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Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs

Written by James WolcottAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James Wolcott

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On Sale: October 15, 2013
Pages: 512 | ISBN: 978-0-385-53691-2
Published by : Doubleday Knopf
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Synopsis

A career-spanning collection of critical essays and cultural journalism from one of the most acute, entertaining, and sometimes acerbic (but in a good way) critics of our time

From his early-seventies dispatches as a fledgling critic for The Village Voice on rock ’n’ roll, comedy, movies, and television to the literary criticism of the eighties and nineties that made him both feared and famous to his must-read reports on the cultural weather for Vanity Fair, James Wolcott has had a career as a freelance critic and a literary  intellectual nearly unique in our time. This collection features the best of Wolcott in whatever guise—connoisseur, intrepid reporter, memoirist, and necessary naysayer—he has chosen to take on.
     Included in this collection is “O.K. Corral Revisited,” a fresh take on the famed Norman Mailer–Gore Vidal dustup on The Dick Cavett Show that launched Wolcott from his Maryland college to New York City (via bus) to begin his brilliant career. His prescient review of Patti Smith’s legendary first gig at CBGB leads off a suite of eyewitness and insider accounts of the rise of punk rock, while another set of pieces considers the vast cultural influence of the enigmatic Johnny Carson and the scramble of his late-night successors to inherit the “swivel throne.” There are warm tributes to such diverse figures as Michael Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Lester Bangs, and Philip Larkin and masterly  summings-up of the departed giants of American literature—John Updike, William Styron, John Cheever, and Mailer and Vidal. Included as well are some legendary takedowns that have entered into the literary lore of our time.
     Critical Mass is a treasure trove of sparkling, spiky prose and a fascinating portrait of our lives and cultural times over the past decades. In an age where a great deal of back scratching and softball pitching pass for criticism, James Wolcott’s fearless essays and reviews offer a bracing taste of the real critical thing.

Excerpt

Excerpted from the hardcover edition


O.K. Corral Revisited

Be advised, this piece is not for most of you, since it is concerned mostly with literary matters, the clash of two altogether large egos (indeed one of them is leviathan in its proportions), and the pyrotechnics of existential theater. A veritable cornucopia of conflicts. So, if you are intelligent (and patient) the sound of artillery should keep you awake.

I

Vidal: As far as I am concerned, the only crypto-­Nazi I can think of is yourself, failing that, I would only say that we can’t have . . . 

Howard K. Smith: Now let’s not call names.

Buckley: Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-­Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered—­

Smith: Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Let’s not call names.

The exchange printed above was the famous ad hominem cross-­fire between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal on ABC-­TV during the near-­to-­apocalyptic Democratic Convention of 1968. Keep the exchange in mind; we will return to it later; the symmetry of the argument will delight you.

II

Enough mystery. The Dick Cavett Show recently featured Gore Vidal, novelist and playwright; Janet Flanner, correspondent in France for The New Yorker; and Norman Mailer, American writer numero uno. Now television talk shows tend to be witty and vacuous (as is usually the case with Dick Cavett), dumb and vacuous (cf. Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson), or unctuous and vacuous (cf. the analingual David Frost). Talk shows, that is, usually are showcases for mediocre comedians telling dreadful jokes, politicians pontificating, writers pushing new books, singers doing new Bacharach material; a showcase of remarks and entertainments meant to be lively but not galvanizing, quick but never penetrating. When social issues—­dread the term—­are discussed, the discussion is carried on in tone and language so plastic and so pious that one would think the ghost of Adlai Stevenson was whispering in the wings.

But this particular show was different, extraordinarily different. It started as a more or less typical show, clever and safe as milk: Cavett did an extremely amusing monologue, Gore Vidal was introduced and spoke about Eleanor Roosevelt, ecology, and his new play entitled An Evening with Richard Nixon; Janet Flanner followed with little snack cakes of stories perfectly suited for any small cocktail party. All very nice, amiable, and dull.

After Mailer’s introduction, however, the mood-­temperature of the show went from lukewarm to warm (and it was to reach torrid before the evening was through). Mailer’s entrance on stage was done with such swagger and streetfighter toughness that he appeared to be the baddest gunfighter ever to kick open the doors of the Silver Dollar Saloon. When he got to his chair, he neglected all too obviously to shake hands with Vidal. Cavett, noting this, asked if there was animosity between the two. Indeed, there was. A short explanation follows.

