Book Review : James Wood - The Fun Stuff and Other Essays (2012)

Order THE FUN STUFF here

Most of the prose writers acclaimed for "writing beautifully" do no such thing; such praise is sent comprehensively, like the rain on the just and the unjust.

I don't know anybody who's as enthusiastic as I am about essayism. It's a literary form that lost its identity to academia for the longest time. Essays is synonym with school, so it's synonym of chore, also. The first writer who decided to take it back and de-institutionalize it was David Foster Wallace in the mid-nineties. It came a long way since and regained some glamour through serious magazines like Harper's or The Atlantic. Still, people will read an essay and won't think of the form as a vector of possibilities. Enter James Wood, a literary critic who has one foot in academia and the other in hip publications officers. In many ways, he is a creature of his time, who illustrates the emancipation of essayism. THE FUN STUFF gathers collected essays from almost a decade, so despite the Wood trademarked moments of brilliance, it lacks the conceptual polish of his other work.

James Wood's preternatural gift for picking apart fiction and rationalizing its beauty is illustrated best in his essay about Kazuo Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO. Wood explains why this is an easy novel to love (the sophisticated mechanism Ishiguro uses to trigger out sympathy) and why it's so difficult to articulate reasons to do so (it's exotic use of science-fiction tropes). He also points out how the weak ending betrays the powerful allegorical nature of the novel. It's an earnest, yet enlightening essay that will enrich your perception of Ishiguro's most praised work. That's essayism at its best. It helps you anchors an articulate perception about something you really love. While Wood's essay on Ishiguro mentions a lot of specifics, it leaves room for further debate and deeper analysis.

What set James Wood apart as an essayist, prior to THE FUN STUFF was his ability to create a composite argument, using several essays to cover the different facets of his theme. In HOW FICTION WORKS for example, Wood deconstructed the fundamentals of successful fiction through several aspects, point of views and novels. That gave him a richness of argument that's not present in THE FUN STUFF. Literary essays are a tricky thing, because if your reader hasn't read the author discussed (or worse doesn't know him/her) he needs a frame of reference to keep interest. That overarching theme is absent from THE FUN STUFF, which pulled a certain number of essays from my grasp, despite Wood's best attempts to wrap up an author's complete career and identity within a few pages.

The drummer who was the drums, when I was a boy, was the Who's Keith moon, though he was already dead by the time I first heard him. He was the drums not because he was the most technically accomplished of drummers, but because his many-armed, joyous, semaphoring lunacy suggested a man possessed by the antic spirit of drumming. He was pure, irresponsible, restless childishness.

There is a surprisingly, yet agreeably critical essay on Paul Auster where Wood makes a great case about Auster's complacency, regarding his use of post-modern themes. It's refreshing to read James Wood dissect something with such a rational anger. It's fun. Whenever essays step out of the academic realm is engaging in one way or another. His portrait of V.S Naipaul was very touching, for example and it must've required quite a bit of work, considering the peculiar nature of the character. Wood's essay on Keith Moon and the lost joys of drumming was surprisingly playful and emancipated. On the other hand, the piece on W.G Sebald's AUSTERLITZ has little to no value for someone who doesn't have an academic interest in literature.

So THE FUN STUFF doesn't really solve anything, but it highlights the very interest of his career as a public intellectual: bridging the gap between academic concerns and the democratization of reading. Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done and James Wood should consider going back to his overarching theme structure, because it works so much better for him. I can't see other people than the occasional die-hard essayism fan like me (and maybe the academic-type) take interest into THE FUN STUFF. Maybe sixty percent of the essays work as a piece, but it's a collection with too little cohesiveness to gather major interest like his previous works. James Wood is still a tremendous writer and his work will keep collecting enthusiasm upon publication, but not enough enthusiasm for several readers to make their way to THE FUN STUFF.


I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.

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