The Trajectory of the Fiercest Literary Critic

The Financial Times profiled literary critic, new New Yorker staff writer, and Harvard professor James Wood this weekend. He's also the husband of The Emperor's Children author Claire Messud, and has an upcoming book, How Fiction Works. (One of his previous books was once criticized by Slate as being "too well written.") Some literary luminaries, like novelist/critic Cynthia Ozick, have called him "our best critic, he thinks with a sublime ferocity." We love him because he nerds out with phrases like, "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There is really a time before Flaubert and a time after him."

Wood's early years were rather Dickensian, "living in a cramped, freezing house in Herne Hill, south London, so "unbelievably grim" that Messud, his girlfriend from Cambridge, largely avoided visiting him."

He eventually joined the staff of the Guardian's arts desk, and moved to the New Republic in 1995, because they "offered what a British newspaper could not, and what Wood needed to evolve: a salary for writing really long reviews. Last year, he moved on to a little magazine called The New Yorker, which he's pretty happy with, save for a few things:

"I find it isn't the editors who put that qualification in," he says, "it's the fact-checkers. They have to be resisted, because they want to water down unprovable assertions. So you say: 'There is great disagreement about Cormac McCarthy's status' - this was a piece I wrote a couple of years ago when No Country For Old Men came out - and they'll say to you: 'Well, I've been on the internet and I haven't found much disagreement actually.' So you say: 'Well, for instance, Ian McEwan thinks he's complete shit.' 'Yeah, but we'll have to say then there's been "some" disagreement.' And already it's getting wimpish."

His only other peeve is the way the magazine treats the semi-colon. "The New Yorker will try as often as possible to change it into a colon," he says - ascribing it to an attempt to mimic English properness. "I love semi-colons," he says. [Financial Times]