James Wood vs. Richard Powers

And compare that Richard Powers quote with this (from here).

At present, contemporary novelists are increasingly eager to "tell us about the culture," to fill their books with the latest report on "how we live now." Information is the new character; we are constantly being told that we should be impressed by how much writers know. What they should know, and how they came to know it, seems less important, alas, than that they simply know it. The idea that what one knows might – to use Nietzsche's phrase – "come out of one's own burning" rather than free and flameless from Google, seems at present alien. The danger is that the American fondness for realism combines with this will-to-information to produce a hyperliteralism of the novel: you can see this in Tom Wolfe....

By "hysterical realism" I have meant a zany overexcitement, a fear of silence and stillness, a tendency toward self-conscious riffs, easy ironies, puerility, and above all the exaggeration of the vitality of fictional characters into cartoonishness. The dilemma could be put dialectically: the writer, fearful that her characters are not "alive" enough, overdoes the liveliness and goes on a vitality spress; suddenly aware that she has overdone it, she tries to solve the problem by drawing self-conscious attention to the exaggeration...But the self-consciousness, far from healing the wound, merely makes it bloodier.


My second critical preoccupation flows from the first: there is a generalized overemphasis on a certain kind of intelligence in fiction – now habitually and tellingly renamed "smartness." We are now so convinced of the terrifying complexity of our culture that we tend to flatter those writers who grapple with it at all, certain that they must be very brilliant just to be attempting it. But Proust rightly said in Contre Sainte-Beuve that to say of a novelist "he is very intelligent" is no different from saying "he loved his mother very much."

-James Wood
"Reply to the Editors,"
n+1 #3

Wood's use of "smartness" there is a signal that he's referring to what Zadie Smith has said somewhere about how she's impressed by David Foster Wallace and writers of his ilk (Wood calls them "hysterical realists") being so "smart." Wood likes Smith best of the "hysterical realists," as far as I can tell.

Sort of related--I just finished DFW's book on infinity and math Everything and More. Footnotes and half-manneristic scholarly formatting is par for the course with DFW but in this book it's just too much. The ironic stylistic tics that are interesting for their own sake in his fiction aren't appropriate in non-fiction where the goal is clarity. It's like too much decorative trim and it makes reading frustrating. And there was too much writing about the writing--apologies for complexities, apologies for long sentences, footnotes referring to previous unnecessary footnotes--too much teasing and cuteness. Admittedly he does a good job--he sure is smart!--when it comes to the story of how Georg Cantor solved the problems of infinity going all the way back to Zeno, which is fascinating stuff, and it's told with enough clarity and suspense that it kept me interested enough to wade through a lot of math--which is not at all "my thing"--and finish the book, but I felt the reading experience was more frustrating than necessary. I suspect the book's editor would have reined in the style more if DFW wasn't DFW.

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