III

In the first winter of this year, Mailer published a book-­length essay entitled The Prisoner of Sex, the work being a rebuttal to Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and exploration of the issues involved in Women’s Liberation—­sexual technology, the family orgasm, homosexuality, the literature of Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence (Mailer’s defense of Lawrence soars like a windhover). The effect on Mrs. Millett was devastating—­she was so badly lacerated that she is still bandaging the wounds. In the essay was a short slicing reference to Vidal: “The subject”—­i.e., women’s lib—­“was too large for quick utterances: The need of the magazine reader for a remark he could repeat at the evening table was best served by writers with names like Gore Vidal . . . ” Vidal, not without pride, to say the least, did not enjoy being trivialized. So in an article in the New York Review of Books, Vidal formulated a prototype male called M3; M3 being an equation for Henry Miller–Norman Mailer–Charlie Manson and representing the sort of male who thinks that women are “ . . . at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed.” Comparing Mailer to Manson was hyperbolic enough, but consider this datum: Mailer, married four times, non-­fatally stabbed his second wife. All right? Back to the show.

IV

After admitting he had just come from a bar, Mailer added that he hesitated to break the jovial mood of the show, but that he was furious with Vidal for what he had written and that it was obvious that Vidal as a writer was slipping badly. (Note: From this point on, all dialogue is printed as close to the facticity and spirit of the show as memory permits. The quotes, that is, are composed from memory and should not be taken as actual transcript.) He chastised Vidal for being so decadent as to write a play about Nixon; it was “too easy” and it could very well get Nixon re-­elected because such a play, coupled with Philip Roth’s Our Gang, would only generate sympathy for the president—­“It’s overkill, Gore,” remonstrated Mailer. Vidal responded weakly, Cavett did not get the conversation going, and Mailer told him, in effect, do your job (that is, don’t let silence set in). When Janet Flanner saw that the mood was going to be contentious, she made some puerile remark about talking sensibly and not dredging up old problems. Mailer, in street-­cop staccato, fired back, “Listen, after vomitation, examining the contents of Gore Vidal’s stomach would be no more interesting than examining the insides of an intellectual cow.” Murder was in the air. And Mailer was not finished—­he was to escalate the attack the rest of the evening in order to get Vidal out from under the table.

Vidal did attempt to defend himself, of course. He said a) that the attack by him on The Prisoner of Sex was not personal, b) that Mailer was in constant metamorphosis, and c) he took exception to Mailer’s argument that good sex makes good babies (to be precise, Mailer wrote “Good fucks make good babies”) and d) despaired of Mailer’s love of the violent as revealed in Mailer’s statement that “murder . . . is never unsexual.”

To which Mailer replied that comparing him to Charlie Manson was personal, and intellectually shoddy—­indeed lumping in Henry Miller, “America’s greatest living writer,” multiplied the insipidity of Vidal’s equation. Mailer charged that the comparison to Manson was a calculated smear—­the parallel between the murder of Sharon Tate and Mailer’s wife-­stabbing would escape no knowledgeable reader. And since Vidal’s approach to sex was so superficial, he would never know if good fucks make good babies, the question being was Muhammad Ali in a good fuck or a bad one? To Vidal’s last point, Mailer asked, “How do you know murder is not sexual?” Vidal: “Well, seeing that I haven’t killed anyone lately . . . ” Mailer: “You killed Kerouac.”

You killed Kerouac. No doubt 90 percent of the audience missed the reference. Kerouac, of course, was one of the most famous of the Beat writers, the author of On the Road. If we quote from Vidal’s most recent book, a novel-­memoir entitled Two Sisters, we will see where the homicide took place: “ . . . Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans in which he describes . . . (with) astonishing accuracy an evening he spent with William Burroughs and me. Everything is perfectly recalled until the crucial moment when Jack and I went to bed together at the Chelsea Hotel . . . ” Now note: Vidal is a missionary bisexual, Kerouac was never known to be bisexually inclined until this passage was published, and the passage was written and published after Kerouac’s death . . . it was Kerouac’s reputation as a man that was murdered in print, ambushed when it was impossible for Kerouac to defend himself.

