James Wood Has a Go at Paul Auster

For reasons that have never really been clear to me, Paul Auster seems to be Europe's favorite contemporary American writer. Perhaps it's down to his heavy-lidded, writerly good looks, or because his last name means 'oyster' in German, or because his novelist wife speaks Norwegian. At any rate, his books are immediately translated all major European languages an many minor ones, and he is feted over here. Over at the New Yorker, critic James Wood wonders why:

A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading—a woman drawn and quartered in a German concentration camp, a man beheaded in Iraq, a woman severely beaten by a man with whom she is about to have sex, a boy kept in a darkened room for nine years and periodically beaten, a woman accidentally shot in the eye, and so on. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere. People say things like “You’re one tough cookie, kid,” or “My pussy’s not for sale,” or “It’s an old story, pal. You let your dick do your thinking for you, and that’s what happens.” A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book. There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster. At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist.

Although there are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, the prose is never one of them…. When he thinks about actual America, however, his language stiffens into boilerplate. Recalling the Newark riots of 1968, he describes a member of the New Jersey State Police, “a certain Colonel Brand or Brandt, a man of around forty with a razor-sharp crew cut, a square, clenched jaw, and the hard eyes of a marine about to embark on a commando mission.”

The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue. Peter Aaron, the narrator of “Leviathan,” whose prose is so pressureless, claims that “I have always been a plodder, a person who anguishes and struggles over each sentence, and even on my best days I do no more than inch along, crawling on my belly like a man lost in the desert. The smallest word is surrounded by acres of silence for me.” Not enough silence, alas.

16 thoughts on “James Wood Has a Go at Paul Auster

  1. Just why are Wood favorites like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan better than Auster?

    Both strike me as just as “facile” (in the meaning of “shallow,” not the archaic one of “pleasing”) as Auster, if not more.

    Beware the critic who comes armored with aesthetic theories and swinging his truncheon of preciosity.

  2. I think Auster is best in the short stories. Of the novels I only really liked the New York Trilogy.
    McEwan is IMHO indeed indefinitely better because he has a talent to bring everything very vividly to life. I don’t like all of his books, but “Atonement”, “Enduring Love” and “Saturday” are among my all-time favourite novels.

  3. I have just read the entire piece by James Wood (Shallow Grave, The New Yorker, Nov 30th 2009) wherein he reviews Auster’s ‘Invisible’ and could not quite believe Wood’s snide and vicious tone. It begs the question: do Auster and Wood have history?

  4. Wife, if you’re offended, don’t assume that harm was meant. The comment was flippant, not “vicious.”

    “Vicious” more likely applies to James Wood, who did a hatchet job on Paul Auster in the pages of the very influential “New Yorker.”

    The Kakutani school of slash-and-burn criticism may be one way to build up a career as a reviewer, but it makes me cringe to see an author like Paul Auster, who has given so many so much reading pleasure, exposed to shabby abuse:

    “L’eau d’Auster”

    “confesses his own creative lack”

    “corny”

    “cinemaspeak”

    “bland and slack”

    “does nothing with cliché except use it”

    And so on.

    Not that Wood is entirely off track, but I won’t reward this verbal bully by acknowledging the power he thinks he’ll gain by lacerating others in print.

  5. I’ve never read any books by Auster, so I’ll hold my tongue on the substance.

    But isn’t there a place for pans in literary reviewing? American book reviewing, especially, is often criticized for being too timid and bland. Wood comes from across the pond, where it’s considered one of the sacred duties of the reviewer to harshly denounce crap. And no, you can’t always do this using the sort of polite language appropriate to departmental disagreements. If dialogue sounds like it comes from a B movie, then that’s what you say. If you disagree with Wood, then I think the proper response is not to complain about his tone, but to make a positive case for why he’s wront on the merits. That is, a positive case about why Auster is worth reading.

    The fact that millions of people indubitably enjoy reading the author’s books certainly can’t give him or her a blank check. After all, Dan Brown has given millions of people tons of reading pleasure.

