Born to Dennis William Wood (born 1928), a Dagenham-born minister and professor of zoology at Durham University, and Sheila Graham Wood, née Lillia, a schoolteacher from Scotland, Wood was raised in Durham in an evangelical wing of the Church of England, an environment he describes as austere and serious. He was educated at Durham Chorister School and Eton College, both on music scholarships. He read English Literature at Jesus College, Cambridge, where in 1988 he graduated with a First.
After Cambridge, Wood "holed up in London in a vile house in Herne Hill, and started trying to make it as a reviewer". His career began reviewing books for The Guardian. In 1990 he won Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards. From 1991 to 1995 Wood was the chief literary critic of The Guardian, and in 1994 served as a judge for the Booker Prize for fiction. In 1995 he became a senior editor at The New Republic in the United States. In 2007 Wood left his role at The New Republic to become a staff writer at The New Yorker. Wood's reviews and essays have appeared frequently in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books where he is a member of its editorial board. He is also on the editorial board of the literary magazine The Common, based at Amherst College. He was a recipient of the 2010/2011 Berlin Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin.
Wood began teaching literature in a class he co-taught with the late novelist Saul Bellow at Boston University. Wood also taught at Kenyon College in Ohio, and since September 2003 has taught half time at Harvard University, first as a Visiting Lecturer and then as Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University.
Like the critic Harold Bloom, Wood advocates an aesthetic approach to literature, rather than more ideologically driven trends that are popular in contemporary academic literary criticism. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson Wood explains that the "novel exists to be affecting...to shake us profoundly. When we're rigorous about feeling, we're honoring that." The reader, then, should approach the text as a writer, "which is [about] making aesthetic judgments."
Wood is noted for coining the genre term hysterical realism, which he uses to denote the contemporary conception of the "big, ambitious novel" that pursues vitality "at all costs." Hysterical realism describes novels that are characterized by chronic length, manic characters, frenzied action, and frequent digressions on topics secondary to the story. In response to an essay Wood wrote on the subject, author Zadie Smith described hysterical realism as a "painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth".
In reviewing one of his works Adam Begley of the Financial Times wrote that Wood "is the best literary critic of his generation".
Martin Amis described Wood as "a marvellous critic, one of the few remaining." Fellow book reviewer and journalist Christopher Hitchens was also fond of James Wood's work, in one case giving his students a copy of Wood's review of 'Terrorist' by John Updike, citing it as far better than his own.
In the 2004 issue of n+1 the editors criticized both Wood and The New Republic writing:
Poor James Wood! Now here was a talent—but an odd one, with a narrow, aesthetician’s interests and idiosyncratic tastes... In the company of other critics who wrote with such seriousness, at such length, in such old-fashioned terms, he would have been less burdened with the essentially parodic character of his enterprise.
James Wood wrote a reply in the Fall 2005 issue, explaining his conception of the "autonomous novel," in response to which the n+1 editors devoted a large portion of the journal's subsequent issue to a roundtable on the state of contemporary literature and criticism.
In 1992 he married Claire Messud, an American novelist. They live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with their two children (a son, Lucian, and a daughter, Livia).