Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

I Love This Dirty Town

James Wolcott recounts his coming-of-writerly-age in Gotham

Choire Sicha


James Wolcott is a carefully absent presence in his memoir of writing his way through the ’70s, despite the trademark right-in-your-ear chattiness of his writing style. The acerbic critic—now best known as a blogger for Graydon Carter’s luxe Vanity Fair—reports in his recollections of New York when it was allegedly fun that he always seemed underdressed for the uptown ballet, overdressed for downtown at CBGB. He was half wanderer-in, half walker-on, and sometimes the guy on the wall watching everyone dirtying the pretty things.

In his reconstruction of the vaguely dangerous ’70s heyday of the East Village, he’s surrounded by people who’ve toked and snorted more illegal substances than he has, and usually done their hair more outrageously. He doesn’t even get laid much. Not only did he fail to take the obvious down-and-out ’70s East Village career path and become a hooker himself, he never even hired one.

It all begins with an account of Wolcott’s arrival at the Village Voice in 1972—something that will probably be of genuine interest only to an incredibly small circle of media historians. He was a boy from the sticks of Maryland, a third-rate student at a fourth-rate college, and deeply enamored of Norman Mailer. He arrived at the mother of all alt-weeklies with the endorsement of Mailer (Wolcott had written praise to the literary pugilist, and flattery always works). Jill Johnston, Richard Goldstein, and lovers-turned-enemies Robert Christgau and Ellen Willis were the “sixties scene-bursters” who were supposed to “inherit or hijack in slow motion the intellectual-journalistic establishment. . . . Yet it didn’t happen, they never assumed command.” And all the rest: Ron Rosenbaum, Andrew Sarris, Deborah Jowitt—bold writers, little giants. (Some of them even good people! Some less so, as Wolcott recalls: “Nobody at the Voice ever told you anything for your own good unless they were up to no good.”)

The bottlenecked progress of the Voice establishment—to use a still-current term of abuse from those times—was among Wolcott’s earliest lessons in Manhattan cultural renown. Up close, local legends are always loudest and fiercest. But outside the temple, it’s likely that no one can even smell the incense—as Wolcott rediscovers in the early ’80s, when he goes to a party held by Mort Zuckerman and mentions the death of Lester Bangs and everyone looks fuzzy on the name.

As he settled into his Voice career, Wolcott did what so few of the children do now: He started going outside and writing about what was there. So the book is about ways of being this kind of critic. Wolcott’s reminiscence begins with Mailer and spends quite a lot of entertaining time with Pauline Kael. Also we run into Alfred Kazin, Gore Vidal, the oh-so-serious Susan Sontag (he captures well the fear one felt around her, not least because she was always forcing one to attend the screening of a newly rescued six-hour archival print of a Russian film), John Gregory Dunne, Arlene Croce, Clive James, and, at last, Renata Adler. (Moving from drinky Mailer to frosty Adler: Never has a meditation on the role of criticism veered from a character so sloppily wet to one so scarily arid.)

The most interesting subject here is not so much nostalgia—which Wolcott wisely disavows—or the ’70s as a “thing,” but rather the raw human-on-human quality of the day’s critical discourse (as more highfalutin types would later brand it): literary stabbings, accidental slaggings-off, and lingering meannesses as practiced in the small town that is New York. Vain little red-butted monkeys, most of them overzealous typers, but also thinking people: people with an audience and people of an audience.

As Wolcott glumly observes, that particular arts public is largely gone. There was “a discriminating, demanding, wit-appreciative audience for the performing arts that has never been regrown, replaced by a shipment of clapping seals,” he writes. Many of the enthusiasts in this crowd have died; many of those who might be enlisted to join a twenty-first-century version of the same audience never learned to care.

