Recommended Reading: The Nearest Thing to Life, by James Wood

IMG_5613As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I very much enjoyed hearing James Wood’s lecture during the Boston Book Festival, after which he signed copies of his newest book, The Nearest Thing to Life (the title is drawn from George Eliot’s description of art). Three of its four chapters (which read like extended essays) were originally delivered as lectures, and indeed I found the book’s style similar to Mr. Wood’s speaking style; erudite and fluid, geared toward the intelligent and interested layperson reader. Though Mr. Wood is a professor at Harvard, his writing is very different from the jargon-laden, theory-heavy academic writing on literature that yours truly grew accustomed to reading in graduate school; this is an almost old-fashioned style of personally-inflected criticism.

In the first chapter, “Why?,” Mr. Wood considers the question of death (and the subsequent need for theodicy) as it relates to fiction and its worlds of infinite possibility, writing, for example, that “I was struck by the thought that death gives us the awful privilege of seeing a life whole; that a funeral or even an obituary is a liturgical home for that uneasy privilege; and that fiction is the literary genre that most powerfully offers a secular version of that liturgical hospitality” (19).

Next, Mr. Wood reflects on the role of detail in fiction in the chapter “Serious Noticing,” which was also the subject of his talk at the Boston Book Festival. Fiction asks us to look more closely at people and objects, and for Mr. Wood detail is the “lifeness” that fiction alone can present: “[details] represent that magical fusion, wherein the maximum amount of literary artifice (the writer’s genius for selection and imaginative creation) produces a simulacrum of the maximum amount of nonliterary or actual life, a process whereby artifice is then indeed converted into (fictional, which is to say, new) life” (39).

In “Using Everything,” Mr. Wood makes a case for evaluative literary criticism. Since literary criticism is the only kind of arts criticism that falls into the same medium as its subject, Mr. Wood sees an opportunity for “critical retelling” or “revoicing” in literary criticism, which uses the same tools (like metaphor) as literature itself.

Finally, “Secular Homelessness,” the most personal, I think, of the work here, finds the author reflecting on exile, emigration, and home. Thought-provoking; it made me wonder if Mr. Wood has read George Prochnik’s excellent book on Stefan Zweig, The Impossible Exile.

To illustrate his points, Mr. Wood examines scenes from Chekov, Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald, and many other writers (though I do wish more were women); his writing is wonderfully descriptive, enhancing the texts he considers, as the best criticism does.

I highly recommend The Nearest Thing to Life to readers of fiction who are interested in thinking deeply about how fiction works, and why; to writers of fiction, for the same reason; and to my fellow bloggers—here you’ll find a model of criticism to strive for.

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