On James Wolcott’s Engaging, Irritating, Snarky and Insightful Criticisms

[21 October 2013]

By John L. Murphy

In Lucking Out, his memoir of dropping out from a rural Maryland state college in 1972 to come to New York City to make it as a writer, James Wolcott surveyed the magazines which employed him, the films he reviewed under the guidance of Pauline Kael, and the music he heard at CBGBs as Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, and the Talking Heads began their careers. Finally, Wolcott’s recollections shifted into ballet and literary criticism as he looked back at the start of his long career at The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.

Readers of his articles have long praised or damned Wolcott’s confident, acerbic tone, and his use of metaphor and the polished phrase to sum up or put down the figures and films he covered. Those familiar with his memoir will find certain episodes repeated from CBGBs or his movie reviews, and within this 500 page anthology of his past 40 years, perhaps inevitably, stylistic tics (e.g., “whatever” “nowhere fast”) appear more than once. The payoff is finding Wolcott engaging, irritating, and insightful.

Over six-dozen entries defy easy summation. Working through the galley proof (which limits my ability to evaluate Wolcott’s style, as this hampers my scored rating), my attention did not flag, a testament to the author’s commitment to record his reasons, his emotions, and his insights, honestly and determinedly. While my wife—whom I have urged to persevere through Lucking Out—avers that the only reason I find Wolcott more amenable is that I share his curmudgeonly manner, I counter that Wolcott (to steal a phrase from one of his preening subjects, John Lydon) means it, maaaaaan.

Wolcott explains he selected pieces able to stand up long after the cultural moment had passed. He leaves out those needing footnotes by now, he keeps those relevant decades later, and he even lets go some that while they “still have a bop to them” might have further damaged their targets. He laments that criticism, dulled by the medium by which you and I connect for this review, has lost its clout compared to the heyday of the underground as well as popular cultural and music magazines.

Nothing monopolizes the conversation, as “mainstream dissent” in The New Yorker under Wallace Shawn once did. “Although we live in a culture of uncircumcised snark, it actually seems a more deferential time to me, the pieties and approved brand names—Cindy Sherman, Lena Dunham, Quentin Tarantino, Junot Diaz, Mark Morris, Judd Apatow, John Currin (feel free to throw other names into the pot)—more securely clamped down over our ears.” Anyone taking on a “major reputation” does so more out of self-referential deference, he adds. Critics these days watch their own Twitter and Facebook feeds, fearful of their own status, careful not to upset those whom they cover.

Therefore, Wolcott, while not going soft, learns from the four decades of shifts away from critical punch to online tweets. He arranges this anthology with nostalgia. “But there’s solace in knowing I learned and stole from the best”, and his college dropout status keeps him studying more. That aspect, considering the amount of literary as well as cinema and music and media critique this collection amasses, attests to Wolcott’s largely autodidactic training (compared to many of the critics he at a doleful 1980 Skidmore conference on the decline of American culture sits through and here sends up) puts him in the tradition of many of the cultural critics he praises from mid-century, when a Ph.D., tenure, and sabbaticals might not be the prerequisites for holding forth on novels, film, and poetry.

Let’s look at some of the highlights of Wolcott’s holding forth. “Talking Furniture” begins with television reviews. Mary Hartman, Dennis Potter, the local NYC crank Stanley Siegel (an exception to the footnote needed, but a special case close to Wolcott’s curdled affection), SCTV, and The X-Files fill the chapters. Examining Vanessa Redgrave in the Holocaust melodrama Playing for Time, he concludes with a balanced look at her controversial political stances, given her role here as a Jewish prisoner. “Perhaps Redgrave’s political passion and her passion as an artist spring from the same rich source; perhaps the gall and the energy which propel her all over the globe to spout Marxist rubbish is also what enables her to enter so deeply into a role that she becomes transfigured—luminously possessed.” Wolcott remains sensitive, open to Redgrave’s own reactions onscreen.

