Posts Tagged ‘James Wood’

Monday Medley

What we read while rioting in Happy Valley, resigning in Italy, and, um, what’s the third one?

  • NPI favorite Joe Posnanski finds himself in an awkward position, having moved to State College this fall to write his biography of Joe Paterno. Posnanski quasi-defends the coach at SI.

You Can (Obviously) Prove A Negative

Everyone knows this is true. For one, there are several obvious negative statements that pretty much everyone knows are true and can easily prove (“George W. Bush is not the President,” “Red is not the same color as blue,” “Carlos Mencia is not funny,” etc.). On a less mundane level, whether a statement is positive or negative is a matter of how it is constructed—every positive statement (p) can be restated as a negative (~ ~ p).

And yet you will still hear people—smart people—resort to the obvious fallacy that you cannot prove a negative. Most commonly, you hear it in discussions of atheism. I’m sure even I have resorted to such a claim in my defenses of atheism. Even the brilliant Daniel Dennett erroneously invoked it here to explain why he couldn’t disprove God:

“You can’t prove a negative… I think it was Bertrand Russell who once said that he couldn’t prove that there was not a teapot orbiting Mars. So he’s a teapot agnostic. I’m a teapot agnostic with regard to God, too. I can’t prove that God doesn’t exist.” Continue reading

The Corrections and the Big Novel

In James Wood’s influential review, “Human, All Too Inhuman,” of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, he discussed what he calls “the littleness of the big novel.” His point, put somewhat crudely, was that as the ambition of novelists grows to include encompassing the entire geographical, political, and philosophical spectrum, works of fiction end up losing their humanity. As Smith herself said, “It is not the writer’s job to tell us how somebody felt about something; it’s to tell us how the world works.” As a result, Wood claims, the movement that he termed “hysterical realism” produces work that “knows a thousand things, but does not know a single human being.” 

About a year after Wood’s condemnation of contemporary fiction first appeared in The New Republic, The Corrections was published. Jonathan Franzen’s novel certainly does not lack the kind of ambition Wood talks about: The Corrections spans cities, countries, and continents, covers multiple generations, deals with financial disasters and Eastern European political instability, looks at modern academia and middle-class suburbia. In short, the book does seem to know a thousand things.

And yet Franzen’s story remains wholly grounded and deeply personal. At its heart, The Corrections is a story of a Midwestern family, the Lamberts. The Lambert patriarch, Alfred, is a stubborn, straight-laced, intelligent, and principled man who is suffering from early but unmistakable signs of senility as the novel begins. As Franzen puts it: Continue reading

In Defense of Atheism….Again

As some readers may remember, I am a committed and proud atheist (despite some apparent controversy on the point). So when someone attacks atheism, as James Wood does in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, I feel obligated to defend it.

The occasion for Wood’s criticisms is the publication of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections of the God Debate. Eagleton is one of the most respected theists currently writing about the subject of theology, but his new book will probably convert about as many people as The God Delusion or God is Not Great: not many.

Books like this have a tendency to appeal only to the side already in agreement, and Wood seems to think Eagleton’s will do the same. Wood offers a pretty sound criticism of Eagleton’s arguments in his review, and even professes a lack of formal belief on his own part.

But Wood—who from the little I’ve read of him seems like a brilliant critic with whom I disagree about almost everything—has many of the same problems with “new atheism” that Eagleton has. Continue reading