The Writing Ability of James Wolcott

It is, shall we say, quite high. His recent review of Lena Dunham’s book has several quotable lines within a well-constructed piece. And his 2007 review of Adam Gopnik’s book about raising children in New York contains various amazing turns of phrase.

First, Dunham. I don’t know Dunham’s work at all, but I have heard of her. The media has perfected the art of building someone up, tearing ’em down, building ’em up, tearing ’em down. I fear we’re in a “tear ’em down” phase now with Dunham, which is not entirely fair.

In any event, some excerpts:

Callow, grating, and glibly nattering as much of the rest of Not That Kind of Girl is, its impact is a series of glancing blows. The self-revelations and gnarly disclosures are stowed alongside the psycho-twaddle, affirmational platitudes, and show-offy candor of someone avid to be liked and acceptedon her own terms, of course, for who she is in all her flawed, bountiful faux pas glory. Can’t blame her for that. It’s what most talented exhibitionists crave and strive for beneath the light of the silvery moon and the mystic ministrations of Oprah, and Dunham’s ability to put it over is as impressive in its way as Madonna’s wire-muscled will-to-power and James Franco’s iron-butterfly dilettantism. Beneath the surface slop and ditzy tics, Dunham possesses an unimpeachable work ethic, a knowledgeable respect for senior artists (as evidenced by her friendship and collaboration with the Eloise illustrator Hilary Knight and her endorsement of the memoirs of Diana Athill), and a canny knack for converting her personal piques, plights, bellyflops, hamster-wheel OCD compulsions, and body-image issues into serial dramedy. That professional nasal drips such as Times columnist Ross Douthat interpret this as symptomatic of an entire generation’s narcissistic disorder says more about them than her. (Douthat probably would have disapproved of James Dean too, told him to stand up straight.)

If I prefer Kylie Minogue to Madonna and the knockabout farce of Comedy Central’s “Broad City” to the clackety solipsism and passive-aggressive caricaturization in “Girls,” it’s a matter of taste, and my taste isn’t the one being targeted and courted by Dunham, Inc. I do think the premature canonization of “Girls” as a breakthrough classic does it no favors, and not just because of the backlash effect triggered every time the fawning media lifts Dunham’s Cleopatra litter higher. The excessive buildup could be the prelude to a steeper devaluation. It’s way too early to tell if “Girls” will endure as a coming-of-age perennial (like “My So-Called Life”), binge favorite (“Gilmore Girls”), or custom sedan (“Sex and the City”), or if it will dwindle into a period artifact à la “Ally McBeal,” which launched a thousand think pieces and op-eds in its heyday. The hipster Brooklyn of “Girls,” with its artisanal affectations, may cast a retrospective glow, or it may date as badly as most of the early mumblecore films, which after only a few years already look and sound like clogged drains.

But it probably won’t matter for Lena Dunham herself, the life-force dervish, who already seems to have outgrown the series, having wrung about as many changes as possible from the antics and predicaments of her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, and those other bobbleheads. With the money, fame (the cover of Vogue), and formal accolades Dunham has achieved (an Emmy award, a Glamour Woman of the Year citation), she’s in the enviable position of being free to do what she wants. But there are invisible strings attached. No longer the idiosyncratic underdog, Dunham has become an iconographic bearer of an entire generation’s promise; a bold-face name in the upper tier of celebrity, feminism, and cultural liberalism, that imaginary green room where Mindy Kaling, Roxane Gay, Tina Fey, and a shimmering hologram of Beyoncé mingle; an advice counselor to other young women; an entrepreneurial success story; an inexhaustible topic of conversation, no matter how exhausted of hearing about her many of us get; in short, a role model, and being a role model entails responsibilities inimical to being an independent operator. (Nobody expects Quentin Tarantino to be a poster boy for higher causes.)

Each attack from the right fortifies Dunham’s loyalty from her own constituency on the creative-class liberal left, but a constituency isn’t the same as a fan baseit requires a higher degree of pampering and appeasing. Gender studies / cultural studies grads, who have set up camp on the pop-cult left, can be a prickly lot, ready to pounce on any doctrinal deviation, language-code violation, or reckless disregard of intersectionality. They like their artists and entertainers to be transgressive as long as the transgression swings in the properly prescribed direction. Otherwise: the slightest mistimed or misphrased tweet, ill-chosen remark during a red carpet interview or radio appearance, or comic ploy gone astray can incur the mighty puny wrath of social media’s mosquito squadrons, the hall monitors at Salon and Slate, and Web writers prone to crises of faith in their heroes.

