What Critic James Wolcott Teaches Us About Cultural Criticism

From the David Foster Wallace collection at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
Share This

Do we still need cultural criticism in the digital age? Yes, but young critics should be wary of James Wolcott’s approach.

Discussed in this essay: Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs by James Wolcott – Doubleday, 2013; buy at Doubleday or Amazon.

James Wolcott as Critic

Yes, we still need cultural critics. The question is, what do we want them to write about? This doorstopper collection by James Wolcott affords us the opportunity to reflect on pop culture criticism and the place of the critic in the age of social media and the decline of the magazine.

Let’s start with the negatives and get them out on the table. Many of the pieces in the book have not worn well. Do we really need to read a 1996 New Yorker piece on David Letterman or musings about Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno et al. in a 2010 piece in Vanity Fair? I think we would all be better off if James Wolcott went to bed earlier.

Much of my reaction to the book might be due to the fact that I did not grow up in a world in which Vanity Fair and other East Coast periodicals were what upper-middle class people with intellectual pretensions read. I was a TLS girl. So I come to him fairly fresh.

Critical Mass
Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs

I vaguely recall seeing Wolcott on a TV talk show decades ago in which he hilariously sent up Alec Guinness as George Smiley fussing with his eyeglasses. Wolcott captured perfectly the reliance on bits of business that so often characterized Guinness’ acting and made American viewers rethink our slavish admiration for the leading British actors of the time. I was then a young woman mad about the liberal arts and in thrall to the world of Olivier, Gielgud, et al. In a few seconds, Wolcott made me realize that a lot of British theatrical culture was so much hooey. I still think of Wolcott’s little turn when I waste hours on Downton Abbey and Foyle’s War. I admired Wolcott’s on-the-fly imitation because Guinness’ performance was being so ballyhooed at the time. Wolcott put a refreshing pin in that balloon.

But that was all I knew of James Wolcott. I didn’t live in New York. I didn’t read The Village Voice or Esquire, and I didn’t read Wolcott’s pieces in The New Yorker because I didn’t have any interest in the Sex Pistols.

And for all his reputation for being on the cutting edge of culture, many of the essays on writers are predictable enough for a male critic of Wolcott’s (b. 1952) generation. He writes on Hemingway, Cheever, Updike, Mailer, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Kerouac, Vidal, Styron. No surprises there.

He does write on some female writers (e.g., Joyce Carol Oates). But what strikes me when looking over the list of the writers Wolcott has chosen as essay topics is how provincial and mainstream his tastes are. Wolcott seems to have had very little interest in world literature or anyone who was not already known to general readers in the 1980s. Not much groundbreaking. Not much intellectual curiosity.

The lack of adventurousness in his subject matter (save for his interest in rock) is striking, given his disdain for contemporary literary culture. He writes, for example, of a party William Styron recounts in a letter in a collection Wolcott is reviewing, “If the literary histories of the future have less wattage, it will be because such parties (mingling writers, movie stars, choreographers, socialites and theater folk from All About Eve) have disappeared in a spiral of cigarette smoke, replaced by book festivals and literary panels where nothing interesting ever happens between judicious sips of bottled water.”

Wolcott seems here seems to assume that swilling liquor at literary soirees and smoking a lot makes for great art. And I wonder how interesting it was to attend parties at which famous writers got blotto, and if dying of emphysema was glamorous. And a simple Google search of “James Wolcott AND book festival” shows that he was slated to appear at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2012. But presumably nothing interesting happened there.

It is a shame that Wolcott has not written more about poetry. He has squandered a great deal of time and talent on ephemera such as how various late night talk show hosts compared with Johnny Carson. Zzzzzzz. But the piece on Philip Larkin (“Larkin is the only contemporary poet that I find myself reading again and again, with deepening pleasure”) from Harper’s in 1983 shows real delicacy. Perhaps someday, Wolcott will write about Elizabeth Bishop. Wolcott writes quite movingly in the Larkin essay not only about Larkin, but about the quest for happiness of most human beings.

Wolcott can be tough, too. In a 1998 Vanity Fair essay on William Shawn, while giving credit to Shawn for his accomplishments at The New Yorker, he also points out that the supposed highly moral Mr. Shawn was a bigamist and stiffed the editorial staff in money matters.

Does Wolcott’s Approach to Criticism Work?

What can aspiring cultural critics learn from this book? Be frank. Get to the point. Wolcott starts his 2007 Vanity Fair essay on Mort Sahl like this, “May I commit an act of cultural blasphemy and abject philistinism? I never found Lenny Bruce that funny.” Also, try to think about the actual meaning of words. Why “abject” here and not “unashamed,” for example? But that is part of Wolcott’s appeal as a writer for those with a taste for the florid. He loves words. His prose is often lush. Kind of a refreshing change for those of us who have grown used to the brevity of the age of Twitter. A little bit of purple goes a long way.

This book is a trip down memory lane if you watched a lot of television c. 1973-2010. And it’s fun to note whom in that era Wolcott chose not to write about (like anyone who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in that period), and except for Styron, he has pretty much zero interest in the South (or in anyone in the West except for those in Hollywood or Kurt Cobain) or in anyone who is not, well, white.

The mustiness is not really Wolcott’s fault. This is a collection of past writings after all. But the book has a museum-like quality to it in ways that writings by critics such as James Agree and Randall Jarrell do not. They wrote about artists with love and knowledge. Wolcott often seems overly impressed by personality and celebrity culture. Go to Wolcott for commentary on punk rock, Woody Allen and talk shows. But I am glad that my reading in the period covered in this book was in small literary journals (e.g., Hudson Review) written by the academics that Wolcott ridicules. They wrote just as well and more substantively. I don’t think I missed much intellectually or culturally by not having read Esquire in Wolcott’s heyday.

Young cultural critic wannabes would do well to page through this book to determine for themselves how much of it is dead-on estimation of the true worth of the artists discussed and how much is self-important tripe. They might want to read it alongside timelines of literature and film to puzzle out what they would have covered that Wolcott did not. Wolcott’s book is a worthwhile addition to the critical corpus in that respect. It gets us thinking about the subjects he has spent his life chronicling.

Wolcott’s career and this book provoke the question of what a cultural critic is. I think the role of the critic is to alert us to upcoming artists we should know about. To make us see new strengths in long recognized ones. To bring to our attention to neglected ones that have languished too long on the margins. To make us feel that art means something to us as individuals. To make us aware of new lands, peoples, genres and modes of thinking and developing trends. To be our advance guard on the cultural frontier. Wolcott doesn’t really do any of that. He does, however, excel at namedropping on an epic scale.