The Irresponsible Self On Laughter and the Novel

James Wood




Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award

James Wood's first book of essays, The Broken Estate, established him as the leading critic of his generation, one whose judgments "are distinguished by their originality and precision, the depth of reading that informs them, and the metaphoric richness of their language" (Wyatt Mason, Harper's).

That book's brilliant successor, The Irresponsible Self, is a highly selective partisan history of the novel as a comic form of writing. In more than twenty passionate, sparkling dispatches, Wood defends what he calls "secular comedy"—human, tragicomic, forgiving, bound up with the very origins of the novel—against the narrower "religious comedy" of satire and farce, which is corrective, punitive, and theatrical. Ranging over the words and worlds of such crucial comic writers as Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Waugh, Bellow, and Naipaul, Wood shows us the development of the novel in broad terms while examining each writer with his customary care and intense focus.

This collection also includes Wood's much-discussed attack on the "hysterical realism" of DeLillo and others, and his sensitive but unsparing examinations of White Teeth and Brick Lane. The Irresponsible Self is indispensable reading for anyone who cares about modern fiction.


Praise for The Irresponsible Self

"[These are] lively and adventurous critical essays . . . The writing is alive, crackling and sparkling with electric energy . . . There is a lot we can learn, and with plenty of accompanying pleasure, from [Wood]."—George Garrett, The Washington Post Book World


"Let's drop the qualifiers and say it loud and clear: [Wood] is the best. This transplanted Englishman is a blessing to the culture . . . recklessly committed to literature and brace enough to risk ridicule by pushing every thought to the limit . . . Heroically ambitious and infectiously high-minded, [The Irresponsible Self] is also a genuinely enjoyable book . . . [This] kind of reading is how criticism justifies its existence . . . Let's be thankful for [Wood's] enthusiasm, his capacious learning, and his keen eye."—Adam Begley, The New York Observer


"[After] a dozen or so pages . . . you emerge from a sustained immersion in [Wood's] knotty, strenuous prose rubbing your eyes—dazzled, maybe a bit fatigued, and unquestionably wiser than you were before . . . He has not only a well-tuned ear for prose but a remarkable ability to convey how novelistic language transubstantiates life into literature . . . Wood's essays . . . vibrate with the difficult, serious pleasure that literature uniquely provides. His achievement is not that he brings books like Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Confessions of Zeno to life, but rather that he reminds us of the condition of their immortality, which rests on their ability to make us feel more completely alive as we read them."—A. O. Scott, The New York Times Book Review


"Wood has been called our best young critic. This is not true. He is our best critic; he thinks with a sublime ferocity."—Cynthia Ozick


"Perhaps the strongest, and the strangest, literary critic we have."—The New York Review of Books


"Brilliant . . . Famously rigorous . . . [Wood's criticism is] profound, searching, and bogglingly learned."—Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review


"[Wood's] literary criticism has been the most fruitfully polemical of recent years . . . [Wood is] unforgiving of complacency, unsparing of triviality, and unrelenting in his assault on the half-formed or the overwrought."—Harper's


"Impressive . . . Ingenious . . . Lively, learned, and enthusiastic . . . Wood is one of our strongest literary critics, a diligently dose reader who tethers his critical rigor to an admirably expansive vision of the place of fiction in our imaginative and moral lives."—Chris Lehmann, Newsday


"Wood writes with such felicity and zeal that one feels neither the inclination nor the possibility of disagreeing with him . . . [His] enthusiasm provides such an attractive alternative to the truculence of Dale Peck, and the bloodlessness of 'in-house' academic criticism."—Robert McFarlane, The Times Literary Supplement


"The most incisive literary critic of our time . . . Intriguing."—The Washington Times


"Penetrating insight . . . Wood's enthusiasm for writers is infectious."—San Jose Mercury News


"A collection of literary essays of the highest quality."—The Buffalo News


"What Marianne Moore once said of Hugh Kenner—'Fearless, he can be too fearless, but we need him'—may be said equally of Wood. It is the excess, the polemical drive, that makes him exhilarating to read, often to be instructed by, sometimes to argue with."—William Pritchard, The New York Times Book Review


"[A] provocative gathering of 21 recent reviews by the stylish critic and novelist. A closely reasoned introductory essay contrasts the corrective emphasis of classical satire and invective with a 'comedy of forgiveness' that acknowledges, indeed esteems human frailty. Wood locates the roots of such comedy in displays of 'random consciousness' in Shakespearean soliloquies, and in the wise tolerance of exemplars like Cervantes, Erasmus, and Austen. This idea is developed with impressive variety and nuance in analyses of the irrational mood swings of Dostoevsky's posturing characters, Isaac Babel's 'rhythmic discontinuity,' and Saltykov-Schedrin's horrifically funny anatomy of hypocrisy in his underrated masterpiece The Golovlyov Family. One wants to applaud Wood's endorsements of such brilliant little-read writers as the Sicilian Chekhov Giovanni Verga, the Austro-Hungarian Empire's mordant 'elegist' Joseph Roth, and the enormously reader-friendly Czech comic novelist Bohumil Hrabal. Equally incisive looks at contemporaries include a stringent criticism of the Dickens-inspired 'hysterical realism' that suffuses ambitious overstuffed fictions by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Salman Rushdie . . . Wood's admiring, admirably detailed tribute to 'Saul Bellow's Comic Style' is, as they say, worth the price of admission. A miscellany, then—and an unusually rich and satisfying one."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



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James Wood was the chief literary critic of The Guardian and is a senior editor at The New Republic. His previous work includes The Book Against God (Picador, 2004).
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  • James Wood

  • James Wood was the chief literary critic of The Guardian and is a senior editor at The New Republic. His previous work includes The Book Against God.
  • James Wood ©Miriam Berkley