Chief literary critic at The Guardian from 1992 to 1995 and now a staff writer for The New Yorker, James Wood has established a reputation as the most dreaded reviewer of today. On Saturday at the Sydney Writers' Festival, he reflected on his life as a critic, spoke of his new collection of essays, The Fun Stuff, and revealed that writing is not his only talent.
Music was James Wood's first love. A quiet and reserved child, his piano melodies rang through his strict evangelical household and he dreamt of one day playing his music on a much grander stage.
Never did he foresee himself writing for The New Yorker with a reputation as the best, and most dreaded, literary critic of today.
“I was a strange child, but not that strange,” Wood joked in his conversation with The Sydney Morning Herald’s Literary Editor, Susan Wyndham, before an eager Sydney Writers' Festival crowd early Saturday afternoon. In a soft, contemplative voice, Wood opened his mind's window for us to get a peek inside, reflecting on the role and purpose of a reviewer today.
“It [reviewing] is entertainment of a kind. It is a narrative – telling a story about a story using aphoristic humour and exaggeration to keep the reader following you.”
It is also, he says, a case of the reviewed author learning something about themselves – something Wood realised when he published his first novel, The Book Against God (2003). His idealistic belief that the novel could win the Booker Prize was flattened by critics. Galon Strawson of The Guardian wrote: “As for Wood's third claim, that you're never free once religion has revealed itself to you, this sounds like religio-emotional pornography.”
Wood says he “learnt a lot from these criticisms” and now sees it as not an especially good novel. Modesty – not a trait we have come to expect from critics.
But breaking free of conventions and being free is something Wood considers fundamental. This is something Wood discusses in 'The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon', the opening essay of his most recent collection, where he pays tribute to The Who's drummer, Keith Moon, admiring his defiance of musical conventions.
“He wasn't as good as other drummers in the '60's, but he was free and I love that,” Wood tells us. “Drummers are taught to be metronomic, to start and maintain the beat – but Moon tears that up.”
“This is the same as what I want to do with my writing – to reach that dream of escape that Wood does. I write in a formal sense but I've wanted to break out – to reach a sense of anarchy.”
Incorporating biography into reviews – a practice frowned on within literary criticism – is just one way Wood expresses this. “You can't ignore the author – every person has intentions when they write something,” he says.
But Wood has even more in common with Moon – he is a drummer himself, a talent displayed midway through Saturday's event. Wood's fingers were his sticks, a plastic takeaway container, a water jug and two tambourines, his kit. Like Moon, he drummed freely, his beat having as much flow as his writing, galvanising our feet to tap along
“Drumming is about hitting things,” he tells us. “But it's so natural to hit things and use the body. Playing the drums makes you lose the body because you're at one with yourself and you lose your physical unease and self-consciousness.”
Who else could make such a insightful link between drumming and writing?
James Wood's visit to the Sydney Writers' Festival was supported by the University of Sydney.