James Wood is a vexed subject. Like Jonathan Franzen, he inspires such polarized reactions that I can’t even begin to recognize the writer I read—who does some great work and some bad work, some beautiful pieces with dumb moments in them and some dumb pieces with the occasional sentence that brings you up short—in the reputation that billows around him. And again like Franzen, he seems to have gotten cast as the figurehead of various ideas and tendencies to a degree that completely overshadows anything I find on the page. In the mid-2000s, he was decried as a proponent of Biedermeier novels, a latter-day John Updike; the term “social realism” was, rather bizarrely, redefined from its original meaning (Soviet-era boy-meets-tractor stories) and used to describe the kind of fiction he was supposed to prefer. When he proved to have a larger and more flexible view of fiction than this stereotype allowed for, and championed writers outside his supposed bailiwick, this was taken as further evidence of his perfidy. When people hate you for being a way, and then also for being any other way, the problem is not you. This is prosecutor logic, or gameplaying.
All of this should not be taken to mean that I invariably agree with him, love him, or even read everything he writes. I am an adult with a job, and I have sat out at least a few Wood-related Twitter cycles. Yesterday this interview came to my attention, especially this bit:
Could there, I asked Wood, be such a thing as a religious novel– a book that is positively for God, not against him?
“Probably not,” he replied. “I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels—To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway—and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying—though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.”
My first thought is that, on this reading, the Bible itself is not good religious writing at all. The OT patriarchs are notoriously corrugated. (This was one of the French Enlightenment’s big problems with the OT.) Jesus’ disciples are corrugated; the New Testament goes out of its way to portray them as clueless and intermittently treacherous. (“Get thee behind me, Satan.”) Wood seems to think that a “properly” religious novel would call no attention to the fact that religious people have feet of clay. It seems to me that such a fiction, if it could even exist, would be incredibly dangerous, to that religion most of all. What an inducement to self-righteousness.
The more I think about it, the less I understand what Wood thinks a properly religious or, since that’s what he’s really talking about here, properly Christian fiction might be. Does he think The Brothers Karamazov, which actually kept me in the fold when I was eighteen, would be even more “Christian” of a novel if we edited out Father Ferapont, the sudden rotting of Zossima’s body, or the great confrontation between Ivan and Alyosha? These are what make the book work as a piece of fiction, and also as a work of Christian art. They allow the reader to entertain other possible ways of life seriously, and make it possible for Alyosha’s continued belief (and mine, the first time I read it) to demonstrate, not its Final Triumph over those alternatives, but its durability against them, and its ability to survive change. Since I take it that Final Triumph isn’t on the table right now, for anyone—nobody really knows what the hell is going on here, and we don’t find out till we’re dead—a book that shows how Christian faith can sustain, deepen, fortify, and provoke growth in the character of a thinking adult is doing all the work a Christian novel would need to do. Flaws and ridiculousness are very much to the point.
It occurs to me that Wood’s comments make sense if we swap out one word: wherever he says “religious,” read “fanatical.” And I’d agree that there are no good fanatic novels. Left Behind, Walden Two, Atlas Shrugged, The Celestine Prophecy: they all have their fans, but what those people love is the clarifying and simplifying power of having only one answer to every question. (Talk about lifehacking!) Truth in these novels is something suddenly announced to the world from without, rather than messily lived through, and with, and toward. If that’s Christianity, or religion more generally, or the novel, you can keep them all. I will keep attending to whatever it is that Robinson is doing in Gilead, or Dostoevsky in Karamazov, or for that matter what Al Green is doing in his music. And what James Wood does, intermittently, in the best of his criticism, when he’s not falsely pitting the two great, tortured loves of his life, God and the novel, against each other.