James Wood vs the Gifted Amateur

There’s no question that James Wood is one of the best at what he does. The question is: what does he do? He’s a professional literary critic whose angstrom-close readings sometimes seem to be the work of a team of researchers at Bell Laboratories, yes, but what does a professional literary critic, in a modernly modern sense, do? The ‘critic’ is the Artist’s vestigial twin, and the adjective ‘professional’ is the shibboleth of modern modernity. You’re nothing these days if you’re not a professional, a judgment pertaining to the Arts as pitilessly as to the Trades, and James Wood is no nothing. As a critic he gives advice, and as a professional critic he gives his publishers, his audience and his subjects their money’s worth. The advice he gives isn’t cheap, simple, or to be confused with the efforts of a gifted amateur.

Just as today’s Professional Sports dwarf the gifted amateurism of their antecedents and lose in purity, community and grace what they gain in technology, ubiquity and spectacle, the professionalized Arts, along with such dependent trades as Arts Criticism, often lose in meaning and purpose what they gain in… professionalism. Mr. Wood’s professionalism comes at the expense of his purpose, unless his purpose is merely to give authoritarian advice to the reader who reads him about what to read and how to read it while advising the other writers his readers read and who read him what to write and how to write it.

While the amateur critics of bygone eras allowed the unreliable impulses of inspiration and passion to move them to write about books about which they were from time to time feeling enchanted, incensed or merely curious, modernly modern professionalism demands a level and consistency of output that renders such rationed, interest-motivated production impossible. Modernly modern professionalism, with any success or longevity, inevitably engenders a Brand. The gifted amateur can only offer the stumbled-upon epiphany where the modernly modern professional promises the security of the Brand.

Modern modernity mandates a scientifically maximalized, Brand-based professionalism that systematically excludes the amateur touch from every good and service that it maximalizes, with one result being that the once marginally professional Fine Arts, Entertainment and Team Sports nexus has become an epiphany-free product cluster. James Wood is emblematic of the pitfalls of applying scientifically maximalized professionalism to a field that is the natural preserve of the gifted amateur.

Scientifically maximalized Professionalism is stringently systematic, tends toward gigantism and presents a deliberately intimidating façade; this is as true of Major League Baseball as it is of the global Fast Food Chain or James Wood’s literary criticism. The deliberately intimidating façade functions as both symbol and filter: a symbol that the touch of the amateur has been filtered from the premises and a filter to the amateur’s touch. Mr. Wood’s intimidating façade is the depth, breadth and esotericism of the knowledge he employs in the literary advice it is his job to produce. The gigantism his modernly modern professionalism suffers from is exemplified in his tendency to advise against the reading and enjoyment (as well as the writing) of whole categories of novel, rather than, as would be likely in the case of a gifted amateur of Mr. Wood’s learning and sanity, producing strictures against the weaker aspects of weaker examples of work from these categories.

Wood’s famous attack on ‘Hysterical Realists’ (Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, et al) immediately after 9/11, exploiting the confusion in its wake for the sake of an attempted paradigmatic coup, was, in fact, an attack of his scientific professionalism upon whatever vestiges of the gifted amateur still lurk in the works of these professionalized writers. The ‘empty’ stylistic double-talk he seems to think these writers use as a smokescreen to obscure (like murders to cover a fraud) failures of intent and execution regarding his systematized definition of proper novel-writing are really nothing more sinister than manifestations of the semi-systematic, highly personal, inspiration-based signature of gifted amateurism.

Wood (who often writes like a TV critic who started as a TV repairman and can’t write a review without mentioning RCA tubes) the modernly modern professional advises his readers not merely to be skeptical of certain aspects of this ‘Hysterical Realist’ canon but to dismiss it altogether; he advises writers such as DeLillo and Franzen and Smith not merely to be wary of certain tics and tendencies on the next outing…he advises them to not be themselves at all: to stop writing, essentially. To clear the way, presumably, for far more modernly modern professional novelists who would be a tighter fit to his criticism.

What professionalized professionalism demands (that gifted amateurism is at liberty to slack on) is constant, regular output…the curse of the assembly line. The necessity of regular output minimizes the primacy of inspiration as a spur to production. Whereas the gifted amateur critic is free to write when and about what and to the extent that his or her (often capricious) passions move her/him, the professionalized professional (hereafter to be referred to as the Professionalist) critic is bound at some point to ignore or disappoint the state of his or her passion for the sake of the level of her/his output.

Further, to the extent that a Professionalist approach must polish the fingerprint of the amateurist touch from the product’s finish, Professionalist criticism often employs intimidatingly heavy, expensive equipment where the amateur most often relied on eccentric, handmade tools…with no measurable improvement in the quality of the product.