James Ley, in his absorbing The Critic in the Modern World (2014), says of James Wood’s criticism, “His characteristic approach is to interpret a fictional work via an assessment of the author’s stylistic proclivities: his point of entry, the basis of his understanding, is the weave and texture of a writer’s prose.” This is well said. It gets at the quality that most draws me to Wood’s writing – his detailed analysis of what makes great writing great. It reminds me of what Helen Vendler said about Seamus Heaney’s critical writing: “The art of Heaney’s criticism is never to lose touch with the writing act” (“A Wounded Man Falling Toward Me,” The New Yorker, March 13, 1989). It’s Wood’s art, too. For example, in his superb "Late and Soon" (The New Yorker, December 12, 2012), a review of Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time, he quotes a couple of excerpts from the novel and says,
I relish this kind of stylistic analysis. Wood provides it in almost every piece he writes. I wish Ley had devoted more of his study to consideration of Wood’s aesthetics. But, unlike Wood, Ley isn’t an aesthetic critic. His approach is metaphysical. He’s interested in Wood’s ideas – hysterical realism, fictionality, lifeness, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. It illuminates Wood’s thinking. But it neglects an essential point: Wood’s strongest thought is in his style, the way he expresses himself. Ley knows this. At one point, he says, “The metaphysics of each critic is reflected in the texture of his writing.” Exactly. Ley’s study would’ve been much richer if he'd focused on examining “the weave and texture” of Wood’s splendid prose.