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.

16 March 2014

Goodnight cruel moon!

The strain of doing such fine reporting on global warming may be showing on Elizabeth Kolbert.

I suppose there's only so much Bush Administration dormancy and mendacity you can absorb before your assignment editor asks you to review a classic children's book and you, um, turn it into a nihilistic meditation on death.

Her ultimate paragraph in "Goodnight Mush," from the December 12 issue:

"Time moves forward, and the little bunny doesn’t stand a chance. Parent and child are, in this way, brought together, on tragic terms. You don’t want to go to sleep. I don’t want to die. But we both have to."

Reaction from the blogosphere:

Lance Mannion: "I've read Goodnight Moon a thousand times, in a myriad of moods, and not once, not once, did I come away with an interpretation as dark as this."

Three Dot: "I thought I had a knack for reading disturbing messages into children's books, but I doff my hat to Ms. Kolbert."

Elf Sternberg: "Whoa. Heavy."

Play Library: "Ms. Kolbert’s piece is bizarre to say the least as well as overly analytical with a bitter taste."

Is the death fable a philosophical statement for Kolbert? She's gotta be an existentialist—the unfathomable universe, the human reponsibility, the slow, sweet march to a permanent void.

Consider the tone of her article beside the last paragraphs of Albert Camus's "Irony," his 1937 reflection on youth and death.

"None of this fits together? How very true! A woman you abandon to go to the cinema, an old man to whom you have stopped listening, a death which redeems nothing, and then, on other hand, the whole radiance of the world.

"What difference does it make if you accept everything? What you have here are three destinies which are different and yet alike. Death for us all, but his own death to each. After all, the sun still warms our bones for us."

And on that note, time for Multiplatform.

Originally published on Jan 18, 2007

15 March 2014

On the Road

Cup of mint tea at my left hand and waiting for my diphenhydramine hydrochloride to kick in. Just finished Louis Menand's look back at Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." His piece ends with this lovely little Kerouackian riff:

It's fairly high above sea level there, in the lower ranges of the Berkshires, and I would stand at the pump in the dark looking at the stars in the cold clear sky as the semis roared past and with the wind in my hair, and I liked to imagine that I was a character in Kerouac's novel, lost to everyone I knew and to everyone who knew me, somewhere in America, on the road.

Then I would get in the car, and, bent over the wheel, while the trucks beat on past me, and the radio crackled, the sound going in and out, with oldies from the seventies, I began the long drop down to the lights of Boston, late in the night, late in my life, alone.

Nice, isn't it? Reminds me of when writing was easier, less an exercise of form and structure and grammar than of sustaining an impulse and going back to fix up the egregious errors later.
According to Menand, the book isn't about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists—rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. And it's not an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity. It's a sad and self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity, and failure, which I think he captures lovelily in the last line.

It's also, as he says, a story about guys who want to be with other guys. I didn't get the homosexual bent (no pun) of "On the Road" at first, and I remember being shocked when I heard the theory propounded by a kind middleaged American backpacker woman, on a ferry chugging toward Gili Trawangan, in Indonesia. I was 22, reading the book at the time, and momentarily embarrassed for being enthusiastic about it.

Props also to Menand for working one of my favorite albums—Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely—into his lede. Anyone know where I can download it? I lost my cassette years ago.

(Click Jack's photo to see him reading from "On the Road" and here for a silent film of he and Ginsberg loafing around NYC, circa 1959.)

Originally published Oct. 1, 2007

Describing: Paulo Coelho

 Describing Paulo Coelho

"Coelho is almost sixty. His name, bestowed upon a suite at the Hotel Ambasciatori in Rome and a hot-chocolate drink at Le Bristol hotel in Paris, is pronounced CO-el-you. He is solid and short, with the capable, roughened look of someone who makes his living out-of-doors, and he dresses in black cowboy boots, black jeans, and black T-shirts. 

"His hair is white and shaved short, except for a little ponytail that sprouts from the back of his head. On his left forearm is a crude tattoo of a butterfly, which he and his wife...got in 1980, as a "wedding ring."

