“The conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman.” Here, fobbed off in one casual phrase, may be the crux: the conventional mental. Wood is too committed a reader not to have registered what he (apparently) can’t bear to credit: the growth of a sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children’s lit, in graffiti and street lore. What’s at stake isn’t a matter of “alternate” or “parallel” literacies, since these others aren’t really separate. They interpenetrate and, ultimately, demand familiarity with the Bloomian sort of core-canonical literacy. (I couldn’t have written my character’s growth into snobbery without Portrait of a Lady and Great Expectations at my back, but James and Dickens were simply not where I boarded the bus.)
What’s at stake is the matter of unsanctioned journeys into the life of culture. And I don’t believe anyone sanctions any other person’s journey into the life of culture. This is the point where I need to confess that my attention to James Wood, in the years since sending my letter, has been as cursory as it was before that uncomfortable passage (uncomfortable for me; I doubt I ruffled his feathers). Earlier I’d been content to sustain a cloudy image of a persuasive new critic who made people excited and nervous by passionately attacking novels that people (including myself) passionately believed in; now I found myself content to revise that in favor of an impression of a unpersuasive critic whose air of erudite amplitude veiled — barely — a punitive parochialism. It didn’t make me want to read him, so I’m not qualified to make any great pronouncements. I’ve only glanced, over these years, and it may be that my confirmation bias is in play when I do. Here’s what I see in my glances. When Wood praises, he mentions a writer’s higher education, and their overt high-literary influences, a lot. He likes things with certain provenances; I suppose that liking, which makes some people uneasy, is exactly what made me enraged. When he pans, his tone is often passive-aggressive, couched in weariness, even woundedness. Just beneath lies a ferocity which seems to wish to restore order to a disordered world.
— Spurred by a review written in “bad faith,” Jonathan Lethem takes on James Wood and uncovers some of the critic’s deeper and darker predilections in the LA Review of Books.