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The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief
by James Wood
270 pp.; $24
In a lament on the lost art of book reviewing, Jay Parini names James Wood, senior editor at The New Republic, as one of "perhaps a dozen or so reviewers whose work consistently repays careful reading" (Chronicle of Higher Education, July 23, 1999, p. B4). This is a remarkable tribute to a critic not much older than thirty.
Wood's talent was recognized early on. In 1987, The Guardian named him Student Journalist of the Year for his reporting in the Cambridge student newspaper, Stop Press, and promptly offered him a job reviewing books. Before long he was chief reviewer, a position he held until he joined the staff of The New Republic in 1995. Wood's decision to cross the Atlantic has enabled him to cultivate his talent as a critic, if only because The New Republic allows him the time and the space to develop reviews into full-length essays.
The Broken Estate represents the first-fruits of this growth. Though nominally reviews of new books, the essays collected here are far more ambitious in scope. Whether he's criticizing nineteenth-century giants like Gogol and Flaubert or contemporary writers like Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon, Wood's aim is to capture the essence of a writer's style and philosophy, and then to evaluate them vigorously—an aspect of the reviewer's art that has, as Parini complains, virtually disappeared among academic critics.
Wood's primary subject is the novel and, more particularly, its subversive relation to religious belief. The book's title refers to the collapse of the wall between religion and literature in the nineteenth century, a change personified by Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold. With Renan, the gospels came to be read as fictional narratives; with Arnold, literature became a substitute for religious belief as a source of consolation and uplift.
This reversal, according to Wood, proved detrimental to both Christianity and the novel; he has ...