—Dana Goodyear, in "The Magus" (May 7), a profile of the Brazilian novelist who has sold almost 100 million books

* * *

Goodyear does a good job here. She never condescends to her subject, although, amusingly, she includes this quote by Mario Maestri, "one of the few Brazilian critics who does not reflexively dismiss Coelho" (italics mine):
In spite of belonging to different genres, Coelho's narratives and self-help books have the same fundamental effect: of anesthetizing the alienated consciousness through the consoling reaffirmation of conventions and prevailing prejudices. Fascinated by his discoveries, the Coelhist reader explores the familiar, breaks down doors already open, and gets mired in sentimental, tranquilizing, self-centred, conformist, and spellbinding visions of the world that imprisons him. When he finishes a book, he wants another one that will be different but absolutely the same.
I have a new favorite Brazilian literary critic.

The subject aside, my only criticism is the second sentence of the article. I kept getting lost—and still do, now a dozen times in—in the syntactical chasm between 'story' and 'of.' Give it a try.
"It is a story, told in 'A Thousand and One Nights' and in Rumi's 'Masnavi' and later adapted by Jorge Luis Borges—the version that Coelho, who is Brazilian, first read—of a man who dreams that he must leave home to find a treasure, and upon arriving at his destination, discovers that the treasure is in fact buried in his native land."
Hmmm...easier to follow with the wide margins, but as exposition a trifle impatient.  

Originally published on May 3, 2007

Platform agnosticism

A new piece of nomenclature that—like "backstory," perhaps—will rise from obscurity to common use in two weeks flat: "platform agnostic."

I first saw the term in David Denby's January 8th article on the future of Hollywood films. He uses it to refer to the viewing habits of kids, who will "look at movies on any screen at all, large or small."

(Photo: Thomas Huxley [1825-95], a great defender of Darwin, who coined the term 'agnostic' to describe his belief that it cannot be known whether or not god exists. The word comes from the Greek—'a' [not] 'gnosis' [knowledge].)

Denby, like most cinephiles (and old people), is not a platform agnostic. He doesn't like how the iPod rides up and down on his stomach when he's watching a movie. And holding it away from his body makes his arm tired. And his eyes hurt to focus. Besides, he's got better options.
"At the house of my friend Harry Pearson, I watched movies on what must be close to the ultimate home-theatre system, a setup priced at two hundred thousand dollars."
So, Mr. Denby, when I start my internship, I'm going to be polite at first. I'll swing by your office and be, like, yeah, no frigging way can we dispense with the Western canon. Nothing about Anthony Lane being funnier. But then...I'm going to get a little more insistent.

Let me put it out there right now: I'll watch whatever you guys are watching. I'll be really quiet. And I will bring the Stroh's.

Talk of platform agnosticism at journalism school is appropriate: the newspaper god is ailing, and journalists have begun to hedge their bets. We take something called Multiplatform Journalism (the 'multi' means print, audio, video, and online), which will help me a tonne when I give up on slackjawed Joe Public and go into advertising.

Dorky Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who carries a stuffed toy moose around, also describes himself as a platform agnostic.

Still working on the link between the two.

Originally published on Jan 22, 2007

13 March 2014

New do for summer

Is that hairline getting a little high on the sides? No—can't be.

That's me with Aeisha, my Iraqi barberess. Her shop on 4th Ave. (not a salon, as you can see by the Barbasol receptacle at bottom right) is one of the few places in Vancouver where you can still get the hot-shaving-cream-and-straight-razor treatment, although, to be honest, you can do better in five minutes with your Sensor and some intention. She says some guys make jokes about Iraq while she's scraping their throats with the razor. Reckless, say I.

The reason for the grooming is my temporary leap up the blogging food chain. Today I—drum roll set off in em dashes, please—started a summer internship at Emdashes, which is, as I explained to my family, the Internet's première site about The New Yorker. In no time, I'm sure, Mom will be telling everyone at work that I got a job at the magazine, an elision we should discourage.

