> Skip to content
  • Published: 31 July 2013
  • ISBN: 9781446419755
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 320

The Irresponsible Self

On Laughter and the Novel

A collection of dazzling essays from one of the world's finest and most controversial literary critics.

When James Wood's first collection of essays, The Broken Estate, was published in 1999, the reviewers hailed a master critic. The common thread in Wood's latest collection of essays is what makes us laugh - and the book is an attempt to distinguish between the perhaps rather limited English comedy (as seen in Waugh, for example) and a 'continental' tragic-comedy, which he sees as real, universal and quixotic.

A particularly acerbic, and very funny, essay - which has been widely celebrated - deals with Zadie Smith, Rushdie, Pynchon and DeLillo; its title, 'Hysterical Realism', has already entered the phrasebook of literary language.

With its brilliant studies of Shakespeare, Dickens and Dostoevsky, Naipaul, Pritchett and Bellow, The Irresponsible Self offers more exhilarating despatches from one of our finest living critics.

  • Published: 31 July 2013
  • ISBN: 9781446419755
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 320

About the author

James Wood

James Wood has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2007. In 2009, he won the National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism. He was the chief literary critic at the Guardian from 1992 to 1995, and a book critic at the New Republic from 1995 to 2007. He has published a number of books with Cape, including How Fiction Works, which has been translated into thirteen languages.

Also by James Wood

See all

Praise for The Irresponsible Self

A stylish writer as well as a clear-sighted reader. His prose bristles with the sort of epigrammatic brilliance that asks challenging questions even when providing answers


Breathtakingly good... James Wood is pretty much as good a general critic of literary fiction as you'll find writing in English at the moment

The Times

He is one of literature's true lovers, and his deeply felt, contentious essays are thrilling in their reach and moral seriousness

Susan Sontag

In a literary world which is so often either relaxed into the flabby indifference of review-speak, or corseted into position with the strings and eyelets of critical jargon, James Wood's tone is invaluable

Robert MacFarlane, Times Literary Supplement

It is [Wood's] secure observation that makes these essays so engaging and ultimately puts this corrective missionary critic on the side of the secular angels

Russell Celyn Jones, The Times

James Wood is an authentic literary critic, very rare in this bad time. One can dissent gently from his judgements but he is always urgent, lucid, and interesting

Harold Bloom

The most urgent and morally demanding critic around is the brilliant James Wood... A second powerful collection


This is a collection to be read by anyone who wouldn't normally dream of reading literary criticism

Financial Times

Wood is one of the finest critics at work today, heir to Coleridge, Hazlitt and V. S. Pritchett...He combines the breadth and seriousness of Edmund Wilson with the pellucid prose style of Cyril Connolly...Wood pursues his craft with a high seriousness the like of which we had not thought to see again after the death of Lionel Trilling

John Banville, Irish Times