Essayist James Wood explores pathos of prose

Courtesy of Vassar English Department via Facebook.

On Tuesday, Feb. 4, celebrated literary critic and novelist James Wood spoke to a sparse crowd, all equipped with notebooks, in Sanders Auditorium. Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and previously worked as a book critic for The Guardian. Wood read from his latest book, “How Fiction Works,” a compilation of pieces from his last 20 years in the literary field. Much of the book consists of reviews, but three are personal essays about the art of drumming, the act of cleaning out a family member’s unwanted library, and of the act of becoming our parents.

The piece Wood read was one of the personal essays, entitled “Becoming Them,” about the narrowing of life, and the ways in which we mourn the loss of our parents by adopting their idiosyncrasies for ourselves. Wood said the essay was partially inspired by Lydia Davis’s short story “How Shall I Mourn Them?,” a comprehensive list of the physical and personal characteristics of the people she loves. While Wood is known most for his critical work, this essay explored how personal experiences can furnish reviews and essays with individual insight—a step past basic academic pieces or formal criticism.

“Becoming Them” details sleepy Sunday afternoons in northern England, where, after church, there was “nowhere to go and nothing to do.” Wood recalls his father sitting in an armchair listening to Beethoven, while his brother passed the solitude listening to Robert Plant. Or of falling asleep passively, simply because there is nothing else to do. These kinds of days crystallize in our memory. They pass fleetingly, yet reverberate throughout life.

Wood spoke about the constriction of death as his parents’ days grow numbered and their capabilities dwindle. Mourning is a universal act, but also one that is deeply personal. “I can’t choose how to mourn, only haplessly, accidentally, by surviving them. I shall mourn them just by living,” he recited. We absorb the habits of those we love as a way of remembering, even if we do it unconsciously. For Woods, he found his father in his theatrical sneeze, incessant snoring and a shared pitch of voice. In becoming his father, the writer was able to grieve him before his death. In Davis’ essay, she notes that “C,” a shortening of her loved one’s name, “leaves the butter out all day to soften,” and “makes pancakes in the morning when traveling.” In inhabiting their habits, Wood said, we mourn.

Assistant Professor of English Katie Gemmill asked at the lecture how personal experience can be woven into critical essays.

“One thing we have to remind ourselves is there is this academic thing called criticism, it has its own particular pleasures and joys, which aren’t negligible, but it’s good to remind ourselves that that formal stuff comes along pretty late in the history of criticism—basically is a 20th century invention,” Wood replied.

Despite Wood’s assurances, to many contemporary academics, personalizing the critical is a totally novel idea. To Sophia Florida ’22, this approach seemed to be a form of writing lacking in academic and scientific writing, though it could broaden the scope of the way stories are communicated.

“He was describing storytelling within critical essays and critical writing, and I think that that is something we need to do more of in all kinds of writing—use our own personal lens and the vicarious taste he was talking about,” Florida said.

Wood acknowledged that fewer and fewer students major in the humanities, and emphasized that critical writing is “a literary pursuit that can be practiced for its own pleasure.” Admitting that it’s a grave time for the review—and that the state of journalism is being constantly threatened—Wood said we should “try to stress the richness and amplitude of criticism as a discipline.”

Visiting Associate Professor of English David Means, who is a notable author, suggested that reviews are not dying, but changing form.“Obviously you have Goodreads or Amazon where people are now doing [reviews] themselves, which can be worrisome when you’re a writer, because you’re like, ‘I would like a person who has a stance to approach the work,’” Means said.

The notion that journalism, specifically supposedly superfluous writing like reviews that occupy glossy magazines are threatened by the digital age isn’t new. But sites like GoodReads promote engagement with books in conjunction with social media. But Wood’s essay allowed for his own stories to take place within a larger literary history.

Describing a recent return to his parent’s house in Scotland, Wood said he realized something was missing. Though his father sat in his armchair, there was no Beethoven, as the CD player had broken months before and buying a new one seemed indulgent. Suddenly, the passage of time threatened Wood’s deeply held memory of classical music on Sunday afternoons. Accepting that these memories live separate from present reality is its own form of grief. By placing this story within Davis’ notion, and the universal tradition, of grief, his form of review provoked deeper thinking about how formal criticism is not that much different than typing a review on Good Reads and sharing it on Facebook.

Listening to Wood reflect on sleepy Sunday afternoons, the essence of personal essays revealed itself as shaping individual experiences into communal ones. We each claim moments as our own, yet some of the most deeply personal experiences are derivative. As stories continue to shape the media content we consume, it is clear that personal stories can become a unifying force. By familiarizing abstract notions of death and identity into the simple memory of Sunday afternoons, Wood was able to construct a road map of how to mourn by merely living.

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