Lethem v. Wood: Whose Fault Is It, Anyway?

In “My Disappointment Critic,” the essay excerpted in the Los Angeles Review of Books from Jonathan Lethem’s new collection, the author defends his book The Fortress of Solitude (eight whole years later!) against what he considers to be an unfair review written by the august literary critic James Wood.

“Why, I hear you moan in your sheets, […] violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review?” Lethem asks in the very first paragraph. The fairness of this question is evident in the general response to the essay so far, e.g. this comment: “Nothing more tedious than authors responding to critics.”

The contretemps is more complicated than it looks, and also reveals the potential for a better way for authors, readers and critics to communicate: by reading one another both closely, and generously.

The expat Brit Wood is the biggest mahoff there is in literary-critical circles. He’s a staff writer at The New Yorker, and a part-time professor at Harvard. I guess he won the Berlin Prize, and is spending a year in Germany just now. And he’s a big snob, all right. Much as he may say he admires Burroughs and Kerouac, they are conspicuously absent from his book How Fiction Works. It’s Bolaño, Pushkin, Larkin, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Saramago and the like who really ring his bell. It was Wood who coined the pestilential phrase “hysterical realism” that had a lot of people (myself included) hissing like furious cats, back at the turn of the century.

So in the essay, Lethem says that he was so steamed about Wood’s review of his book that he dashed off a scathing letter to him right then and there. Wood responded with a postcard basically saying, “I’m sorry you felt that way… I liked the book so much more than any of your other work.” This drove Lethem up a tree. He goes on to make the familiar and not entirely unsound point that Wood writes like “an aristocrat who never really expected those below him to understand the function of the social order.”

I very much enjoyed The Fortress of Solitude. Not as much as the audiobook of Motherless Brooklyn, read so dazzlingly by Steve Buscemi, but a lot. So I went along and looked at Wood’s review of The Fortress of Solitude, steeling myself for the usual apoplexy. Imagine my surprise at finding Wood to have written a magically beautiful review; he is right as rain, too, both about the faults of Lethem’s book and about its glories. For he, too, really did love the book a lot; I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with him so perfectly. Wood gives The Fortress of Solitude four stars out of five, I would say. It is Lethem, it turns out, who totally misread Wood.

Lethem’s fidelity to the child’s eye is finely maintained; he skillfully captures the allure, the menace, and the shame involved in discovering, for the first time, that another boy is stronger than oneself. Even as an adult, Dylan will never successfully repress that amalgam of emotions whenever he confronts Robert Woolfolk. Subtly, Robert Woolfolk is almost always referred to in the novel by his alienatingly full name — a good example of the ways in which boys may fail ever to grow into men. As far as the world of this novel is concerned, Robert Woolfolk will always be “Robert Woolfolk,” the stranger who turned up one day on Dean Street; he is named but never possessed, never gains the familiarity of first-namedness. […]

If there is an air of being cleverer than little Dylan, there is never an air of being cleverer than Dylan at Dylan’s expense. If the prose turns analytical, then the subject of the analysis remains fresh and uncharted to most of us. Above all, we share the feeling, often infectious, that Lethem himself wants to work this mass of codes out, that he is exploring it anew. There is a genuine atmosphere of cognitive novelty; Lethem manages to combine childish innocence and adult knowingness (not just childish knowingness) in ways that ought to fail but invariably delight and intrigue.

It’s hard to imagine anyone not being thrilled with such praise. With such attention, even. Wood is a famously careful, close reader.

Lethem has two complaints about this review. One is that Wood “failed to register” the fact that the characters in his book find a magic ring that allows them to fly and to be invisible. Nothing that Wood wrote necessarily indicates such a failure, and I did not find that the omission of this part of the story detracted from Wood’s review. The magic ring in The Fortress of Solitude is somewhat of a MacGuffin; the book isn’t really about the ring at all, at least not in the way that The Lord of the Rings is about a ring. Its discovery and its subsequent fate may shape the plot some, but the ring doesn’t alter the book’s characters very deeply, which makes the supernatural part seem tacked-on in a way. This failure of the ring’s magic is maybe the most frequently-made criticism of the novel (cf. A.O. Scott in the Times, and John Leonard in the NYRB.)

