04 July 2014

Dialing it down: Readers respond to James Wolcott on Adam Gopnik

Not all, it seems, were happy to be implicated in the gang-thrashing of Adam Gopnik. There have been murmurs of demurral among some of The New Yorker faithful.

"You have made a powerful enemy today."

Emdashes makes clear that her linking to Wolcott's screed was not a tacit seconding of his opinions, although she "reveres Wolcott as a critic and likes him tremendously as a person"—something akin to what Gopnik himself must now be feeling. (She gives her final word on the matter here.)

Kia from Gall and Gumption voices unease at the attention Wolcott's linking to her has brought. Sure, she's got reservations about Gopnik's writing, but she takes pains to separate the words from the man, a distinction Wolcott giddily ignored.

But, so far, NY-based Canadian freelancer Jeff MacIntyre has had the sharpest, truest response:
"I've always found Gopnik precious, but he's got a great many talents that make him seem more a peacock for their unfashionable and rare status, such as the breadth and promiscuity of his interests.

The piece was ridiculously narrowminded, as much fun as it is to read Wolcott on a tear, particularly because Gopnik does not really espouse some unified theory of smug disregard for his reader or peers. With him I get a very real sense he's being himself, which is no big whoop nor any crime. I think for a writer to come in for that kind of hating, he has to be offending on some higher level than that."
Read: Wolcott's 2007 screed,
and my initial response
to the "curbing"
So who is James Wolcott? "The King James Version," a New York Magazine piece from 2001, sketches in some background on our assailant célèbre. The piece begins:
"James Wolcott knows about envy. He's spent the past seventeen years holding two of the most sought-after writing gigs in America: Vanity Fair, of course, but also a four-and-a-half-year stint at Tina Brown's New Yorker. His salary is one of the highest in the business (as high as $400,000, according to Inside.com). And everyone pretty much agrees that he's got the most powerful pen in popular culture
It doesn't help matters, at least in the enmity-and-envy department, that Wolcott uses his pulpit—Vanity Fair as well as lengthy pieces in The New Republic and The London Review of Books—to deliver mordant, personal attacks. His columns aren't just critical reviews or clever commentary, they're laced with humiliating zingers.

Media heavies are favorite prey, but, for some reason, he's hardest on fellow writers. Gloria Steinem has "the nun-glow of a strict forehead"; Martin Amis was "the scowl of a new generation" who made writing look "insolently easy"; David Denby is "the boy who cried wolf. Easily excitable and always concerned." Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis write a "ticker tape of dropped names." On Richard Ford's taste for hunting: "Well, now we know who killed Bambi's mother. It was Richard Ford on one of his death strolls."
I may be missing the subtext of the put-downs, but none seems particularly glittering to me. I'll try one of my own: Wolcott is a "cheese-tray-hovering mouthbreather" whose "sublimated schoolgirl pique" has made his writing "a bile-ejaculation derby." Unremarkable, as I'm sure you agree. The hole of the Internet is deep, and, thankfully, such sentiments have weight. For insults, I like Roald Dahl.

More interesting than insults is what David Denby and Tina Brown have to say about James Wolcott. (Denby is one of the magazine's film critics; Brown was the editor from 1992 to 1998—a tenure during which, according to Salon, she was "either her generation's most adroit zeitgeist surfer or the lead zombie in a highbrow remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.")

David Denby
"I don't think there's anyone smarter than Jim reviewing for the last twenty years. He can see the contradiction in things in a way that can be quite breathtaking."

"I admire him, he's a phenomenal autodidact. He's learned from literature and journalism directly rather than from professors, which left him without any sense of false piety—and he developed a very vigorous style that turns the surface of things into metaphor. He can describe a performance or a personality and gather it up into a superb visual caricature.

But there's a problem with that: he stays on the surface. He doesn't seem to me to make the next step. There is no cultural value to defend. The only terrible thing for him is to be boring. That's a pop aesthetic. He's got nothing to fall back on."
Tina Brown
"I think he felt jostled at the New Yorker. He felt outclassed by Anthony Lane, Adam Gopnik, and David Remnick. At Vanity Fair, there's no one else to muscle in on his territory."
Ah, the male anxiety and territoriality... They're the reasons (along with, of course, sexual frustration) Camille Paglia says there's never been a great female lead guitarist in a rock band. Unfortunately, some of us take up writing.

Anyway, I've got to catch up on Wolcott. I know he's bodyslammed Gopnik and Denby, and now, tantalizingly, I've learned he's taken on Christopher Hitchens, too. Has he tried Lane, Remnick, or anyone else now at the magazine?

Has Wolcott ever got his?

(Extra: Elizabeth Kolbert on Tina Brown, circa 1993: "How Tina Brown Moves Magazines.")

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