Review: Serious Noticing by James Wood

It’s a fruitful and useful thing to learn how to read like other people and those who are not like you. As each writer has a writing style, as each musician a method, a critic too, has a way of reading. Criticism done well, according to James Wood in the introduction of Serious Noticing, is bearing witness, “writing through a text,” a balance between the writerly, journalistic and scholarly.   

Each essay in Wood’s new collection, Serious Noticing: Selected Essays 1997-2019, is a thorough and admirable lesson in noticing. The book collects essays that Wood published over the past two decades as a book critic for The New Yorker, London Review of Books, and The New Republic. Some of these essays are critiques of literature by authors such as Elena Ferrante and Herman Melville, while others begin and end more personally, touching upon themes such as family, mortality and music. Reading the collection as a whole left me with a desire to be a better reader and a more serious noticer of things.

One might expect that a book of essays published within a certain time period would be ordered chronologically. It would make a lot of sense to put these essays in chronological order, because then we would follow the steps and see first how Wood’s sensibility changed and how the landscape of literature changed over time too. But this book is not in chronological order. Though many essay collections resist chronological persuasion, I think it is particularly noteworthy here. This collection is not meant to give a roadmap with step-by-steps or how-to’s on being a good literary critic. Criticism, when it is all gathered up in a book, removed from its original context, and placed in this new sort of collection, becomes a different sort of creature. It becomes novel-like. I think all collections partake in some novel-like narrativizing, however vague. Many collections have titles that hint at it. In this case, for example, we understand that this is a story of Serious Noticing.

This story begins in the introduction, where Wood recounts going with his father to hear the pianist Alfred Brendel demonstrate Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. Wood, a musician himself, notices that in the moments in which Brendel stops talking to play a few notes from Beethoven, “he became not a quoter but a performer, not merely a critic but an artist-critics…he could not blandly quote the music, in the way that you might read a line from French without bothering to put on the ‘proper’ French accent.” And this recreation of Beethoven, writes Wood, is the kind of criticism which writes through a text, “the kind of criticism that is at once critique and re-description: sameness.” Wood sees his job as a literary critic as just this; bearing witness and then attempting to stimulate the same experience in the reader. “Listen,” Wood writes, “I have to play it for you on the piano.”

It is important to pay attention to the order of things in this collection. An essay from 1998 (“Jane Austen’s Heroic Consciousness”) is set next to a 2007 piece (“Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”), which is next to a review from 2011 (“Reality Examined to the Point of Madness: Laszlo Krasznahorkai”). Writers who are decades, even centuries, apart are juxtaposed. These essays all concern reality and how convincing these various realities are. And yet, the arrangement of the essays allows reality to be controlled by the critic.  

Fine themes emerge finely from this non-linear order. This might be best demonstrated by the amount of time between the first and last essays, “Homage to Keith Moon” and “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library.” These essays were published just a year apart (2010 and 2011, respectively), and all the other years are packed in between these essays. It’s nice to arrange the essays like this, though, and bookend everything within the span of a year. In 2010, James Wood wrote “Homage to Keith Moon,” which details a childhood fascination with the drums and The Who’s drummer, Moon. “He was pure, irresponsible, restless childishness,” writes Wood. 

He also writes about Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations in this essay. One recording was made when Gould was twenty-two, the other when he was fifty-one. “The first aria is cocky, exuberant, optimistic, vital, sound-filled; the second aria is reflective, seasoned, wintry, grieving, silence-haunted.”

By the end of the book, a year later, Wood writes about another death; that of his father-in-law. This could be the literary equivalent to Gould’s second recording. Like any other book, the collection has a time signature of its own and Wood is a magnificent conductor. 

I Googled who else was writing a review of this book, to do my due diligence, and I learned that the consensus among critics was that Wood’s earlier essays were, in a word, smugger and that his later essays were considered more serious and concerned about big ideas like truth and mortality. Some reviews made it sound like criticism at one age was more valid than at another. I do not agree. I am nonpartisan and I like Wood’s book reviews at every age. But maybe I feel this way because I think I am youngish myself, and writing a book review.

I am still inescapably young and I feel self-conscious as a youngish person with opinions about literature and criticism written by people older and more experienced than me. I think my anxiety is a lingering feeling from reading Wood’s 2000 essay “Hysterical Realism,” which comes up fairly early in the arrangement of essays in Serious Noticing. Here, Wood details in The New Republic the ways in which Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth plays at representing reality without fully portraying it. Wood claims that the novel instead makes something of a mockery of reality. Wood writes “…[Smith] is very talented and still very young” when talking about her ability to balance characters’ humanities and caricatures. At times youth appears to be a gift; at other times it is a hindrance. What rubs me the wrong way about Wood’s essay was that he portrayed this new genre as a child of the moment, something that would grow up and realize how silly it was.

Rejoice in silliness, I say, though my opinion might change in a few years. Also, “hysterical” is never a nice word, but remember that criticism is not cancellation as Roxane Gay recently tweeted. In the end, the terrifying and thrilling part about writing today is knowing that readers like James Wood exist. Critics change as much as anyone else and it’s useful for one’s reading life to observe critics as you would writers when they are as keen as Wood.  

About the author

Audrey Deng is an MFA candidate in Columbia's writing program.

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