I read this from James Wood’s July 22 New Yorker essay, “Sins of the Father,” at the gym and nearly fell off of my elliptical machine:
How, really, could the drama of paternity have competed with the drama of creativity? For a man, creating a child—though certainly not raising one—is almost accidental, whereas writing a book takes years of thought and effort. Or put it another way: raising a child can seem as ordinary, as continuous, and as “easy” as life itself, while writing a book is like staying up all night.
I understand what Wood is getting at, and that in some sense he is merely trying to provoke, but I would take issue that writing—for folks who do it seriously—is the sort of heightened state of living Wood implies. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but writing is often that which seems “ordinary” and “continuous,” and raising a child, while necessitating plenty of repetition, is filled with novel developments in the way only nurturing of a new being can entail. In fact, while writing, I am often conscious of the need to resist sounding too much like myself (the same old vocabulary, the same familiar images). Writing does come with its own rewards and—I gather if one sticks with it long enough—milestones, but it is hardly “religiously absorbing” in the way that Wood means it, as excusing neglect of those around one, or, indeed, in failing to take interest in the world except as material for the next story or poem.
The pretext for Wood’s article is a review of family exposees by the children of Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud and William Styron. Later in the article, Wood acknowledges that he was a devotee of and onetime co-teacher with Saul Bellow, so it is no surprise that he reserves his greatest scorn for Greg Bellow. Wood writes of the younger Bellow’s grudging assessment of his father’s legacy,
[W]hen Greg Bellow talks about protecting his father’s privacy, it should be obvious that he really means denying his father’s publicity, as a way to keep his father to himself. Humanly, this is utterly forgivable. In literary terms, it is incoherent. Really protecting his father’s privacy would mean acknowledging that Saul Bellow’s most private self was expressed in writing, not in paternity. For any serious writer, the private self is the writing self.
Reading past the clinical one-off-manship Wood implies in his use of “paternity,” Wood’s most misguided assumption seems to be that one’s authentic self can be revealed only in writing or in family life, but not in both. This is an incredibly simplistic reading of human nature, and I wonder why Wood felt compelled to make this claim. There certainly seem to be other more legitimate grounds for critiquing this memoir—for instance, Wood helpfully points out that the book is cursed with the sort of hollow coming-to-terms narrative that seems at odds with Greg Bellow’s persistent sense of having been wounded—but to devote half of an extended article disputing a son’s own take on his relationship with his father, and upbraiding the former for ungenerousness, seems irresponsible. In the end, Wood comes off as a grown child deputing a sibling over who carries the most faithful remembrance of the father.