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The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel

4.1 of 5 stars 4.10  ·  rating details  ·  168 ratings  ·  16 reviews
"James 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

Following the collection The Broken Estate--which established James Wood as the leading critic of his generation--The Irresponsible Self confirms Wood's preeminence, not only as a discerning judge but also as an appreciator of contem
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Paperback, 336 pages
Published April 1st 2005 by Picador (first published 2004)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 571)
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MJ Nicholls
Twenty-two essays from the Durham-born finger-drumming superstar (no Wood, I won’t let that lie) and part-time Harvard professor and New Yorker hack. Wood is unique as a critic as he snipes at the level of the sentence, where other reviewers may linger on theme, imagery, context. He rolls up his sleeves for delicious close readings of all his books and will not let those tonal lurches, authorial intrusions and pesky non sequiturs lie. Often he misuses his examples: sometimes he’s diagnosing a wi ...more
Nigel Beale
"A genre is hardening. It is becoming possible to describe today’s "big, ambitious novel." Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens."James Wood. Hysterical Realism

"A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies." Karl Marx. The Communist Manifesto

Both of these opening sallies conj
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Bart
Oct 21, 2007 Bart rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Good fiction readers who want to get better
James Wood is now more relevant than Harold Bloom and arguably any other literary critic working in the English language. And unlike Bloom, Wood deals effectively and coherently with fiction writers.

The Irresponsible Self has as many comprehensible insights in its 312 pages as Bloom's Genius contains in about three times as many. Has Bloom had an influence on Wood? Certainly. Bloom, for being widely published, has influenced every literary critic in the last 25 years. But Wood has moved out from
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robert
Not quite sure why I found this book so much less interesting than his previous book that I couldn't get all the way through it.

Firstly, The thesis of The Broken Estate - the inability of author's like Herman Melville to believe in God and the tragic sense of loss that results - surprised me because it seemed so radically unfashionable. The Irresponsible Self lacks such a big, unifying, arguable claim. (What's funny as I type this is how Wood's thesis sounds like Harold Bloom's Gnosticism - man
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Jakey Gee
Very satisfying and – as ever with James Wood – sparklingly intelligent (it probably calls for a second read, really). If you want to become a better reader, James Wood is your guide.

The essay on Hysterical Realism is an absolute must for anyone who’s wondered why they’re left cold by Zadie Smith. The skewering of Tom Wolfe is very funny and a little cruel. The essay on Saul Bellow gives more insights into why Bellow is just so darn wonderful. And it’s so satisfying to read that Chekhov - the s
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Tim
Wood is a confident critic and I enjoyed these essays generally and his willingness to champion the underdog and dismiss the overhyped (goodbye Tom Wolfe). I think I wished for something more overarching on comedy - maybe he said it in the earlier essays and I just had forgotten by the time I got to the end. His intro does talk about the religious, the comedy of correction and the secular, the comedy of forgiveness. The book is about the latter.
Chris
My to-read list is getting a little full of things I add when James Wood praises them, then become unlikely choices once the sheen of his praise is removed. At least he's not as bad as Vivian Gornick. Salammbo? Diana of the Crossways?!

Anyhow, he's great. I like his love but I love his hate.
Dave
I might be wrong about this, but since James Wood started writing for The New Yorker, I find his reviews easier to read. Definitely easier than the essays that appear in this book.
Katie
I'd agree with Richard. James Wood is smart. And he avoids most of them hyper-academic compound words, which makes this book actually enjoyable to read.
Geoff Wyss
I learn more about writing fiction from Wood's essays than from any workshop I've ever been in. An incredibly sensitive and well-read critic.
Matt
"There are no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor."

:: Robert Benchley
Sebastian
Wood's enthusiasm for literature is incredibly contagious. His New Yorker pieces are wonderful as well.
Mike
A model of lucid erudition and insight. As thoughtful as John Leonard but without the acrobatics.
H
I always want to hear what James Wood has to say, even when I don't agree with him. He's lovely.
Vivencio
getting addicted to his criticism/essays!
Richard
I'm pretty smart. This guy is smarter.
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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
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More about James Wood...
How Fiction Works The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (Modern Library Paperbacks) The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays The Book Against God The Book of Common Prayer

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“Perhaps this is what Henry James meant when he talked about the “irresponsibility” of characters. Characters are irresponsible, art is irresponsible when compared to life, because it is first and foremost important that a character be real, and as readers or watchers we tend to applaud any effort made towards the construction of that reality. We do not, of course, indulge actual people in the world this way at all. In real life, the fact that something seems real to someone is not enough to interest us, or to convince us that that reality is interesting. But the self-reality of fictional characters is deeply engrossing, which is why villains are lovable in literature in ways that they are not in life.” 0 likes
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