The second criticism, which the author says stuck even worse in his craw, is this:

Wood complained of the book’s protagonist: “We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book … or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman.” […] My huffy, bruised, two-page letter to Wood detailed the fifteen or twenty most obvious, most unmissable instances of my primary character’s reading: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Mad magazine, as well as endless scenes of looking at comic books. Never mind the obsessive parsing of LP liner notes, or first-person narration which included moments like: “I read Peter Guralnick and Charlie Gillett and Greg Shaw…” That my novel took as one of its key subjects the seduction, and risk, of reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated, I couldn’t demand Wood observe. But not reading? This enraged me.

That is not quite fair on a number of levels. First, here’s the original quote from Wood:

We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book (there is a canonical mention of Steppenwolf, which is just more cultural anthropology, and just about it for literature in Dylan’s life), or encountering music that is not the street’s music, or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman. There is no need for Lethem to be conventional, of course; but there is a need for Dylan to have outline, to have mental personality.

So Lethem’s response misses the main point, which is that his hero evinces a lack of “mental personality.” Okay, let’s go back to the book and see about this long list of seminal authors using our handy ebook search feature.

That Dylan Ebdus doesn’t read is, in fact, a totally fair criticism. He more like mentions things he’s read, in that kind of pleasurably in-group way familiar to readers of modern literary fiction. Dylan groks things. There is a cape, “cut out of a worn Dr. Seuss bedsheet featuring A Lion Licking A Lemon Lollipop”; later, as a frantic, cratering adult, he lists the many things he needs, including a Bloody Mary and a Thneed. None of that is what James Wood meant up above by “reading a book,” viz., delineating a developing “mental personality.” Nothing really happens to Dylan as a result of his reading — what Wood is feeling the need of — at least, nothing that we can see.

I must say I’m with Wood on the whole idea of a “mental personality” being a prerequisite for a compelling character in fiction. That doesn’t necessarily come from reading books, as he observes. It’s like your mind’s hand in the hand of the character’s mind, progressing through ideas together, trying things out, changing.

The most striking example of Dylan’s intellectual hollowness comes when his father, Abraham, nervously gives Dylan a copy of Neural Circus, a comic book which Abraham describes as “my first published book”; he is very aware of his son reading it as he prepares dinner:

Dylan didn’t look up as Abraham entered. The kid read books like he was engaged on some sort of scavenger procedure, scowling in concentration, turning pages at improbable speed while he flayed away the inessential flesh of prose and inspected the skeleton of story, the bare facts or crucial nonsense. Dylan Ebdus didn’t read, he filleted.

But Dylan never reacts to the book after that, either inwardly or outwardly, other than to say to his father, “Not bad.” That is it, that’s all. It makes no sense, given the keen, weird intimacy that waxes and wanes between father and son throughout the book. I understand that the detachment of Dylan Ebdus is one of the main features of this story: “reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated.” What’s missing for Wood (and it was missing for me too, I am not gonna lie) is an articulated understanding of how Dylan’s inner world is altered by his experiences.

And by the way, if that is what Lethem wants us to see, a complicated thing and not a simple, obvious one, isn’t the book itself a “demand” that we see it? Whose fault is it, if we don’t?

Even weirder, we later (years and years later) learn that Abraham Ebdus never read Neural Circus, not ever; he found even the title “distasteful,” he says. So the original intensity with which Abraham watched his son reading the book kind of makes no sense, either; Abraham had provided only the book’s cover art. Maybe the description of Abraham’s keen interest in his son’s reading is also intended somehow to indicate the passage of that distant frieze? Like father, like son? If so, big deal! It really drove me kind of nuts.

