January 18, 2013

In praise of William Deresiewicz


Critic Bill Deresiewicz

There’s no better news in the National Book Critics Circle list of finalists than the awarding of the Nona A. Balakian Citation for “excellence in reviewing” to critic William Deresiewicz.

A contributing writer at The Nation and The American Scholar, Deresiewicz is a prolific and exciting critic and the author of A Jane Austen Education. If you need evidence of Deresiewicz’s skill, I’d point to this take down (of sorts) of New Yorker fiction critic James Wood, a Nation essay called “How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood.” I’ll quote my favorite bit here:

For so imperious a critic, Wood is surprisingly sloppy. He repeatedly writes “literature” when he means “fiction.” He confuses Jane and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, thinks the Professor in Conrad’s The Secret Agent is a real professor and fails to see that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza know exactly how they’re depicted in the first half of Cervantes’s work, since someone tells them at the beginning of the second (a particularly surprising oversight, given that their resulting self-consciousness shapes the couple’s behavior throughout the rest of the novel). In How Fiction Works, he spends two full pages burbling over the delicious mystery, in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, of Mr. Casey’s having gotten his “three cramped fingers making a birthday present for Queen Victoria” (Why Queen Victoria? Whatever could the present have been?), when anyone can see that something sardonically political is intended, a suspicion confirmed by Richard Ellmann’s standard biography of the author. Wood’s prodigious ability to trace lines of descent across novelistic history, usually so illuminating, can become first a bookkeeper’s compulsion (he’ll complete his double entry whether it’s relevant to the discussion or not), then an obsessive’s delusion. Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh is not a “reprise” of Conrad’s Professor, even if one makes Wood think of the other; the only thing the two characters have in common is that they’re both scary.

For a more recent example of such grace and bite, see Deresiewicz’s American Scholar post introducing what he provocatively calls the “upper middle brow.”

The NBCC citation is well deserved. Congrats to a great critic.



Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.