Serious Noticing brings together a variety of reviews and essays by James Wood, lead book critic at The New Yorker. Wood is an expert in the long-form critical essay – what Frank Kermode, to whom Wood is indebted, vaunted as a gratifying third way ‘between the barbarous jargons of the modern academy and the quick satisfactions of the newspaper review.’
Like his predecessor, Wood carefully balances theoretical sophistication with aesthetic appreciation, biographical detail with close analysis; the reviews in Serious Noticing are unfailingly measured and eminently fair. This was not always the case: Wood’s juvenilia was marked by hatchet job excess; fresh out of Cambridge, he quickly acquired a reputation as the Guardian’s eviscerator-in-chief.
His ascendancy to as venerable an institution as The New Yorker has perhaps chastened this former intemperance. That said, reading the essay on Paul Auster it’s hard not to look back nostalgically at a time when reviews were more than glorified blurbs. Wood’s critique of Auster, a writer whose pre-eminence makes him well placed to withstand such an assault, is both incisive and savage; it’s hard to imagine another critic writing: ‘there are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, but the prose is never one of them…’
Most of Serious Noticing, though, is more cautiously adulatory, if seldom excessively so. Even a Tolstoy and a Chekhov are not without their failings. Wood, of course, is not without his. Few of these, however, are on display here.
Words: Luke Warde