    A well-written takedown can be invigorating, not least because it usually engages the reviewer’s passion. One of the most amusing books I’ve read in German is Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s ‘Lauter Verrisse’ (roughly, nothing but pans).

  6. Happy to report that two lambs were born here today, one white, the other entirely black. Fortunately, the weather is mild. Both lambs are healthy and lively.

    The positive case for Auster—or for McEwan, for that matter—comes down to personal taste. He writes the sort of novel I like to read while the chestnuts roast by the fire and the old hound dreams of rabbits, etc. He has a compelling voice and I find correspondences between his range of experience and my own. He has a Dickensian sensibility that appeals to me. He is Benjamin’s ideal author, “ein Mann, der dem Hörer Rat weiß.” For these and other reasons, I regard him from my reader’s point of view as a friend, and I do not think I am alone among readers in identifying myself with a favored author to the point that I rush to defend him from such attacks, founded on exaggerated and distorted claims, as those made by Wood.

  7. Just one more response to your comment, Andrew.

    Thanks for your reference to Reich-Ranicki. There certainly is a place for pans in literary reviewing. Hitchens and Vidal can be lethal and amusing. However, they are best, like Wood, enjoyed tongue-in-cheek. And however entertaining a good critical ripping may be, sooner or later the question of fairness must be answered.

    That a book can be evaluated by how many readers it has isn’t my claim. It’s true that a book’s popularity is an indication of its literary value, but only over time. Dickens, for example, is still as avidly read as he was in his own day, and that makes him classic.(Whether the same can be said of either Auster or McEwan remains to be seen.)

    Wood could at least acknowledge Auster’s popularity; apparently, the very fact of his popularity motivates Wood to attack Auster. His main aim is to attract attention to himself and to enhance his profile as a reviewer. He and Auster may also have a “history,” as noted below.

    As for “positive case,” though it is the wiser strategy, it’s not easy, in the face of such negativity as Wood exhibits, to respond positively.

    I’m standing by my claim that Wood’s criticism is unfairly harsh. Judging by his writings and physical appearance, Auster is a sensitive man who may not be thick-skinned enough to ignore Wood’s review and may suffer unnecessarily because of it.

    A literary critic’s impact on an author shouldn’t be underestimated. A recent TLS comment (Dec. 2) by John Barnard “Who killed John Keats? A letter by Keats’s old friend makes clear how much ‘sensative-bitterness’ the poet felt after attacks on him by critics” claims, based on a letter by Charles Cowden Clarke, that Keats’s early death was caused, among others, by a critical attack on his poetry; as Clarke writes: “It is truly painful to see the yearnings of an eager and trusting mind thus held up to the fiend-like laugh of a brutal mob, upon the pikes and bayonets of literary mercenaries.”

    The “New Yorker” has just (Dec. 7) posted online a story, “The Uses of Poetry,” by Ian McEwan. It’s fitting that this is published coincident with this thread, because the story shows that misuse of literature may have disastrous personal consequences. It can be fatal to take the printed word too lightly.

  8. James Wood seems to be using Paul Auster’s work, as a literary criticism project, to gain influence and notoriety. His criticism is painfully boring and dull. It certainly is not what I’d expect from a Hahvahd prof.

  9. Just to add one (doubtlessly subjective) opinion: I forced myself through the entire New York Trilogy. And when I finally accomplished that task, there was no way escaping the question, why on earth so many people I know (people, who I would consider to have some stylistic demands on literature) were able to accept that calculated, cold-bloodedly emotional (in Parisian pale colours, of course) writing.

    I found it highly unoriginal, with a poorly disguised tendency towards a form of sentimentality that certainly fits into a certain peer group. But that didn’t make it more appealing to me, not feeling part of that target audience.

    Paul Auster is — to me — quite a similar phenomenon as is Philip Glass. A mysteriously successful claim for being a New York intellectualby by doing not much more than perpetuating a formula through reliable frequent output. — Of broken six-four chords (Quartsextakkorde) in the case of Glass…

    Maybe one can explain me one day, on which of these chords the intellectual part comes in, I always miss.

    So, I enjoyed that pan by Wood, thanx Andrew, once again!

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