V

So Norman Mailer kept hammering away, his “Retaliator in and out of Vengeance Mews.” The audience was against him, Janet Flanner was interrupting with comments worthy of a doughty truck stop waitress on the morning shift, Vidal was attempting to stay Above It All, Cavett was pandering to the mood of the audience. After one of Miss Flanner’s more odorous bird droppings in defense of Vidal, Mailer in indignation worthy of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker demanded, “Miss Flanner, are you the referee or are you Vidal’s manager?” A perfect short, direct hit, the first time in remembrance a meddling guest was told by another guest to, for the love of Jesus, keep your mouth shut.

Cavett, repelled by Mailer’s chutzpah, asked if he wouldn’t like two more chairs brought onstage to contain his giant intellect; Mailer replied, “As long as they bring out fingerbowls for the rest of you.” And Cavett, in an embarrassing charade, pretended not to understand what Mailer meant. But Cavett also got off the funniest line—­there was a silence and Mailer said, “Why don’t you look at your question-­card?” Cavett: “Why don’t you fold it five ways and shove it where the moon don’t shine?” The timing was exquisite, the studio audience exploded with laughter . . . but it made one somewhat ill to hear it. The line was freeze-­dried, stored away to be a smartass counter-­punch, it was as programmed as Johnny Carson’s cute comments as Carnac the Magnificent. The line was sharp, very sharp, but it betrayed Cavett’s small nightclub comic core.

But if Cavett was a comic with a zip-­gun, Vidal was a priest with a rosary. We have been, he said, divided enough and listened to enough heated rhetoric and nothing was served by hateful dialogue, etc. Did I say he sounded like a priest? No, Vidal sounded worse than that . . . his voice echoed Rrrammsey Clark. It was the audience, however, that was most hostile to Mailer. Mailer asked for five minutes to address the audience.

VI

“Listen,” he said, head raised to address the balcony, “are you all truly, really idiots or is it me?” “You!” the audience hooted almost in unison, to which Cavett quipped, “Oh, that was the easy answer.” Mailer invited the audience to yell their condemnations to determine why HE was the idiot. “You’re rude!” yelled one. “Male chauvinist pig!” bellowed a woman. One female’s thin, liberal, shaky, despondent voice rose above the others: “You come on the show and insult everyone and the other guests are polite and dignified and calm and you’re rude and boorish.” “Okay,” said Mailer, “the reason I am rude and boorish is because I’m rude and boorish and the reason they’re polite and dignified is because they are polite and dignified—­and they would slit my throat in the alley if they could. All right?” The hostilities out in the open, Mailer asked the audience, “Can I talk to you now? Can I reach you?”

Mailer then delivered a five-­minute peroration for himself, a short speech cauterizing with existential brilliance. It was a speech that the best English professor on the best day of his life could not give, because the nuances of Mailer’s voice spoke of the frustrations, victories, and attrition of pursuing the Great Bitch, that mother-­woe of a novel not meant to be written. The difference between an English professor and Norman Mailer describing the quest of the writer is the difference between a war correspondent and a weary battle-­wise lieutenant describing a military siege—­one writes of skin, the other of blood.

So Mailer communicated the knowledge that comes from going over the ridge. “Great writers,” he began, “were traditionally men of letters, they respected tradition and literary punctilios even when they transgressed them in order to further their work. But it was Hemingway who first knew that writers, especially American writers, take as much abuse and punishment as prizefighters, and, moreover, he, Hemingway, wanted to be champion. Hemingway wanted to be the best American writer, he wanted to be the champion, BECAUSE THAT’S ALL HE CARED ABOUT. He wasn’t just the lute that the sweet winds of Art played—­he was a writer with an existential quest, he wrote to deliver himself as a man. I wrote a book called The Prisoner of Sex and found that my ideas about sex were terribly complex and, in a sense, Gore is correct in saying that my style is becoming unreadable because the ideas are so complex that it is getting more and more difficult to express them on paper. But after the book was published, it was as if it had never been written: it was taken as an anti–women’s lib diatribe and dismissed. Which is why some libber will shout ‘male chauvinist pig.’ Well that’s dull, it’s DULL, it’s beneath us as Americans to use frozen rhetoric, to pollute the intellectual rivers while everyone howls over ecology. Bad enough when the ignorant do the polluting, but it is enraging when someone like Gore Vidal, who’s been around in the literary world and knows what he’s doing, intentionally misrepresents my work. Because, understand, like Hemingway, I want to be the champion because that’s all I care about, and after twenty-­five years of working and writing to be the best American writer of our time, I am not going to let myself get kicked in the balls by Gore Vidal.”

