Wood Not Waiting For Mean Week

Posted by @ 5:09 pm on December 21st, 2009

Wow. In these days of all Nicey-Nice, I thought the truly scathing book review went the way of disco or actually meeting someone before you made them your “Friend.” I was wrong. Picked up a New Yorker (OK, it’s a month old, which is like a decade in Internet years, but bear with me) all crumpled/curled on my bedside table in Relaxed Rat position, and inside James Wood takes Paul Auster to the blender.

If you need a primer on evisceration via book review, here you go:

Wood says all Paul Auster novels are the same—in his title, “Shallow Graves.”

Wood mimics and mocks Paul Auster in the opening, pulling a little Hemingway/Sherwood Anderson parody. He tries to make the point: 1.) Look how easy it is to write like this guy. 2.) Look how crappy this writing is on the page.

Wood accuses Auster of lazy writing. Wood says Auster’s characters are stock, the situations “cinematic” and his dialogue cliche (or worse, “bogus.”). Wood says Auster utilizes that old standby deus ex machina, not in one novel (Auster’s latest, “Invisible,” supposedly being reviewed here) but in every novel.

Wood: “This being an Auster novel, accidents visit the narrative like automobiles falling from the sky.”

Wood then goes for the actual sentence, the word: “Although there are some things to admire in Auster’s fiction, the prose is never one of them.”


Wood says Auster’s novels can be read “very fast.” When I lived in the deep south, people used to give these types of “compliments.” It’s an art form in itself.

“I didn’t even know they made sweaters like that anymore, very cool!”

“You are so real…”

Here is a little poem I wrote from the remaining 4,000 or so liters of Wood asp venom:

Balsa-wood backstory



Gone to seed

Fake realism

Denies the incest

Shallow skepticism

Texts stutter

Less complex than it seems…

Wood compares Auster’s novels to postage stamps.




Wood finishes by advising Paul Auster to increase the silence. To write less. To stop writing.

God knows, I don’t want to question this irascible Wood fellow–and, full disclosure, I have read a grand total of two Auster novels–but I actually thought some of Auster’s corny dialogue and cliche characterizations were wink, wink, glossy-time stuff like Tarantino and his pop culture as high art via Andy Warhol via The Simpsons, something. Paul Auster appears as Paul Auster in his novels, ninja sword play in the Pringles aisle, that sort of idea. I know, I know, that isn’t enough–clever is a thin, thin drug, and that’s fair. I’m just saying.

And am I missing some back story? Did Auster drop Wood’s Tangy Taffy in the sand somewhere back during AWP Jamaica, circa 1978? Wood is a perceptive critic, no doubt, and I have enjoyed his mind in the past, but this one cut-block to the knees, went after the book, the body, the career, and then switches to attack any critics who might enjoy Auster. That’s an unusual one, to leap from word to blood to removed reader, Other voice.

Here’s my stock character prediction for Auster’s next novel:  Cambridge educated literary critic. Insert butler.

And a gun.

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