Similarly, he watches for cant, complacency, and stasis. Designing Women, in its Clinton-era cant of feminist bromides, languishes by its seventh season in its own lame-duck predicament. “The characters seem sandbagged to the set, baying to each other from the far reaches of the Naugahyde.” Yet a punchy observation like that can be followed by this: “[Delta] Burke settled into the sofa as if were her baby bath. The echo in her features of Elizabeth Taylor’s suggested a luxury fund of food-libido.” The odd metaphors sag—bath, echo, fund, libido—and bob about each other, soggy.

Turning to comedy, I admit that while the passing reigns of late-night TV hosts never interested me, I followed Wolcott’s eager depiction of Johnny Carson closely. Wolcott drew me in. Citing fellow transplanted Burbanker Bob Hope as claiming comedians thrive on their own “insincerity”, Wolcott applies this to 1979 Carson: “He has a gift akin to David Bowie’s for copping from others and yet appearing totally self-invented.” I doubt if a television critic other than Wolcott, equally attentive to rock, would make such a comparison. By 1992, the “nonstop” drummer Carson endures as the “comedy’s last practitioner of white jazz”, his “steady pistons” pumping on from the “bachelor pad of passé legend”. Staring back at David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien, Wolcott pounds away, before switching to Jerry Lewis’ hectoring marathon years to typically delightful, coy, and wry effect.

Music follows his memoir’s subjects settled in New York City, but he looks beyond CBGBs (and ballet not at all). David Byrne’s shtick by now feels at best as rehearsed as Carson’s golf swing, but in a Village Voice review of his band, we see him as in 1975, fresh. He “has a little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo voice and the demeanor of someone who’s spent the last half-hour whirling around in a spin dryer. When his eyes start Ping-Ponging in his head, he looks like a cartoon of a chipmunk on Mars.”

He decries a few whom many worship. By 1976, Lou Reed’s own stage patter had worn thin: “though he probably couldn’t open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence.” Patti Smith, whom Wolcott early on idolized, gets in a 1996 retrospective a more reflective veneration, updated in a postscript for 2013. Noting the coverage given Smith’s handshake with Pope Francis, Wolcott weighs this elevation of her as “high priestess of lost bohemia” as “a testament to our own sense of loss—our bereavement over the death of the counterculture, of any hope of new rebel energies rising through the thick sediment of money, snark, accreditation, and digital distraction”. There’s “snark” again as our own era’s characteristic, post-Occupy, post-Letterman.

Furthering this look back at icons, a defense of Albert Goldman’s often derided The Lives of John Lennon demonstrates Wolcott’s appreciation of a principled analysis of how to fairly counter the smug platitudes, sung or paraded, of the counterculture. As for smug, the Rat Pack contrasted with the remake of Ocean’s 11. The original, filmed in Vegas when the sun was high, after the Pack had lounged away each night, makes them “look like sirloin in the atomic light of day”.

As expected from a protegé of Pauline Kael, much of Wolcott’s volume scrutinizes movies. Brian De Palma and Woody Allen gain multiple exposures in related reviews; Sam Peckinpah, Alfred Hitchcock, New York noir, and an eager endorsement of “the greatest film Billy Wilder never made”, The Americanization of Emily, show Wolcott’s range. He captures as he did in his memoir the glare of his adopted city, refusing soft-focus. “You’d ride the New York subway just hoping to reach your destination, hell, any destination, suffering claustrophobia from the graffiti-sprayed windows, the lights blinking on and off like a submarine under attack, staring impassively ahead as predators loped from car to car, stalking prey.” The feral rhythms of his longtime home, as he peers back at the B-movie antiheroes of the ‘70s, cement his credibility as a critic who has met his subject personally.

He can also roam, in a less wary, more urbane pose. In a postscript to a 1993 piece on John Updike, Wolcott apologizes for his own snark about that writer’s love of Doris Day, which he comes later to appreciate, as Wolcott’s carefully observed 2000 article on Rock Hudson and Day diligently affirms. Such a reconsideration reveals Wolcott’s ability to remain alert, to re-examine his own prejudices.

