Serious Noticing (Hardcover)

Selected Essays, 1997-2019

By James Wood

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 9780374261160, 528pp.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

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The definitive collection of literary essays by The New Yorker’s award-winning longtime book critic

Ever since the publication of his first essay collection, The Broken Estate, in 1999, James Wood has been widely regarded as a leading literary critic of the English-speaking world. His essays on canonical writers (Gustav Flaubert, Herman Melville), recent legends (Don DeLillo, Marilynne Robinson) and significant contemporaries (Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante) have established a standard for informed and incisive appreciation, composed in a distinctive literary style all their own.

Together, Wood’s essays, and his bestselling How Fiction Works, share an abiding preoccupation with how fiction tells its own truths, and with the vocation of the writer in a world haunted by the absence of God. In Serious Noticing, Wood collects his best essays from two decades of his career, supplementing earlier work with autobiographical reflections from his book The Nearest Thing to Life and recent essays from The New Yorker on young writers of extraordinary promise. The result is an essential guide to literature in the new millennium.

About the Author

James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University. He is the author of How Fiction Works, as well as two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, and a novel, The Book Against God.

Praise For Serious Noticing: Selected Essays, 1997-2019

"Two voices vie in [Serious Noticing] . . . the professor, stately and composed, guiding the reader through forensically close readings of the text, pointing out fiction’s innovations and revolutions—the “failed privacies” of Chekhov’s characters, the “unwrapped” consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s novels. The other voice—pitched about half an octave higher, blunt, reedy, very winning — pops up in the essays . . . The reviews and essays settle into a rolling rhythm, pleasing counterpoints . . . The two voices mingling in this collection give a beautiful, moving sense of the stakes of criticism as Wood has practiced it, vigorously, without interruption for 30 years . . . No modern critic has exerted comparable influence in how we read . . . Wood writes as if enmeshed in the text itself; registering shifts in point of view and perspective with seismographic precision." Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review

"What makes Wood . . . formidable? The most obvious answer is the crackling sensuousness of his prose. He writes unusually tactile criticism, thick with images you can almost reach out and grasp . . . When Wood writes about literature, what he writes is literature . . . With criticism like this, who needs fiction?" Becca Rothfeld, Bookforum

"In the unspooling sentences and paragraphs of the many fine and often seriously dandy essays that follow in this collection . . . Wood shows himself a maestro of tone and inflection. His sustained close attention as he interrogates the writers he loves is genuinely something to behold . . . Wood set off writing in that high canonical tradition that sought to replace Bible study with practical criticism and preachers with English teachers. He has never abandoned that sense of vocation, but has distilled it to a particular faith in what he describes in the title essay here as 'serious noticing' – the kind of looking that great novelists do, the attention to revelatory detail that 'rescues the life of things.'" —Tim Adams, Observer