I'm working from Vancouver, so the haircut isn't strictly necessary—Emdashes is based in NYC—but with a Kerouackian huzzah and a fit of '20s optimism I decided to make an offering of sideburns to the writing gods. You'll be the first to know how it goes. God, 'Kerouackian' has got to be my favorite name-based adjective.

I spent way too long labouring over my introduction, which, it's not hard to see, comes over as a weak slider for a ball. Give me time, though; it's a comfort zone thing.

Extra listening
Now that we're on the subject, Jack Kerouac reading from "On the Road," in a way both cool and strangely not—your call.

Harry Crosby reading John Updike's "On the Sidewalk," a spot-on Kerouac spoof first published, I believe, in The New Yorker. (I've got it in "Fierce Pajamas" a humor anthology edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder.)

Originally published on May 10, 2007

Into the chalk

John McPhee, who inadvertently screwed up Tom's writing career, returns this week in an absorbing wander through the Cretaceous chalk of England, France, and the Netherlands: "Season on the Chalk" (March 12).

McPhee is considered one of the pioneers of 'creative non-fiction,' a genre Wikipedia defines, flatly, as "using literary skills in the writing of non-fiction." I haven't known about McPhee for a long time, but the magazines containing his stories about river barges and coal trains were some of the few possessions that made it back from Asia with me.

The first paragraph of "Season":
The massive chalk of Europe lies below the English Channel, under much of Northern France, under bits of Germany and Scandinavia, under the Limburg Province of the Netherlands, and—from Erith Reach to Gravesend—under fifteen miles of the lower Thames. My grandson Tommaso appears out of somewhere and picks up a cobble from the bottom of the Thames. The tide is out. The flats are broad between the bank and the water. Small boats, canted, are at rest on the riverbed. Others, farther out on the wide river, are moored afloat—skiffs, sloops, a yawl or two. Tommaso is ten. The rock in his hand is large but light. He breaks it against the revetment bordering the Gordon Promenade, in the Riverside Leisure Area, with benches and lawns under oaks and chestnuts, prams and children, picnics under way, newspapers spread like sails, and, far up the bank, a stall selling ice cream. He cracks the cobble into jagged pieces, which are whiter than snow. Chalked graffiti line the revetment have attracted the attention of Tomasso, who now starts his own with the letter "R."
McPhee is one of the few writers who can take three delicious pages to describe a chef making a hamburger. I know what Tom means, though: You get sucked into a McPhee article, and, bright with admiration, you start affecting his style. But you lack his skill, his ability to fashion a garment from the pretty weave of detail and character. First your editors denounce you, then your readers leave you. And then you're not a writer anymore.

I had a similar brush with J. P. Donleavy a few years ago. All about dropped pronouns.

Enter the McPheeniacs:

Knight Science: "The profligately verbose John McPhee brings his usual, distinctive, mesmerising goulash of facts, asides, rambles, sketches, and odd rhythmic use of science jargon to a fixating tour of Europe’s Cretaceous chalk.

Branner: "I don’t know who else could mingle geology and terroir, geography and genealogy, the personal and the historic, all the while namedropping geologic time periods and stages like they’re a-list celebrities arriving at the Oscars."

NewMexiKen: This week’s New Yorker has an article by McPhee. What’s it about? you ask. Who cares? It’s by John McPhee.
Say 'profligately' three times fast. It's impossible.

Feel free to have a run at his first graf, too. I'd love to hear some dissenting voices.

Originally published on Mar 13, 2007

Dept. of Telecommuting

The astute among you will recognize that 'telecommuting' is a misnomer. I'm not at home here, but, instead, at UBC, which is empty save for me, the iMac upon which I took this picture, and the second-year guy who's taking the summer to write his thesis because that's the way his scholarship works.

My expression is intended to convey the pain of telecommuting, as least for me, an ENTP terribly suited to working in boxers, next to an open window, checking e-mail every ninety seconds, with a fridge of food downstairs and a million uninvestigated Web nodes spread out before him.

What's your Myers-Briggs type? I don't know. Why don't you take the online test?

Originally published on Jun 5, 2007