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James Wolcott

James Wolcott is the author of Lucking Out, a memoir about 1970s New York, and podcast critic for Air Mail, a weekly newsletter.

The Upsides of Sontag’s Downsides

James Wolcott, 24 October 2019

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.

‘The Life of Saul Bellow’

James Wolcott, 24 January 2019

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.

‘Making It’

James Wolcott, 17 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.

Styron’s Letters

James Wolcott, 24 January 2013

The novelist William Styron and his wife, Rose (respected worldwide as a human rights activist), had drawing power as party hosts, the cultural cachet to net composers, playwrights, directors, ratfink fabulists and a former president’s daughter to toast the holidays and air out their egos. Such dos were among the last hurrahs of the postwar literary era dominated by heap big novelists now facilely grouped as a cetacean school of Great White Males, whose ghostly father and bearded Neptune disturbing the liquor cabinet deep into the night was Ernest Hemingway.

Updike should stay at home

James Wolcott, 1 January 2009

Where Norman Mailer set out to bend the future with his telepathic powers and the Beats sought to hot-wire the American psyche (at the risk of frying their own circuits), Updike wrote as if he were doing fine draftsmanship under a cone of light, honouring creation and the American plenty. He was the ideal son of a platonic union between John Cheever and J.D. Salinger, with Nabokov attending the christening as fairy godfather. Apparent lack of inner struggle and purring efficiency made it possible to take him for granted. ‘No one has ever sat around worrying about Updike, the way one apparently worried about Wolfe and Fitzgerald and Hemingway, as if they were all soloing the Atlantic with each book, to see whether he’s lost his touch or his nerve or his fastball,’ Wilfrid Sheed wrote in Essays in Disguise. ‘We know damn well he’ll have his touch this time and next: we just want to see whether we like what he’s done with it.’

Rick Moody

James Wolcott, 19 September 2002

The Black Veil is a study of depression as self-destructive ordeal, ancestral legacy and literary quest. Like a madly quaint Victorian production, ivy seems to sprout from the chock-a-block prose that threatens to turn each paragraph into university brick face.

Kenneth Tynan

James Wolcott, 13 December 2001

Kenneth Tynan smoked like a maestro, an aficionado of his own smooth technique. As the stripper sings in Gypsy, ‘Ya gotta have a gimmick,’ and photograph after photograph shows Tynan squiring a cigarette between the tips of his middle and ring fingers (his trademark), each puff drawing attention to the languid elegance of his long, slender, concert-pianist hands. Cigarettes were...

Gore Vidal

James Wolcott, 3 February 2000

‘I love dead, hate living,’ intones Boris Karloff’s monster in Bride of Frankenstein. He’s not alone. ‘I prefer my subjects dead,’ Fred Kaplan confesses in the prelude to his ambitious biography of Gore Vidal. Kaplan, a professor of English in New York whose taxidermies include Henry James, Dickens and Carlyle (they hardly get deader than Carlyle), understands that it’s much easier to get the paperwork done if you don’t have the living-breathing item second-guessing you at every turn or trying to use you as a ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s also easier getting friends, former lovers, fellow writers and disgruntled airline attendants to open up once so-and-so is out of the picture. (No one wanted to cross Lillian Hellman while she was still alive and smoking.)‘

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