So, to back off a bit. Lethem is asking, legitimately, that we readers confront his work on its own terms. That in order to give a “good faith” reading, we must give this honest attention to what is being said on its own merits. His essay shouldn’t just be dismissed as petulant, egotistical whining. A lot of what it says is true. But the deeper implication here is that the author James Wood, also, should be confronted on his own terms. This, I think, Lethem has failed to do.

About books I’m Quakerish, believing every creature eligible to commune face-to-face with the Light; he’s a high priest, handing down sacred mysteries. To one who pines for a borderless literary universe, he looks like a border cop, checking IDs. The irony of Wood’s criticisms of Bloom is that Wood’s own “narcissism of minor difference” looks unmistakable: Wood is a critic whose better angels are at the mercy of his essentialist impulses.

Where Lethem goes wrong is in supposing that he can dictate or control the way people are going to read his books according to some higher, more democratic and less “essentialist” wisdom, because yes, he may mock Wood for supposing himself “a high priest,” but what is Lethem doing if not setting himself “above”? Lethem himself is a high priest, of that higher wisdom that honors comic books along with Dostoevsky. Let me be clear, I agree with him, so far as that goes. All literature can and maybe should be judged on the same plane; there is no such thing as a “canon.” That inclusionism means including James Wood, is the thing. As writer, and as reader, too. If we’re including, that means including the high as well as the low.

Finally, it’s not quite fair to suppose that it’s the reader’s job and his alone to come over there and “understand” it all. And it isn’t “essentialist” to ask that the author’s point be made clearly. This “punitive parochialism” that Lethem accuses Wood of, might it not just be the way the guy reads, legitimately, honestly, and isn’t it a legitimate part of his “parochial” expectation that you not write in shorthand? That you come his way, at least some?

You have to wonder how readers of the future are going to handle reading books like Lethem’s, that require such a deep, rich pop-cultural education even to halfway fathom what is being said. In a way they are asking as much or more of their readers than James Wood is: even today, not everybody has read Robert Heinlein andDr. Seuss and understands the significance of quoting Brian Eno.

To the extent he was able, Wood gave Lethem a fair shot. He is a super-demanding reader, not a yes-man or a pushover, but Lethem could rest assured that this was a well-prepared reader who was going to pay serious attention. Dude does not phone it in. There is no finessing that, much as one may (violently!) disagree with Wood a lot of the time.

The best part of Wood’s review, the really interesting part, is where the process is working, for both writers: where Lethem’s book works for Wood, and Wood is describing, with such sensitivity and grace, his pleasure for us. This speaks to the idea of inclusion, of including readers and critics, including authors, in the whole cultural practice of reading and understanding; and honoring all in whatever limitations we may respectively bring. To find the place where we can agree and enjoy good things together. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the carping or snark that is the most fun and interesting element of good criticism, it is the moment of clarity. The hand-in-hand moment.

From comics, Mingus leads Dylan to the cartoonish art of graffiti, to the world of the “tag” (the artist’s logo) and the “top-to-bottom burner” (a train or subway car covered from top to bottom in spray-painted letters and images). In a marvelous passage, Mingus takes Dylan to the Brooklyn Bridge, to show him the imperially high spot on one of the towers where two kids have already signed their tags:

Mingus showed the way. They circled under the onramp to find stone stairs up into the sunlight of the bridge’s walkway, then started across, over the river, traffic howling in cages at their feet, the gray clotted sky clinging to the bridge’s veins, Manhattan’s dinosaur spine rotating into view as they mounted the great curve above the river. The walkway’s slats were uneven, some rotten. Just an armature of bolted wire lay between Mingus and Dylan’s sneakertips and the pulsing, glittering water. The bridge was an argument or plea with space … the two of them stood in awe, apes at a monolith, glimpsing if not understanding their future.

In such moments, Lethem persuades us to join his own childish awe, and makes glistening even for those who never spilled a drop of graffiti the excitement of the vandalizing urge. Lethem’s prose is distractingly uneven. It can be superb.

Related: What Makes A Great Critic?

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.