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.")

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.

The Binaries of Adam Gopnik

As Adam Gopnik tours the Internet with Never-Betters and Better-Nevers, one has to ask, Does the binary make the writer, or the writer make the binary?

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. It's been two and a half years since my last blog entry. In that time I've done not much important. There was a venal thing about a website, mortal exchanges with a girl or two, and an unholy amount of commuting to Vancouver's eastern quarters by bus and train. My ignorance remains intact – unassailable, even.

And as that last sentence shows, I've betrayed the em dash for her sister, en. My new girl pines for the spotlight less. A case of preferring Jan to Marcia, maybe, but once you get past the honey-coloured hair and deliciously long neck, Marcia's charms run cruelly thin. And so it is with the em. What was thrilling became gratuitous. Nothing gold can stay.

Adam Gopnik
Adam Gopnik pulls this Feb. 2011 Internet
rumination out of the fire after opening with breezy
dismissal and a glib Nazi put-down.
Adam Gopnik won me back in the course of his recent survey of digital technologies and their impact on our lives, "How the Internet Gets Inside Us" (February 14th). The piece sketches out the essential responses of three groups of thinkers on the subject:
The Never-Betters, like Clay Shirky, who believe that we're on the crest of an ever-surging wave of democratized information, and that advances in technology are making humans ever freer.
The Better-Nevers, like Nicholas Carr, who are pessimistic about the Internet; they worry that by radically fracturing our attention and keeping us busy it breaks down our capacity for reflective thought.
And then the Ever-Wasers, who claim that a sense of vertiginous overload has always been central to our experience of modernity – that we might not be fully human if we weren't whining about the malign effects of clay pots, or television, or the Internet.
I say won me back because the article started slight. The clanking came early, in the writer's breezy dismissal of Shirky and Co.'s (admittedly thin) sketch of technological history. While mostly conceding Shirky's thesis – that greater information freedom eventually leads to greater personal freedom – Gopnik takes pains to remind us that It Wasn't Easy. Before that freedom arrived, he says, a lot of bad shit went down: book burnings, Martin Luther's "newly invented absolutist anti-Semitism," and "100 years of religious warfare." While you're savouring that liberty omelette, Mr. Shirky, forget not the broken eggs.

One of Gopnik's kicks at Nicolas Carr also feels less than fully gracious. Martin Heidegger's clairvoyant claim that "new technologies would break the meditational space on which Western wisdoms depend" is meaningless, he says, because, well, Heidegger later walked into the arms of the Nazis.

Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882)
This was where I got to squinting and Billy Idoling a lip on the #22 bus. Does the one disqualify the other? Is the wagon not big enough for two ideas – that Heidegger was an asshole and had a profound observation of technology?

But I'm not sure "both/and" much works for Adam Gopnik. The literary binary, pivoting on "either/or," is his hammer, nails, and sawhorse. Take from this article our mirrored Never-Betters and Better-Nevers. Or look back to my favourite Gopnik piece, an examination of the life and legacy of Charles Darwin that attempts to reconcile another dyad – deep (geologic) time and quick (momentary) time.
"The tragedy of life is not that there is no God but that the generations through which it progresses are too tiny to count very much. There isn't a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but try telling that to the sparrows.

The human challenge that Darwin felt, and that his work still presents, is to see both times truly – not to attempt to humanize deep time, or to dismiss quick time, but to make enough of both without overlooking either."
Gopnik's binaries, if they were clunky or facile, would be as repellent George Bush's "With us or against us." But they're tightly sewn, and crucially move past thesis/antithesis toward synthesis. The binary is often deployed to to effect a burst of clarity or recognition, but not here. Gopnik's interested in a deeper question. 

And sometimes the question happens to be beautiful. Again from "How the Internet Gets Inside Us":
Everything once inside [you] is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet...has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.

* 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.