VII

So what are we to make of all this? Was it just a fencing match, a shoot-­out, an intellectual slugfest? It would appear that way perhaps to the unperceptive, but something more profound, something closer to the nerve took place. The question is whether or not one’s work is important; is one’s writing merely an activity, a way of making one’s way economically through the world, an exercise in self-­expression, a means of achieving fame? Because if that is all there is, then to be a good writer is knowing best how to toss impure pearls before swine (the more the swine, the greater the writer by this logic). But if writing is a pilgrimage across the fever-­swamps of experience in search of the Hemingwayesque big two-­hearted river, if it is that great a mission, then one had damn well better carry a revolver fully loaded.

Yes, if Lord Byron wrote to save himself from suffocating on cum [decades later, I have no idea what I mean by this—JW], and D. H. Lawrence out of fear that he was less than a man, and Hemingway from his sense of mission, then in our time, even as crass and cheap and cynical as it is, Norman had an imperative to destroy the intellectual pretensions of Gore Vidal.

But a defense of Mailer rests on a crucial assumption—­that ideas have importance. Of course, most would say in the abstract, of course they do. But we are not talking abstractly and we are not talking of ideas as opinions chewed over at faculty dinners, solemnized at seminars, buried in textbooks, carried around compartmentalized in the head of a near-­dead scholar. In such a context, Vidal’s gamesmanship and charlatanism are nothing to be concerned about. But if ideas and language have meaning, if they are as much in the blood and gut as sex and love, then those who knowingly and proudly defecate in the river have got to stand trial.

Table of Contents

Introduction
 
I . Talking Furniture
O.K. Corral Revisited
Liv and Let Die: Scenes from a Marriage
Hartman Is the Best Thing About Lear
Stanley Siegel: Jack Paar in the Age of est
The Vindication of Vanessa Redgrave: Playing for Time
The Crane-Shot That Captured Christmas: SCTV
Potter’s Reel: The Singing Detective
Designing Couple: Designing Women
“X” Factor: The X- Files
Prime Time’s Graduation
 
II. Comedians
Who’s Laughing Now?: Is Stand-Up Comedy Dead on Its Feet?
Late Night
    What Keeps Johnny on Top? Insincerity!
    Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye
    The Swivel Throne
    Letterman Unbound
    Great Carson’s Ghost!
Jerry Lewis: Last Tuxedo Standing
Christopher Guest: Mystery Guest
Mort Sahl: Mort the Knife
 
III. Punk , Pop, Rock
Patti x Two
    Patti Smith: Mustang Rising
    Tarantula Meets Mustang: Dylan Calls On Patti Smith
The Ramones: Chord Killers
A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground
Lou Reed Rising
John Cale Refuses to Die
Richard Hell Comes in Spurts
Johnny Rotten x Two
    Kiss Me, You Fool: Sex Pistols 77
    Rotten and Vicious: Rotten, John Lydon
The Noise Boys: Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer
The Bollocks: Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
The Lives of Albert Goldman
When They Were Kings: The Rat Pack
 
IV. Movies
French Fries and Sympathy: Diner
Your Flick of Flicks: My Favorite Year
Brian De Palma x Three
    The Godfather Goes Slumming: Scarface
    Double Trouble: Body Double
    De Palma and the Women
Of Vice and Mann
Sam Peckinpah: Slay ’em Again, Sam
A Fistful of Woodys
    The Great White Woody: Broadway Danny Rose
    Liquid Shimmer: Purple Rose of Cairo
    Upper West Side Story: Hannah and Her Sisters
    How Green Was My Woody
Death and the Master: Alfred Hitchcock
New York Noir
The Executioners
Rock Hudson and Doris Day: Lovers Come Back
From Fear to Eternity: The Americanization of Emily
An Unforgettable Face: A Face in the Crowd
 
