Skip to content, or skip to search.


Jonathan Lethem Writes a Takedown of The New Yorker Book Critic

Jonathan Lethem==
The New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU presents "LIBRARY OF DUST" by DAVID MAISEL ==
The Angel Orensanz Foundation, 172 Norfolk Street, NYC==
April 13, 2009==
©Patrick McMullan==
Photo - NICK HUNT /
== Jonathan Lethem

James Wood, currently the book critic of The New Yorker and widely considered to be the most serious literary critic regularly working today, gave Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude a bad review eight years ago, when Wood was still writing for The New RepublicToday Lethem strikes back in an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books about Wood's shortcomings that is not quite as knee-jerkingly churlish as its occasion — a writer responding to his bad review — might have you expect. Lethem knows writing a piece like this is pretentious and early on self deprecates, "Why, I hear you moan in your sheets, why in the thick of this Ecstasy Party you’ve thrown for yourself, violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review?" The answer, in short, is that Lethem thinks Wood is a snob.

Lethem has a number of criticisms of Wood, whom he once thought of as a major, great critic, but the exemplary one is as follows: Wood wrote of the protagonist of Fortress that "We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book … or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman.” Lethem points out, after swatting away the God concern, that his protagonist is spotted reading dozens of books, they're just not particularly highbrow, canonical ones. Lethem sees Wood's other criticisms of Fortress as being along similar lines. Lethem goes on to say that though he's quit reading Wood regularly, when he does read him, he sees the same biases:

"I’ve only glanced, over these years [at Wood's work], 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."

Wood has taken some punches before: Colson Whitehead satirized him in the pages of Harper's a few years ago.  And this sort of piece is almost an inevitability for a critic of Wood's stature. Lethem opens his piece with a quote from the Renata Adler's New York Review of Book's takedown of Pauline Kael (which is a fun read!). Besides, it's not fair that Michiko Kakutani, of all book critics, should have a monopoly on being insulted.

Photo: NICK HUNT/Patrick McMullan