James Wolcott

James Wolcott’s books include a memoir of New York in the 1970s, Lucking Out, and an essay collection, Critical Mass.

It was shaping up​ to be the publishing event of the year, the first blast of post-pandemica as we emerged from our hobbit holes and combed the cobwebs from our hair: the starship arrival of Blake Bailey’s authorised biography of Philip Roth, Philip Roth: The Biography. The ‘the’ of the subtitle said: accept no substitutes. Another biography of Roth was in the offing, Ira...

If Sontag’s peekaboo dissembling is finally judged a failure of nerve, forgive her, Father, for she had so few. She was Deeply Flawed, as are many people who are Deeply Driven. Had Sontag conformed to all of the lofty ideals we profess to hold, posterity might have mummified her into an aspirational cliché, a fate far worse than a tattling biographer or two. Arguing about Sontag is one of the things that keeps her alive for us, as a figure of contention. We may end up arguing about her longer than we continue reading her, but that’s for posterity to decide.

Mr Trendy Sicko

James Wolcott, 23 May 2019

Will Bret Easton Ellis learn anything from this debacle? Of course not. It would be out of character and borderline disappointing if he did. A sudden onset of empathy would neutralise the snot factor so integral to his persona and voice. Upsetting the maximum number of people with the minimal amount of effort is a gift and a curse, akin to Jonathan Franzen’s earnest genius for getting on everyone’s nerves. The ability to bring out the energised best and worst from reviewers and fellow writers with even so middling, muddling a book as White – to provoke them into haughty erasure – testifies to an arch-nemesis quality that might be put to better purposes than the paltry sport of weenie-roasting millennials.

What is at risk of being lost amid all the turkey stuffing is that Bellow was a witty writer, as much a snappy dresser in prose as he was splashed out in his slick duds, a cool operator and crafty observer beneath all his ponderous concerns and preoccupations. Bellow’s elegant assassin strikes, fly-by epiphanies and prose crescendos get periodically buried under researched word-tonnage intended to cement a legacy and ensure permanence. Like James Atlas, Zachary Leader lacks gorgeous finesse.

Enemies For Ever: ‘Making It’

James Wolcott, 18 May 2017

In daydream moments in between the usual author agonising, Norman Podhoretz may have anticipated the publication of Making It as a climactic solo bringing down the curtain on act one of his career and a springboard for his next move. The book was certainly stagecrafted that way. If so, he misjudged the composition of the audience and the sales appeal of his candour.

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