James Wood on Criticism as Redescription

All criticism is itself metaphorical in movement, because it deals in likeness. It asks: what is art like? What does it resemble? How can it best be described, or redescribed? If the artwork describes itself, then criticism’s purpose is to redescribe the artwork in its own, different language. But literature and literary criticism share the same language. In this, literary criticism is completely different from art and music and their criticisms. This is probably what [Henry] James meant when he spoke of the critic’s “immense vicariousness.” To describe literature critically is to describe it again, but as it were for the first time. It is to describe it as if literature were music or art, and as if one could sing or paint criticism. … The writer-critic’s relationship to the writer she reviews may be likened to hearing, in the next room, a sibling playing something on the piano that you yourself know well but have not yet played yourself. The language of metaphor is the language of this secret sharing, of approximation, of likeness, and of competition.

James Wood, “Virigina Woolf’s Mysticism” in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, which I enjoyed. I enjoy James Wood. He is a skilled reader and writer and one of the best literary critics around. Even if I don’t always agree with his various judgments (and he delivers some real fire-and-brimstone-judgment every once in a while), I always learn something from his essays. I had drafted a few hundred words after reading the book, but realized that redescribing James Wood’s redescriptions was resulting in a very lame blog post. Criticism of criticism seems like a sure path to boredom for both writer and reader (perhaps explaining why academic criticism is often so terrible to try and read) unless you’re someone like James Wood who, when analyzing Virgina Woolf’s work as a critic, comes up with an image like “hearing, in the next room, a sibling playing something on the piano that you yourself know well but have not yet played yourself.”

As a side note, I do want to return to his thoughts on the relationship between religion and literature at some point after I’ve read more of his writing on that topic.

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