In the literary section, he opens up, with asides and instances taken from his own study of the classics, old and new. He can drop a reference to War and Peace in as nimbly as the Cowsills or woefully as Pauly Shore. He dismisses the posturing of bad guys in print as he has on stage or on screen. A protagonist of the much-praised (by others) Richard Ford keeps “dropping clichés into the slot until he gets the click of a dead phone”. Critic Marvin Mudrick’s glee at being credited by a student as “the funniest writer I have ever read” is as touching as is Wolcott’s sharp notice about critic Seymour Krim: “In a couple of his books he even reprints his letters to the editor, a sure sign of a crackpot”. Wolcott includes none of his own; doubtless his entries generated hate mail galore.

But maybe a few of his detractors had a point, or a persnickety prick. Wolcott (beyond any glitches of this galley proof) may be faulted for his own fumbles. Reviewing Martin Amis’ autobiography, Wolcott introduces it confusingly. “Marketed as a literary hullabaloo so frank and blazingly humane it has to be kept in a Domino Pizza’s carrier, Experience is a Lazarus act of self-resurrection. Contradicting Amis’s cold-fish image, it’s a confessional strip search, personalized with schoolboy letters and family-album photos—a portrait of the artist as a battered man reborn.” Hullabaloo is a term that I struggle to picture as so fiery in its intangible humanism that a pizza box could hold such a phenomenon. Let alone that Lazarus did not raise himself from the dead: Jesus did. Maybe He could explain how a strip search is confessional, given Lazarus’ own sorry post-mortem, tomb-smell state.

When Wolcott takes on mournful Joyce Carol Oates for her own forays into the grave and the Gothic, “wonders of reckless energy and dishevelment”, the resemblance to scattered passages in Critical Mass persists. Yet, on the next page in the Amis article, Martin’s dissolute. portly, and almost constantly drunken father Kingsley “toward the end” resembled to Wolcott “a pickle jar with a stuck lid”: a quirky but accurate caricature, one suspects. Wolcott, with his own wry eye, can reduce a novel or author to its essential gift or flaw. After citing an errant passage: “That’s what John Updike’s naturalism in Rabbit is Rich comes down to: telling you every dumb thing that is on Rabbit’s mind.”

However, as I referred to earlier regarding Updike on Doris Day, Wolcott resists pouting, at least now and then. “Since Updike knows intimately every blade and pebble in Proust, he can alight like a robin and spot the worms in Pinter’s adaptation, removing them with a few light tugs.” Even Ayn Rand earns grudging respect for her pop-culture pull. He sees her “as the last industrial novelist, the last to lyricize the urban might of stone and metal”. For whomever he analyzes, Wolcott shows patience.

Jack Kerouac’s minor works resemble “listening to a musician tune up, only words are more than notes and sounds; they signify and convey meaning”. A commonplace comparison in some respects, but relevant by Wolcott’s context and placement for it. When he corrects a writer, he also commends, or at least shows us how to regard him or her with more generosity than we might have. He parenthetically closes his essay on Kerouac: “(he’s the deadbeat dad everyone’s decided to forgive)”.

Near the end of this hefty collection, Wolcott approves Gore Vidal’s put-down of professorial “scholar-squirrels” who dig among the detritus of a writer’s life and texts to find a petrified scrap. Wolcott, who never gained “accreditation”, started by emulating Norman Mailer, the New Journalism, and “mainstream dissent”. He made it in the Big Apple by hard work, with a dash of luck. 

Critical Mass testifies to his ability to avoid “academic robot-speak” and to convey his critiques of high and low culture, transmitted on stage, in print, on television, and at the movies, in a winning way. His own small slips make his achievement more accessible to us. We look on, over his shoulder, as he directs our eyes and ears to the intellectuals, entertainers, performers, and/or celebrities who have graced, cursed, or captivated him ever since he quit Frostburg State and hit Woody’s Manhattan.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/175766-critical-mass-by-james-wolcott/