'The Fun Stuff," 23 collected essays that first appeared in the New Yorker (where James Wood is a staff writer), the London Review of Books and the New Republic, navigates terrain familiar to loyal readers: Wood's affection for foreign writers struggling with diaspora (Aleksandar Hemon, V.S. Naipaul), his erudite discourse on stylists as unique from one another as Leo Tolstoy and Lydia Davis, and his exuberance for dissecting the emotional paradoxes of character and the rhythms of sentence structure. "The Fun Stuff" is further evidence of Wood's keen instinct for interpreting the soul and stuff of fiction.
Alternately reverent and disapproving, he praises Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel "The Road" for its "devotion to detail, his Conradian fondness for calmly described horrors, his tolling, fatal sentences," while in another essay, he rails against the banality of Paul Auster's "fake realism and shallow skepticism."
Of Alan Hollinghurst he writes: "Hollinghurst works quietly, like a poet, goading all his words -- nouns, verbs, adjective and adverbs -- into a stealthy equality in his sentences ... something like this, from his novel 'The Line of Beauty': 'Above the trees and rooftops the dingy glare of the London sky faded upwards into weak violet heights.' We can suddenly see the twilit sky of a big city afresh, and the literary genius is obviously centered in the unexpected strength of that adjective 'weak,' which brings alive the diminishing strata of the urban night sky, overpowered by the bright lights on the ground."
Wood's learned analysis illustrates that he is not only one of fiction's great readers but also a gifted teacher of the writing craft. (He is Harvard University's Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism.) The book, though, isn't without heart or personal experience. Bookended with personal essays -- the first a coming-of-age exaltation on the drumming-stylings of Keith Moon (in the National Magazine Award-nominated title essay) and ending with an account of packing his father-in-law's library -- these dispatches seem stirringly intimate: the organizing principle being what he cherishes in literature and why.
Describing the late literary scholar Edmund Wilson, Wood writes that Wilson's criticism is marked by "robustness, by its glinting, pugnacious clarity, by its need to turn analysis into narrative, by its exhaustive and sometimes exhausting scholarship, and by the tense, prosaic music of its sentences." Wood could just as well be describing his own work, robust and glinting, marked by scholarship -- the fun of Wood's caliber of criticism is his shared enthusiasm. The thrill of these essays is the joy of vivid, intellectual collaboration.
Kathryn Savage's writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Ploughshares book reviews blog, and City Pages. She teaches creative writing at the Loft Literary Center.