And from the piece about Gopnik (whose writing I generally love):

It isn’t that Gopnik is ungifted or imperceptive, or a slickster trickster like his colleague Malcolm Gladwell, who markets marketing. He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much.

..

“There’s no bad place to watch children grow [Beirut, Rwanda, Baghdad?], but Manhattan is a good one,” he writes. Good? Why, it’s the best! “Ah, the children, the children!” he exclaims. “Has any place ever been better contoured to them than Manhattan is now? We take them out on fall Saturday morningsPaul Desmond saxophone mornings, as I think of them, lilting jazz sounds almost audible in the avenuesto go to the Whitney or the park to look dutifully at what remains of the avant-garde in Chelsea, or to shop at Fairway, a perfect place, more moving than any Parisian market in its openness, its joy, a place where they have cheap soap lets you taste of six different olive oils [sic].” This bountiful note of yuppie triumphalism warbles through the bookof the label “yuppie” itself, Gopnik gloats, “We were called that, derisively, before the world was ours”as the pride and pleasure that he and his co-evals take in their exalted taste buds and their little geniuses reflect flatteringly on their own achievements, material sense of well being, and immersion in the vital, fizzing stream of urban resplendence.

AND YUPPIE TRIUMPHALISM en-twines with New York chauvinism, as civic pride fluffs its chest feathers and proclaims bragging rights. It is tiresome and a little puzzling how New Yorkers feel the need to keep asserting that “We’re Number One.” London is a world-class capital with an all-star historical cast, but you don’t hear London authors crooning and crowing about their city’s brio, flair, resilience, and iconic status at regular intervals. London’s greatness is taken more in stride by the locals. But here it’s as if the influx of wealth that has spiked real estate values since the 9/11 bounceback has endowed the city with some of the smug exclusivity of a gated community.

If it’s trying for the wife to have Gopnik leaving a vapor trail around the house when strange exhilaration hits, it can’t be easy for the kids having their father always hovering around for material, taking down their latest witticism at the dinner table to work into a future piece, documenting every rite of passage in Rea Irvin typeface. There are times when Gopnik’s children seem to be trying to humor him, obliging dad with enough whimsical interludes and reusable anecdotes to get through the winter.

The gnawing resentment of creative talents who never achieved what they desired or never received the breaks they felt they were due is a rich, stubbly grown-up subject that deserves better than the gentle spray of ironies that Gopnik employs whenever a fanciful notion dials his number.

3 Responses to The Writing Ability of James Wolcott

  1. From the excerpts you quote, Wolcott sounds like Martin Amis: marvellous pen, a poisonous mind, and enough brilliance that the poison is seductive. That’s a combination which can be pleasing in the moment, but is worth avoiding over the long term.

    Reply
    • Erik Torenberg says:

      why worth avoiding in the long term?

      Reply
  2. Dan Owen says:

    Wolcott’s review is not of Dunham’s work, it’s of the response to Dunham’s work. He offers no insight about what Dunham is actually DOING in her work. This is very problematic — for one thing, it renders Wolcott’s writing useless to readers who look to Wolcott to do the thing critics are supposed to do, which is to explain their subject to the audience. After reading the review do you — someone who has never seen or read her work — have any idea what her work is actually about? We use the word “clever” to describe writing like Wolcott’s, not “good,” because it’s form is smart and notable but it is immediately forgettable. There’s more to insightful writing than a clever turn of phrase. For a critic to say, as Wolcott does here, that whether he likes Dunham’s work or not is a matter of taste, and that he is not the right audience for her work is an abdication of the responsibility of a critic, a kind of critical cowardice that all of his sharp edges can’t conceal. Emily Nussbaum is the TV critic to keep your eye on if you want to see this kind of criticism done well, and of course, if you want to watch a critic regard art independent of its political and cultural context, go back to Wolcott’s mentor Pauline Kael, whose writing does not date in the way Wolcott’s review here will date instantly.

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