Isaac Chotiner, colaborador del sitio Slate, entrevistó al que quizás es el crítico literario más importante en los Estados Unidos: James Wood, quien escribe para la revista The New Yorker.
¿De qué manera las nuevas tecnologías han cambiado las formas de leer? ¿Cómo incide el envejecimiento en la escritura de los críticos? ¿Escribir ficción, ser autor de novelas o cuentos, afecta la manera de escribir crítica? ¿Se puede abandonar la pluma y los ojos de crítico para tomar un libro y leerlo por el puro placer? Para James Wood no hay, nunca hubo, competencia entre placer y análisis: disfruta escribir crítica de libros. Les comparto un fragmento de la charla:
Isaac Chotiner: Has writing fiction changed the way you think about writing criticism?
James Wood: It is some time ago that I wrote a novel. I am trying to write another novel—I hope a better one—now. I don’t know that it materially affected the way I read. I think for me that the creative and critical were always very intertwined. I do think that, though I was determined to deny it in a bullish manner in 2003 and 2004 when my novel came out, perhaps it did inaugurate a slightly milder tone in my own criticism. I just became generally a bit more sympathetic to how difficult it is to write a successful novel. It didn’t mean that I stopped writing occasional negative reviews, but I think there was some demonstrable change in tone.
It does seem now that you are writing more about books or writers you like, or trying to call attention to new novelists that people may not know, rather than taking down big writers. It’s interesting that you ascribe that change to novel writing rather than switching from the New Republic to the New Yorker.
It’s hard to know to what extent it was the act of putting out a novel: writing it, publishing it, having it reviewed. And to what extent it was that inevitable change from one institution to another. There was no doubt for me that when I moved from the New Republic to the New Yorker, from a smaller magazine to a larger magazine, that I had to rethink a little about the way I was going to write. And indeed that was part of the attraction of the change. Small magazines partly survive on militancy. And that’s very important. And there might be a part of me that would want the New Yorker to be more militant, and to have something more of the small magazine pugilism, but I was aware that my approach to writing criticism would change, and I was happy for a change. There was a sense of repeating myself, of digging deep into the same groove again.
When you go back and look at your old stuff, then, do you feel there were some writers you should have been more generous to?
Right, well generally I wish I’d slowed down a bit more with David Foster Wallace. And indeed I took the opportunity to try to do that later by choosing Brief Interviews With Hideous Men as a book to teach. That is sort of a nonpublic or nonprint way of taking the time that wasn’t available in journalism, and forcing myself to be less judgmental. The classroom isn’t really the place for those sorts of judgments and 80 percent of your students are going to be Wallace-heads anyway. So that’s a writer who I look back on with some ruefulness.
Strangely enough, although it was one of my most vicious, and gleefully vicious pieces, the piece on George Steiner would be one. There’s nothing that I think is wrong, objectively speaking, but when I look at the tone it makes me wince a little. I was 31 or 32 or something. It has a young man’s swinging aggression. [Laughs]
I went back recently and read a very negative piece I’d written, and while there was no specific sentence that I thought was factually wrong, I did wonder about the focus and the tone.
It’s just the sort of smarty-pants tone thing.
Yes, exactly, which I will now try to take in this interview. But despite all this, I do think our culture is filled with people being too nice.
And of course great criticism is often very, very sharp. Is there any way in which being at the New Yorker inhibits you? If you wanted to write a really nasty piece about Jonathan Franzen—or, let me rephrase, if you read the new Jonathan Franzen book, and thought, “I want to write something really vicious about that,” is there a way in which you are inhibited because the institution you write for is the home to Franzen and so many of today’s great fiction writers?
Yeah I think there probably is actually an institutional block there. And yeah, I think that is an inhibition. So far, for me, it’s been productive because I’ve tried to find ways around it. So in other words, you know, don’t just review the new Pynchon or, as it might be, the new Franzen. Instead try Elena Ferrante. And I love doing that. Whether one can keep on doing that I don’t know. I mean obviously there’s always something wonderful to be discovered.
But you get to choose the kinds of things you’re reviewing?
I do, I do. But yeah, I think there are probably certain sensitivities around writers who write regularly as journalists for the magazine or whose fiction is regularly accepted. And of course that was never a problem at the New Republic.
Have you read the new Franzen?
I haven’t read the new one, no.
He is obviously very interested in technology. So is Dave Eggers. So are many other writers. Are there any whom you think have captured the technological changes of this era particularly well?
I suppose you would certainly have to credit Wallace here. He was turning out to be a good deal more conservative than we took him to be and probably not least in terms of technology. He was also someone who spoke to so many people of his age because the fiction seemed in some way to be such an embedded response to the distractions and seductions and perhaps the insanity of technological life in all its forms. I recently wrote about this Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, who has a book out called My Documents.
This is the post-Pinochet writer?
Yeah, he’s an interesting post-modernist who is not in any easy postmodern way in flight from history. Quite the opposite. He is caught up in Chilean history. His characters are completely computer conversant. He has a story that tells the tale of the decline and break-up of a relationship by narrating the couple’s use of a shared computer. I felt constantly—and this was something I don’t usually feel about contemporary writing—that I was in the presence of someone who really wanted to make the computer an element of their text.
What about with you? Do you find yourself lying in bed and picking up Madame Bovary and then looking at your phone instead?
I’m sure I do. I’m more easily distracted, I have a shorter attention span, and I’m probably more daunted by longer books than I would have been 10 years ago. To what extent that’s just being a parent and having less time for everything I don’t know, but it’s definitely there.
You’ve been a critic for 25 years, and I was wondering the degree to which you are able to read not as a critic? Can you read differently on vacation than when you are reviewing?
I think it is the same for me.
You have a pen and everything?
For me, there’s no competition between pleasure and analysis. And there never was. That might be the self-selecting answer as to why I became a critic. At exactly the moment that I wanted really to write, and started writing poems and then trying to write bad fiction, I was reading with a view to learning stuff. I was reading poetry. How did Auden do his stanza forms? And I was trying to copy those. What’s a successful poem, what’s an unsuccessful poem?
So you were looking at sentences?
Right. What’s a good sentence? I don’t think I’ve changed. I am as sincerely interested in novels that fail as I am in novels that succeed. I just want to work them out. It’s a pleasure for me actually…