V. Books , Authors , Critics
Knowledge Is Good?: The Intellectual Killer Elite
On the Ropes: Selected Letters, Ernest Hemingway
Stop Me Before I Write Again: A Bloodsmoor Romance, Joyce Carol Oates
Richard Ford: Guns and Poses
Three Critics
    Manny Farber’s Termite Art
    The Stand- Up Critic: Mudrick Transcribed: Classes and Talks by Marvin 
         Mudrick

    Seymour Krim: Foreword to What’s This Cat’s Story?
R.I.P.: Edie: An American Biography, Jean Stein
Life Among the Ninnies: The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume Seven (1966–1974)
Philip Larkin’s Enormous Yes
Amis Père et Fils
    The Old Devil: Difficulties with Girls, Kingsley Amis
    Kingsley’s Ransom
    The Amis Papers
    The Yob That Failed: Lionel Asbo: State of England, Martin Amis
Updike x Three
    Running on Empty: Rabbit Is Rich
    Caretaker/Pallbearer: The Widows of Eastwick
    The Prince of Finesse: Hugging the Shore
It’s Still Cheever Country: Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey
Ayn Rand: Rand Inquisitor
Kerouac’s Lonesome Road
Remaking It: New York Days, Willie Morris; Kafka Was the Rage, Anatole Broyard
The Truman Show: Truman Capote, George Plimpton
William Shawn: The Love Bug
Norman Mailer: The Norman Conquests
Bow. Wow.: Gore Vidal, Fred Kaplan
I Adore Your Mustache: Selected Letters of William Styron
 
Acknowledgments

James Wolcott

About James Wolcott

James Wolcott - Critical Mass

Photo © Gasper Tringale

James Wolcott is the long-time culture critic and blogger for Vanity Fair.  He is the author of a novel, The Catsitters, and the nonfiction work, Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants.  He lives in New York with his wife, the writer Laura Jacobs.
Praise | Awards

Praise

"Epically rewarding... Mr. Wolcott is among the last of the great, garrulous, generalist critics, equally at home writing about TV, movies, literature, music, comedy clubs, you name it... Critical Mass scoops up the best of his material from Vanity Fair, for which he has written since 1983, as well as pieces from outlets that range from The Village Voice, where he got his start in the 1970s, to The New Yorker, Texas Monthly and The London Review of Books, among others. It’s a vacuum-packed anthology of tight arguments and shrewd observations... Few writers can nail a performance, or an artist’s body of work, with more ecstatic economy."
The New York Times

"Mr. Wolcott’s cultural criticism is ecstatic and alive, and this big box of his best stuff is absurdly entertaining — a rolling series of intellectual lightning strikes. Pound for pound, sentence for sentence, for a certain kind of reader, this is the book of the year."
- Dwight Garner's 10 Favorite Books of 2013, The New York Times

“For the past forty years critic James Wolcott has been a cerebral antidote to the dullness contaminating our cultural pages… There’s also tremendous value in [his] sharp-eyed seeing…in doing what critics have been doing from Aristotle to Walter Pater to Mary McCarthy to John Updike: enhancing, augmenting art and culture by helping to explain the complexity and dynamism in their DNA. Some of Wolcott’s analysis forever tweaks how you see, hear, and read.”
—The Daily Beast

"Forthright and fair-minded, but ferocious in disdain, with the sly, smart voice of someone in the know but never caught up in the moment, this collection...preserves an unforgettable of 'that New York speciality—the well-informed wise guy.'"
Publishers Weekly

"An eclectic collection that reasserts the author's reputation as one of America's most perceptive, candid and human critics."
Kirkus Reviews

"Wolcott is a wickedly cunning, agile writer with a special talent for quick-sketch characterizations... Critical Mass is the perfect bedside-table book because its short entries promise pleasure from even the briefest dips into its pages."
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Awards

WINNER 2014 PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award - Essay

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