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The Irresponsible Self


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A collection of dazzling essays from one of the world's finest and most controversial literary critics.

About the Author

James Wood has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2007. In 2009, he won the National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism. He was the chief literary critic at the Guardian from 1992 to 1995, and a book critic at the New Republic from 1995 to 2007. He has published a number of books with Cape, including How Fiction Works, which has been translated into thirteen languages.


Still writing with magisterial sweep and terrific intensity, Wood (The Book Against God) in this newest collection of review-essays celebrates the indeterminate voice of comic narrative, which "replaces the knowable with the unknowable, transparency with unreliability," enabling the reader's sympathies without directing them. This voice aids the development of secular modernity, part of a "comedy of forgiveness" in which morality, no longer the voice of divine law, itself partakes of the foibles and variances of human temperament. Starting inevitably with Shakespeare and Cervantes, Wood offers up assessments of individual (male) writers who in one way or another exemplify Wood's principle, including Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, Joseph Roth, Henry Green, Bellow. Oddly juxtaposed with this late 19th- to mid-20th-century sequence is a group of rather bilious reviews of a more recent generation of fiction, which Wood never deigns to call postmodern. His tone ranging from respectful reservation (about J.M. Coetzee) to outright contempt (for Tom Wolfe), Wood hammers vigilantly at the failure of intellectual, cultural and political motives to make good fiction. Unlike American culture-warriors, Wood takes his sharp ear and deep convictions straight to the work itself, carefully explaining the structural, formal and tonal weaknesses of what he calls "hysterical realism," revealing his distaste for journalism and pop culture but never advancing it. Most compelling is the way his own style swells and contracts with his subject matter, blithely metaphorical in praising Bellow, earnest and lucid in sorting out Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith, sarcastic in attacking Rushdie. Still, meaner spirits will await Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs, also due in June. Agent, The Wiley Agency. (June 16) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Wood is one of the finest critics at work today, heir to Coleridge, Hazlitt and V. S. Pritchett...He combines the breadth and seriousness of Edmund Wilson with the pellucid prose style of Cyril Connolly...Wood pursues his craft with a high seriousness the like of which we had not thought to see again after the death of Lionel Trilling -- John Banville * Irish Times *
Breathtakingly good... James Wood is pretty much as good a general critic of literary fiction as you'll find writing in English at the moment * The Times *
A stylish writer as well as a clear-sighted reader. His prose bristles with the sort of epigrammatic brilliance that asks challenging questions even when providing answers * Spectator *
The most urgent and morally demanding critic around is the brilliant James Wood... A second powerful collection * Guardian *
This is a collection to be read by anyone who wouldn't normally dream of reading literary criticism * Financial Times *

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