James Wood's Weak Spot. Part 1

On matters literary, James Wood is to be not only read but studied. We all come to know the habitual distortions and exaggerations of our closest friends’ stories, and this often allows us to see through what we hear them saying to a more accurate version of what really happened. We correct for our friends’ quirks of perception and recollection. Wood has the uncanny ability to do this with literature; he sees through writerly mannerisms and even virtuoso techniques to the reality that inspired the author. In a section of his How Fiction Works, Wood explains why unreliable narration doesn’t prevent readers from getting the real story being narrated:

We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator’s unreliability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us to how to read its narrator. (5)

He makes it seem elementary. But reading novels in an attempt to learn how to read their narrators is something I for one learned how to do, in large part, from reading James Wood.

It is Wood’s ability to see through fiction to reality that makes him the ideal apologist for realism; he dislikes flimsy characters created solely for the purpose of being immolated on the altar of metafictional experimentation. He takes fictional characters seriously. In his book The Broken Estate, for instance, he complains of the august John Updike that his poetic descriptions, by favoring sonorous and surprising terms rather than informative or accurate ones, amount to “lyrical kitsch” (212). “Such writing,” Wood says, “bestows rather than discovers” (213). Of course, we expect fiction, since it is by definition creative, to bestow, but Wood sees fiction playing a more serious role than detailing made-up situations in nice-sounding language. Fiction has the potential to lead to real discoveries.

Since Wood takes fictional characters so seriously, his views on religion ought to be pretty interesting. The subtitle of The Broken Estate is Essays on Literature and Belief. And, according to the biographical note on the jacket of How Fiction Works, he has written a novel called The Book Against God. The essays only deal with religion through the lens of the various novels and authors he discusses, and, though I haven’t read it, the novel, being a work of fiction, can’t be read as any explicit statement of its author’s beliefs. So when this week’s issue of The New Yorker arrived in the mail (or rather on the couch, borne on the hands of my girlfriend from the mailbox) I was excited to see Wood’s name listed in the table of contents alongside an article on “The new anti-atheists.” This excitement was heightened by my philosophical affinity with the new atheists, particularly Dawkins and Hitchens. So where does Wood fall in the debate?

Turning to the article as I sat down at a Chinese food buffet, I was let down (and let me here flag the understatement) with the first page an a half, in which Wood jumps on the bandwagon of bashing Dawkins et al for discrediting too simplistic a notion of the deity (note my refusal to capitalize):

the God most worth fighting against [for them] seems to be a hybrid of a cheaply understood Old Testament, a prejudicially scanned Koran, and the sentimentalities of contemporary evangelicalism. (75)

He goes on to explain Stephen Jay Gould, in advocating his Non-overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA, seems reasonable to him because his father was a zoologist who late in life became a priest. Therefore, the reasoning goes, there must be a more sophisticated way to believe than those attacked by The God Delusion crowd.

I was at this point, losing faith in Wood, but I was still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. (See what I did there.) Then I came across the only stupid thing I’ve ever seen Wood put into print. Discussing HADD (the hyperactive agency detection device in our minds), he takes issue with the example Dawkins provides of our natural proclivity to see agency where none exists. John Cleese gets out of his car, which has just broken down, and starts going ballistic on it, cursing it and beating on it. Cleese could explain--but wouldn't--that the scene derives its humor from the fact that it's completely absurd to blame the car, but also completely understandable. But, Wood tries to argue that beating on the car isn't so crazy:

the car is not a piece of indifferent nature. It is man-made, and so to assume a
causal, if rather obscure, link between the human agency and the car’s breakdown
isn’t insane—surely, sometime in the nineteen eighties, Dawkins owned a badly
made English car? (75)

Oo, snap! But wait: is Wood talking about planned obsolescence, suggesting someone may have deliberately designed the car to break down? I guess that would imply agency—but not the car’s agency. It’s still quite insane, therefore, to beat on the car, whether it’s man-made or not.

"What is most repellent about the new atheism," Wood writes, "is its intolerant certainty; it is always noon in Dawkins world, and the sun of science and liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadows" (76).

At this point in reading the article, I was amply disappointed, but it turns out Wood's breezy conformity in regard to Dawkins isn't representative of his religious views in general. In the next section, in which he reviews the "anti-atheists," Wood does an about-face. More on that in part 2.