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The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (Modern Library Paperbacks)

4.09 of 5 stars 4.09  ·  rating details  ·  258 ratings  ·  33 reviews
This book recalls an era when criticism could change the way we look at the world. In the tradition of Matthew Arnold and Edmund Wilson, James Wood reads literature expansively, always pursuing its role and destiny in our lives. In a series of essays about such figures as Melville, Flaubert, Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, and Don DeLillo, Wood relates their fiction to questions ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published July 18th 2000 by Modern Library (first published 1999)
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Ian Klappenskoff
The Broken Estate

What does Wood mean by a "broken estate"? I wondered this while comfortably reading the Introduction to this book, an essay called "The Freedom of Not Quite".

Wood argues that the "old estate" died in the middle of the nineteenth century. This is how he defines it:

"I would define the old estate as the supposition that religion was a set of divine truth-claims, and that the Gospel narratives were supernatural reports; fiction might be supernatural too, but fiction was always ficti
...more
Mark
A few years ago i bought the box set of 'The West Wing' as a goodly number of my friends had told me I would love it. Thus bought, i proceeded to watch it in huge epic length gulps. Episode after episode were watched and I laughed and gasped and marvelled at the brilliance of the dialogue and plotting, though I regularly had to rewind cos witty and busy politicos in the West Wing talk really, really fast. This is presumably something to do with getting all the lines in before the commercials but ...more
Stephen
In one of his essays Wood asks what Chekhov meant by "life". After a year of reading Woolf and Flaubert closely, it has been fun drawing conclusions on my own so that I can now compare them to someone like Wood's who is interested in what "life" is and whether literature really has a say in it. If literature's only function is to be a reflection of life then I think it's essentially pointless: that's what friends are for, to see what concerns us and to chuckle at how time-bound we are. I believe ...more
Stafford Davis
James Wood
vs.
Don DeLillo

Now here’s a real problem; a British literary critic whom I greatly admire, one James Wood, publishes an essay on why he doesn’t like a novel called, Underworld, by one of my favorite authors, the American novelist Don DeLillo. And that pesky rub is somewhere between the two, because I really like DeLillo’s book, while Wood’s 12 page critique of it, is an accurate and dead-on review that would make any fan of literature nod their head in one way or another. The facts: Und
...more
Jakey Gee
I liked (and understood large portions of) the ones on Jane Austen, Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, Amis, Pynchon, Delillo, Updike and Sebald. You'll generally get more out of them when you've read the novels he's citing.

But bloody hell, an awful lot of the time (e.g. in the essays on Thomas More, Iris Murdoch, Gogol), I genuinely didn't know what the fuck the man was on about and was reminded of the experience of sitting in a Russian Modernism seminar as a student (I jacked in that unit in week three
...more
matt
"The child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but he rejects it religiously. He has buried evangelical belief but he has not buried the evangelical choice, which seems to him the only important dilemma. He respects the logical claustrophobia of Christian commitment, the little cell of belief. This is the only kind of belief that makes sense, the revolutionary kind. Nomina ...more
Bart
Dec 30, 2014 Bart rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Any novelist, from beginner to expert
James Wood is a remarkable literary critic. He is perhaps the only practitioner of literary criticism writing today who can help a novelist become better. Wood can do this because he has read more, and more originally, than almost anyone in current circulation. Where New York Times columnists and guests write literary reviews that hope someday to grow into cinematic reviews, Wood writes essays about literature.

Here's a long, but I think telling, example from The Broken Estate:

Yet [DH] Lawrence h
...more
William1
The scholarly rigor of the first essay, "Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season," surprises. The essay is a review of Peter Ackroyd's biography of Sir Thomas. By way of a heady recapitulation of More's life and times, Wood suggests that Ackroyd's book is little more than hagiography, though he's careful never to use that word. The second essay "Shakespeare in Bloom" is no less kind. (But then kindness is not really what we are looking for here; that can always be got from one of my many books on ...more
John David
You can’t accuse James Wood of lacking range. These essays run the gamut from Harold Bloom’s influence on Shakespeare studies to the “theology” of George Steiner to the lasting (though indirect) impact of Ernst Renan. Unfortunately, had I not taken notes as I read these two dozen or so essays, I would have quickly forgotten most of the arguments presented herein. At their worst, they are uncontroversial and too subtle perhaps to make an impression. There are a few, though, that are fascinating a ...more
Fraser Kinnear
I really enjoyed "How Fiction Works", and liked "The Fun Stuff" enough to buy this collection of essays. The introductory essay was my favorite passage in this book. Wood recalls seeing Beckett's Endgame, and remarks upon how powerful the play's "unrealistic" characters are:

