I studied with [James] Wood as an undergraduate and still marvel at the gap between Wood’s professional reputation and his personal demeanor. In the classroom, Wood was quirky and warm. While puzzling over a complex passage, he would vigorously rub the top of his head, as if hoping to coax interpretive brilliance from his bald spot like a genie from a lamp
For the junior reviewer trying to make it in the world, reading James Wood can be a profoundly depressing experience.
#LitBeat: The Common in the City
Let’s be honest: if The Dog House Band, the most well-known literary musical ensemble, is headlining an event, many of the guests will attend just to watch critic James Wood rock out on the drums. Luckily, the band plays quite worthwhile events, such as last Wednesday night’s benefit for The Common, a non-profit print and online magazine, which aspires to publish writing and art that “embody particular times and places both real and imagined; from deserts to teeming ports; from Winnipeg to Beijing; from Earth to the Moon.”
With only three issues in its lifespan, The Common is still young, but the editorial board boasts names like Mary Jo Salter, Claire Messud, Richard Wilbur, Jim Shepard, and Wood himself. When it comes to literature, they’re a trustworthy bunch, and the small event space in Manhattan filled with guests happy to spend $50 to support the magazine—a small sum for the opportunity to snack on imported cheeses and roasted fiddlehead ferns and to share a signature cocktail with Dog House Band guitarist (and writer) Sven Birkerts.
In addition to selecting a fine caterer, the benefit committee also gathered a number of covetable items for the evening’s silent auction, including a Maine vacation package and a first edition of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, inscribed to “a supporter of The Common.” I can only hope that one benevolent guest won both items, will spend a week this summer reading O’Brien by a lake in Maine, and, generosity being circular, will then write about that place and moment for the magazine.
After allowing for mingling and ogling the guest wearing the infamous book dress from Zero + Maria Cornejo, Jennifer Acker, The Common's editor, took the microphone to describe, with great sincerity, the magazine’s purpose: “We have more tools than ever to experience the world,” she said, “but we experience and notice it a little bit less.” Acker hopes the magazine will encourage readers to begin, again, finding the extraordinary in common life. Writer Stephen O’Connor followed Acker with his story from Issue 03, “Double Life”—a surprising vignette that conjures a summer spent in “a big gray house on Fire Island.” Even award-winning novelist Zadie Smith—whose brief appearance caused a ripple of elation through my circle of friends—appeared rapt by O’Connor’s words.
The Dog House Band played on, and, before long, even the most reticent guests began to sway. Skirts swung and spun, wine warmed us, we twirled around the room, and I believe that The Common succeeded in its mission. Not only to raise money to support the magazine’s continuation but to make us more aware and more present in every moment. I left the revel with a snapshot of the evening in my head: blue and red paper garlands, O’Connor’s voluminous white hair, a guitar riff, and the faces of my fellow guests, thrilled to just be there.
Talk about post-modern moments. A critic writes a review of a writer. Then the writer responds to the critic. Then a blogger writes an article about the writer’s response to the critic. Then posters attack the writer for responding to the critic and other posters attack those posters for attacking the writer’s response. Then the critic responds to the posters, but no one believes he is the actual critic. The strangest/funniest part was perhaps when one poster pretending to be the critic also in response posted a link to a James Wood web site that is for James Wood the used car dealer and another asked that money be deposited in an offshore account for James Woods in the Cayman Islands, although those posts were unfortunately deleted.