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The Examined Life

The morals of the story

DESCRIBED BY ONE fellow litterateur as a critic of "extreme ethical rigor," The New Republic's James Wood, a 39-year-old Briton currently teaching at Harvard, has made a name for himself with his unflinching assessments of the shortcomings of everyone from Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison to young hotshots like David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Franzen, who he accuses of everything from "hysterical realism" to "postmodern provincialism." In his new collection of literary essays, "The Irresponsible Self" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Wood suggests that many of today's most brilliant writers have retreated from the rich complexities of the modern novel into the didactic, cartoon-like satire of earlier fiction. Wood spoke with Ideas via telephone from his Somerville home.

IDEAS: In what sense can such novels as Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" and Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" be said to be morally lacking?

WOOD: When you put it that way, I do sound like a finger-wagging moralist. But what I'm most interested in, as a critic, is what we might nebulously call human truth a true account of the world as we experience it, and of the full difficulty of being in that world. Creating living characters, and writing fiction expressing what Henry James called "the present palpable intimate," entails, for me at least, some kind of morality. Requiring readers to put themselves into the minds of many different kinds of other people is a moral action on the part of the author. So when I feel that reality is being exaggerated or made cartoonish which is what I mean by hysterical realism seems to me that one crucial issue at stake is morality.

IDEAS: Thanks to your antipathy toward postmodernist fiction, you have been accused of being monkish out of touch with contemporary reality.

WOOD: It might sound strange, since I criticize writers like Don DeLillo so fiercely, but I do like novels set clearly in the present age, novels full of palpabilities. I think that's what the novel can still do better than any other medium journalism doesn't provide me with news about the current state of the soul. Part of my anxiety and unease about novels by Foster Wallace, Franzen, and others is that they have swallowed a great deal of journalism, sociology, and cultural studies, which means they are no longer doing something that's not replaceable that another medium can't do as well or better. . . . I am accused of being too harsh, but the critic's job is to look at the threats, the menaces to literature.

IDEAS: Why have so many of today's comic writers drifted backward, as you suggest in your new book, away from humor and toward satire?

WOOD: I like Henry James's line that good fiction must contain characters of "free and serious depth," characters who've been let off the leash by their creator, and for whom the largest metaphysical questions are in play. The current myth of the impossibility of authenticity the idea that extreme self-consciousness has contaminated our ordinary existence, and that neither a coherent self nor the transparency of knowledge are possible is what seems to force many of today's novelists to create characters who are one-dimensional exemplary types. . . .If an earlier generation of writers Pynchon and DeLillo, for example took too many drugs, the current crop may have taken too many critical theory seminars. Instead of resisting virulent new forms of inauthenticity, they often settle for satirizing the culture always an easy thing to do. But a novel that doesn't practice resistance isn't earning its keep.