Our usual language about how we relate to fictional characters - we "sympathize" with them, "identify," "empathize"- implies a large exchange, a sizable impact, a sharing of identities, but perhaps what [the Endgame] scene re
...more
Mike
The best critic out there, and he's theologically literate (if not theologically correct) to boot. I can't wait for his new book. I'm also looking forward to reading his Tolstoy essay from a month or so back in the New Yorker. I've been putting off until I finish War and Peace (I've got about 60 pages to go).
robert
if you are writing your own novel, you'll find some of these essays really inspiring (such as the one on Moby Dick and the contrarian view of Pynchon)
Alan Gerstle
James Wood writes literary criticism using a standard vocabulary of traditional critical terms, but embellishes the stock phrases with his own metaphors and associations that are often original and clever. However, I'd place his literary essays into two categories: those in which he analyzes writers and their work in order to cast a new perspective on certain texts, most would think as canonical writers, i.e., Gogol, Melville, Forster. Then there are the more polemical tracts wherein he focuses ...more
Samuel Brown
Excellent on literature, really excellent. Less interesting on religion, except in the sense of toying with some notions of postmodern religion. Not as good as Eagleton in this space, as I read it. But on literature, there is great fun in this collection of essays. There are a couple of essays that are sub-par, but the general collection is quite good as literary criticism. I was glad to see our agreement on most of the writers (glad to hear DeLillo and Updike deflated, agree that Chekhov and Go ...more
GONZA
Great essay in mostly all my favorite English speaking author, and some Russian. I would have liked somebody else, I mean from other culture and language, but ok, maybe next time, but no, Thomas Mann is not enough.

Grande saggio che racconta e approfondisce quasi tutti i miei autori inglesi preferiti, e qualche russo. La prossima volta non mi dispiacerebbe qualche altro autore, magari di una cultura diversa e no, thomas Mann non é abbastanza.
Carl
Nov 08, 2009 Carl is currently reading it
Borrowing this from Jane, my cousin in law (I've been blessed with two cousins-in-law on that side of the family with a taste in books which nicely compliments my own). James Wood is not religious himself, from what I understand, but, from what I've seen so far, gives a sensitive and thoughtful look at religion and faith in literature. His introduction includes a nice meditation on the differences and similarities between fiction and religion, both of which call for a certain sort of believing, ...more
Emma Laskin
I really liked the Essay pertaining to Jane Austen's writing and the author's ability to distinguish in "Emma" a change in Austen's writing style.
Wm
Sure James Wood sometimes puts the emphasis in the wrong place or glosses over things you wouldn't or argues from assertion, but he arouses thought as well as any literary critic, rightfully brings in issues of belief and the contexts of theology and philosophy to works/authors that require it, isn't afraid to make aesthetic/moral judgments and can craft and damn good sentence.

Excellent stuff here. I enjoyed it much better than How Fiction Works, which now I see what he is capable of may be down
...more
Bruce
Jun 17, 2010 Bruce is currently reading it
Loving the review of Roth's Sabbath's Theater so much it might make me reconsider reading Roth. Read the Ghost Writer years ago but haven't felt the need to read him since. Same with Updike, whom Wood doesn't have much good to say about. But as with most things by Wood, the review is a literary gem in itself. Looking forward to the chapters on evil - esp after having just read his TNR review of Bloom's Yaweh and Jesus and his comments on gnosticism.
Snorkle
I read one or two essays out of this book for my senior seminar class. I liked the premise and thought the essays I read were well-written and thought-provoking. But I didn't go back and read the rest. One day I might pick it up again, but not anytime soon.

*Taken from My Sentiments Exactly!: http://reviewsatmse.blogspot.com/2013...
Sean
Among contemporary critics, Wood is one of the best I've seen at letting works speak for themselves and then opening a conversation with them, while nevertheless accepting and incorporating real insights when otherwise one-sided modern theories offer them.
Jonathan Rimorin
Alternatingly insightful (the essay on Chekhov) and puzzlingly vitriolic (Updike, Murdoch), never boring. The last essay, on Matthew Arnold, was originally delivered as a sermon, so this should give you some idea of Wood's rhetoric and forms of suasion.
Abigail
Mar 30, 2008 Abigail rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: fiction writers, people who don't like zadie smith
This book was really, really good. The essay on Morrison didn't hold water for me, as it discredited her entire body of work by discussing one of her weakest books, but other than that Wood offers many revelations about the nature and value of literature.
psm
fellows can't know everything. temperaments can't encompass all things. f. r. leavis never cared for proust. james wood is likewise at a loss when he leaves literature (his metier) & picks up religion. he hasn't the taste for it.
Jeff
If you've studied literature at most American universities, read this book to check yourself. It will impress upon you the pleasure of treating books as a whole, and not as much by the parts.
Cameron
Best literary critic I've ever read. I'd almost rather read his criticism of certain books than the books themselves, if only because he gets you so excited about fiction's possibilities.
Vivencio
whether turning his analytic eye on austen's heroines or the mysticism in virginia woolf, wood never fails to delight and inform.
Bill
Wood's tough (except on Bellow) but I admire his criticism (except on Bellow).
Claire Corbett
At first I gave this four stars. What was I thinking? Five stars!
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James Douglas Graham Wood is an English literary critic, essayist and novelist. He is currently Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University (a part-time position) and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.
Wood advocates an aesthetic approach to literature, rather than more ideologically-driven trends in academic literary criticism.
Wood is noted for coining the genre t
...more
More about James Wood...
How Fiction Works The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel The Book Against God The Nearest Thing to Life (The Mandel Lectures in the Humanities)

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“Fiction is most effective when its themes are unspoken. An ideal fiction has a kind of thematic ghostliness, whereby the novel marks its meanings most strongly as it passes, as it disappears, rather as on a street snow gets dirtier, more marked, as it disappears.” 4 likes
“If religion is true, one must believe. And if one chooses not to believe, one’s choice is marked under the category of a refusal, and is thus never really free: it has the duress of a recoil.” With literary belief, however, “one is always free to choose not to believe.” This, Wood argues, is the freedom of literature; it is what constitutes its “reality.” 1 likes
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