Tag Archives: James Wood

Literary power couple

Bobs-Burgers-The-Belchies-550x649I read this profile of James Wood and Claire Messud some time ago, and, especially after all the interesting coverage of The Woman Upstairs, finally broke down and decided I had better not damn the dame for all my ambivalence towards the man. So I’m finally reading The Emperor’s Children.

Perhaps inevitably, it contains some sidewise commentary on David Foster Wallace via a character’s overly earnest attempts to educate himself. It’s played for humor, I think, but it’s one of those referents that comes so loaded with Messud’s husband’s very public views that the whole thing lends itself to a post-modern meta-interpretation akin to that which Wallace himself described in E Unibus Pluram (though that was of course concerned with television).


(Aside: I have just now realized that my copies of How Fiction Works and Consider the Lobster sit only three books apart on my shelf. Perhaps I should remedy that.)

Re-reading part of E Unibus Pluram has made me appreciate anew how the discussion of these dynamics in television continues to dominate pop culture. See also Bob’s Burgers, a show that Seth and I have been really enjoying. A consistent thread of the show’s humor is metacommentary, see for example an episode called The Belchies (Goonies), the pleasurable genius of which is better experienced than explained, which brings me to Wood, who never met a pleasure that couldn’t be picked apart for a thorough analysis. Or maybe he could, I don’t know. I’m being hyperbolic here because I so thoroughly lack that sort of critical impulse.

I found my copy of the Irresponsible Self, which I intended to read in tandem with The Emperor’s Children, but I didn’t get past the introduction, in which Wood acknowledges the pitfalls of dissecting comedy, then proceeds to do just that with his maiden example. The dissection proceeds for several paragraphs, becoming more and more precise, until I just had to slam the book closed in a full-body paroxysm of critical theory aversion.

Where does this aversion come from? I’m not completely sure, but back in January, New York Magazine published a great article called Why You Never Truly Leave High School, which got me thinking. My sophomore English class was taught by this chipper creature who single-handedly destroyed my love for To Kill a Mockingbird with her over-explication of it. This is, again, a bit hyperbolic, and there are I think at least as many if not more inspiring and lovely teachers than those whose Cliff Notes-level insights into a book cheapen your affection for it…but maybe that experience was the point at which I closed myself off to critical theory.

Such is my distaste for that teacher that I kind of modeled a character after her in a short story I just revised. It’s really more of a parody than a model, actually, but in this latest revision, I was all, what the hell. And I gave her the actual teacher’s name. It wasn’t a very kind impulse on my part, and I’ll probably change it back, but it gave me a tiny thrill to do it.


The best is yet to come

It’s that time of year…the time for film and music writers at publications of all stripes, online and print, to compile best-of-the-year and best-of-the-decade lists. Le sigh.

I read a couple best-music-of-the-decade lists earlier this month and last month, ie Pitchfork and the AV Club and some other that I’ve now forgotten. I used to peruse these lists with attention because I saw them as a way to discover music I was otherwise missing. Now, perhaps because I am so damn old, I’m losing patience with them. Some are so insular that they should come with a disclaimer, ie best self-released/indie-label rock. The counter-argument to that is that readers of Pitchfork know what kind of music they cover, so why would they expect to find the best of, say, hiphop represented?

I think this speaks to the growing niche-ification that the internet facilitates. We self-select into groups that like the same music that we like, that read the same books that we read, hold the same political beliefs that we do, etc, etc. So yeah, I was pleased to see Funeral on virtually all the lists, because I still love it and listen to it. I was also pleased to see that Phoenix topped the AV Club’s best of 2009 (even if the writeup was lukewarm). The Phoenix thing made me feel validated for loving Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix so much, which is stupid and yet goes to show you: the internet is an echo-chamber. (But not completely: when will people realize how great The Gaslight Anthem is??)

I think I came of age in the time of the declining critical personality. I think the phenomenon is more visible in film reviewers than music (read: Pauline Kael). I still read Roger Ebert, and have been absorbing his film reviews since I was a teenager. The thing about a critical personality is that you come to understand their likes and dislikes and can compensate accordingly. For example, Ebert has a more or less acknowledged soft spot for B movies, and I can read a great review for a film that I can tell will leave me cold. I guess the contemporary equivalent in literature is James Wood. I don’t know who the music counterpart  is. I know a handful of AV Club reviewers by name and respect their opinions and even know that there’s some variation in taste there, but — and this is horrible to say — they don’t read as individuals to me. The personalities are stripped away and the reviews are packaged in AV Club house style.

It’s tough for me to discuss film and music criticism in the same category, though, so I don’t know why I’m trying. I read music reviews for discovery, and I read film reviews to determine whether or not something is worth my ten bucks. eMusic has made music-buying less of an investment, and something I’m more willing to experiment with. But I think that aggregate review services like Rotten Tomatoes are actually making me more risk-averse in terms of film-going. Something that’s “only” 70 percent fresh could actually be right up my alley. Although my favorite film of the year is 93 percent fresh, so I guess there’s something to it after all.