest essay from his new collection, James Wood considers Edmund Wilson's role in the American modernist milieu: "It is invigorating to be reminded of how steely and objective Wilson was as a critic, and how the writers he pressed to give the best of themselves came to rely on the critic's clear-running judgement." Wood sounds like he's elegising an era of respectful cooperation while bemoaning the prospect of Jonathan Lethem or Zadie Smith heeding his insights the way that Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway relished Wilson's critiques. The Fun Stuff, however, demonstrates why Wood is one of the most influential, illuminating literary critics at work today.

Wood occasionally parodies writers he wishes to admonish but he's better at creating synergies between his own style and those he praises. His responses to Lydia Davis's short stories are concise and philosophical, Geoff Dyer is complemented in a deceptively louche review and the essay on Wilson flirts with rambunctious grandeur. Whereas the American critic veered from "an aesthetic account of a work towards biographical speculation and cultural instruction," Wood locates fiction's psychological and social impetus in language.

As a practical critic, Wood is interested in the mechanics of fiction and wary of literary theory. He articulates and challenges our instincts, explaining how Tolstoy disrupts readers' complacency by introducing moral complexity while Ian McEwan's narrative surprises "keep meaning under control". Cormac McCarthy's "tolling, fatal sentences make the reader shiver," but "solacing theological optimism" means The Road avoids the deepest questions. Encountering criticism of books we enjoy can feel alienating but Wood's aesthetic standards inspire closer reading and higher expectations. He demolishes Paul Auster's "laughable seriousness" but is more compelling when demanding that writers like McEwan and McCarthy, both of whom he admires, "give the best of themselves."

Wood's attempts to put himself in the writer's position are brave and well-judged. "Fiction has," he says in a defence of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, "an entrepreneurial element." Critical and creative intelligence combine in a subtle piece which argues that Revolutionary Road is less concerned with suburban stupor than gender politics. The notion that literature can surpass its creators recurs when Wood recalls Susan Sontag's claim that her essays were more intelligent than she was, "because she worked so hard at them, and expanded into them over several months of writing".

Emphatic studies of Thomas Hardy, VS Naipaul and George Orwell negotiate their subjects' contradictions. They feature personal anecdotes – dining at an Indian buffet with Naipaul, discovering "The Lion and the Unicorn" as an Eton scholarship boy – which point towards the autobiographical departures that bookend The Fun Stuff. In the title piece, Wood hails The Who drummer Keith Moon's "combination of the artful and artless" and remembers his own adolescent drumming as an escape from self-consciousness. In the closing essay, packing his late father-in-law's books leads Wood to wonder if we build our libraries as barriers to knowableness.

It's tempting to state the obvious – that The Fun Stuff warrants a place on our shelves – but a better observation is made by Wood about the protagonist of Revolutionary Road: "Frank is Yates without the writing." Libraries may reveal little about lives but "the writing" counts for a lot.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices