04 July 2014

Gopnik gets curbed

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik
Adam Gopnik | McGill University Press
I've been thinking about this entry since last night, when I made a surprising discovery: most New Yorker bloggers have a grudge against Adam Gopnik.

Initiating incident: James Wolcott (left), "the reigning monarch of the literary put-down," delivers a maiming review of "Through the Children's Gate," a collection of Gopnik's essays about New York City.

"Finally," caws Gawker. "The Adam Gopnik takedown we've all been waiting for."

Here are Gopnik's primary flaws, in Wolcott's view. He:
  • was put on this earth to annoy;
  • is a careerist with delicate antennae who wants to be encouraged, petted, praised, promoted, and congratulated;
  • is forever soliciting the reader's approval with an array of cloying ploys that become gimmicky and self-conscious;
  • and his friends are yuppie triumphalists who take pride and pleasure in their exalted taste buds and their little geniuses reflecting flatteringly on their own achievements.
One of the few available photographs of James Wolcott
the Internet coughs up. Undated, it appears in
It's hard to get out of the way of Wolcott's critique—it rolls up, up, up off the beach and you find yourself looking for a palm branch or balcony railing to hang on to. I felt short of breath reading it, more so because the piece is frighteningly well written. (Wolcott, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, is gentler in the afterglow, however. He blogs his postscript here.)
Okay, fine: fratricide among the New York literati can't be new. But the shocking part was the response of bloggers, the ostensible fans: Yeah, he had it coming.

Hate, always quick to respond, finds one lonely dad sticking up for Gopnik. The others? Some avert their eyes. Most lap it up.

Emdashes: "Wolcott makes an omelette with some familiar eggs."
Penguins: "This is hilarious."
The Elegant Variation: "Lord, James Wolcott entertains us."
Biffles: "Gopnik filters the entire world through his upper-middle-class colored preciousness."
Jewcy: "Why is there a market for Gopnik's extravagant whimsicality?"
Gall and Gumption: "Gopnik manages somehow to distill experience down to pure vanity."
It all seems a touch cruel to me. I haven't read "Children's Gate," but I loved one of its pieces that ended up in the magazine, "Death of a Goldfish," Gopnik's rumination on meaning and existence. Wolcott claims to hear tinned laughter behind this, the essay's opening passage.
"When our five-year-old daughter Olivia's goldfish, Bluie, died the other week, we were confronted with a crisis larger, or at least more intricate, than is entirely usual upon the death of a pet. Bluie's life and his passing came to involve so many larger elements—including the problem of consciousness and the plotline of Hitchcock's Vertigo—that it left us all bleary-eyed and a little shaken.

"Let's try this," Martha said. "Let's tell her that, though Bluie did die, this Bluie [a replacement fish, a ringer for the original] is kind of Bluie reborn.

"I thought she might have something, and in the next fifteen minutes, we did a quick, instinctive tour of the world's religions. We made up a risen-from-the-grave Christian story: the Passion of the Bluie. We considered a Buddhist story: Bluie goes round and round. We even played with a Jewish story: Bluie couldn't be kept alive by the doctors, but what a lovely bowl he left for his family!"
More to come on this. Did he really have it coming?

* Republished, for no particular reason, on July 4, 2014. Actually, there was a reason: I'd just had a too-clever-by-half conversation about Gopnik's latest piece in the magazine, about cooking and memory and his eccentric mother, and remembered the cruelty of James Wolcott's takedown in 2007, and wondered whether it was as unfairly vituperative as I'd thought.


Emily Gordon said...

I've been a little uncomfortable with the assumption that I second every last word of James Wolcott's review by virtue of having linked to it. As you'll see if you poke around Emdashes, I do a lot of quick linking without comment, and that's how I see my "omelette and eggs" intro. I revere Wolcott as a critic and like him tremendously as a person, but my opinions about Gopnik and his writing have, thus far, not been shared on my site. (I'm posting this to I Hate The New Yorker too, in case my comments look a little similar!)

zp said...

My first post ever (I think) was about Gopnik's goldfish. I do not support that treacly business.

Maybe the ensuing linkathon was a bit harsh, but I thought most people were just giving a little sigh of relief.

I also think that since the Bluie essay and (I'm guessing) the publication of the work, Gopnik has turned his attention to topics of more general interest.

JJB said...

Emily makes a fair point: she provides the omelette and eggs for you to eat, without saying whether they are good or bad.

ZP, you make me self-conscious: though it's been a while, I remember really liking that fish story. I'm checking in on your Bluie entry right now.

Kia said...

I got a lot of unexpected attention for my own contribution to the Gopnik pile-on. I never heard of some of these people who joined in until Wolcott linked to my own post -- my blog has a very small readership. I don't know about anybody else, but all I know of Gopnik is his writing. Writing has its own rules and the way it sometimes works to support or subvert an author's imagined self-presentation is complicated and interesting to me. But it's not the writer as a person that's up to scrutiny, it's what he or she has made with the medium. That made thing (book, poem, memoir) goes on to live a life of its own. That makes it fair game for criticism, because the life it lives on its own is, among other things, the life it lives in my reactions to it. If Ben Jonson had to learn how to live through criticism and scorn of his work (and he was taking serious and interesting creative risks), so can Gopnik -- it's the writer's lot in life. You just go back to work, that's about it.

A couple of people who commented at my place have indicated that it's less Gopnik himself that they object to than that dreadful tone of professional whimsy that you find in the New Yorker ("OOO that smell!" is how one commenter put it). This is a much bigger issue than Gopnik, I believe. I don't remember it always being so cloying and unearthly smug but it has made the "Talk of the Town" pieces almost unreadable to me. It's like they've lost control of tone over there. I imagine the magazine students at Columbia still doing, every couple years or so, a profile on the quirky and daunting copy editor -- "Such rigorous attention to correctness!" -- but I wonder if the New Yorker's ability to judge higher-level literary qualities is what it used to be. I'm not talking about back in the ancient days, I mean over the last maybe 10-15 years. Think of some of the people who have stopped writing for them in that interval.

Kia said...

Sorry for the long post. Also I'm Gall and Gumption, FYI.

JJB said...

Thanks for coming by, Kia. I like your blog, although I had to look up 'emetic.' Nice one.

Writing has its own rules and the way it sometimes works to support or subvert an author's imagined self-presentation is complicated and interesting to me.

I misread that as 'self-preservation' the first time but, either way, I agree heartily.

I've heard your complaint about the magazine's declining ability to judge higher-order literary virtue in a couple of places now. I don't have a fully formed opinion myself, other than feeling that David Sedaris is the worst offender they regularly publish.

Mind if I link to you?

zp said...

I have no idea what Gopnik is like as a person, but this bit o' writing still doesn't work for me. Here's the comparison of a goldfish to a Vietcong soldier; I found it on the internet, not my CNY, so things might be a screwy with the spelling, etc.

"To begin with, Bluie, as his name suggests, was not actually a goldfish. He was a betta, a goldfish-size fish that the people in pet stores encourage you to buy in place of the apparently tetchy and sickly true Asian goldfish. The betta is a handsome fish, with long, sweeping fins. It can be red or black or violet or blue, and it is, at least according to the pet-store people, the Vietcong of pet fish, evolved in rugged isolation in the rice-paddy puddles of Indochina and just about impossible to kill off. The only drawback is that male bettas fight with each other, and have to be kept apart. It is not surprising, these days, to see a set of them on a child's dresser in Manhattan, held in separate containers, in a kind of glass-bowl parody of the co-op apartment building that surrounds them, each fish furiously pacing its cubic foot of space and waiting for the other to turn up the stereo."

I actually like the political "Talks," the others drive me bananas and the change in tone from the first to the next is often quite disorienting. But then a lot of folks don't care for the political "Talks" . . .

Anonymous said...

ZP- nice post about gold fish. For the most part this blog is a little above my head. I spend more time with a dictionary than reading.

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