It’s true enough that plenty of structural forces today erode the chance that New York can revive the kind of arts public that Wolcott mourns here. New York City is no longer the outlaw cultural metropolis that it was in the 1970s, when much of the rest of America cowered before the specter of its seediness, liberalism, and venereal diseases; now well-heeled parents think nothing of renting their shiny Dartmouth grads East Village apartments. But Wolcott’s book also provides us with some more immediate reasons that actual New Yorkers might have abandoned the little giants of criticism. Wolcott writes that he saw Merce Cunningham’s company and other “avant-gardenias”—but, for dance, his heart could never really go south of Lincoln Center. His affection for dance is for an age of narrative and overtly heroic performance, like the opera queens who love to rank Normas but clasp their hands over their ears at John Adams. (And how: “Gelsey. A name that falls in the mind’s ear like a sprig of mint,” Wolcott effuses. “I had fallen for her like a fool since I had first seen her at New York City Ballet.”)

And so the prominent critics in Wolcott’s account come off as unwilling to embrace their time. Arlene Croce wrote off Pina Bausch as a theater terrorist (Croce argued, in 1984, that “out in Brooklyn”—out in Brooklyn!—“the Bausch company was sensational chic” and that “Pina Bausch plays right into feminist paranoia” and mused “maybe . . . she’ll do a real ballet one day”). This was ten whole years before Croce so stupidly refused to review Bill T. Jones—trashing Bausch again in the process—in her infamous “victim art” essay in the New Yorker. The publications, as they often do in cycles, refused to give us fresh voices that were willing to address new things without being huge bitches about it. (“I do not remember a time when the critic has seemed more expendable than now,” Croce wrote in her 1994 victim-art opus. Oh, lady. I bet you really hated 2007.)

In tending to this theme, Wolcott is himself almost always mindful of behavior and discretion, sometimes cruelly giving us just initials for names in yesteryear’s New York scene; he expresses regret over a few of his own more vicious displays in print, but refuses to provide citation. So those expecting a cultural gossip of Wolcott’s stature to dish actual dirt will walk away without a real sense of dark glee.

His point is that disgorging all this bile up at this late date would be wrong. We’re all always getting older and more cautious—and more ready to admit our fondnesses. That’s his moral. (Or at least we get soft: “Walking into rooms to meet waves of resentment loses its novelty appeal after a while.”) Wolcott’s always had a tendency to come in hot on landings—indeed, he can barely help himself. But he wants to walk away from this one without regrets. It fills me, in turn, with fondness for him! Still, passion in the muck—once the stock-in-trade of Wolcott and his friends and heroes—is what first made a vital community out of critics, audiences, and artists.

Except when it didn’t. Sometimes passion and proximity just create a vital asshole community.

It’s hard, in any event, not to take that impression away from the closing pages of Lucking Out. The end of the book addresses the jealousy that his downtown rivals vented over Wolcott’s “successes”—painters, writers, and fashion designers waste so much energy being envious of the very little achievements of others because they don’t have to do their work while they fume! In a related register, he addresses the infamous 1980 takedown of Kael’s excesses, by Adler, in the New York Review of Books. This, he writes, is where the ’70s really ended. (Well, sometime between then and when John Lennon died.)

“Once the tone and the ante, however, have been pumped up to this awful frenzy,” Adler wrote of Wolcott’s good pal Kael, “it becomes hard . . . to detect and follow a genuine critical argument. What really is at stake is . . . prose and the relation between writers and readers.” (That’s the nice part.)

“She’s trying to take away my language,” Kael told Wolcott, in his account. So Wolcott turned to his own TV column in the Voice to defend Kael. Following that, then as now, a further little revenge item appeared in New York magazine’s Intelligencer column: “Last week, sources said, Adler was threatening a libel suit unless the Voice retracts parts of an article by James Wolcott.” The offending passage, this obviously spoon-fed item says, was one in which Wolcott—clearly joking—suggested Adler’s latest book flaps may include all her fancy degrees but neglect to mention her career as a “dancer” at Ralph’s Passion Pit in Edison, New Jersey.

Well. There were other things in Wolcott’s column that New York magazine did not mention. “It’s difficult to imagine a writer more captivated by her own intelligence than Princess Renata,” Wolcott also wrote. His column then accused Adler of “snipping words out of context” from Kael’s work—and hmm! That sounds so much closer to something worth complaining about; it should also be noted that Adler had just then received her JD from Yale Law School. Wolcott’s column went on: If she hadn’t cherry-picked so, it would be “evident that Adler’s contention that Kael’s writing is unrelievably ‘worthless’ is the most staggeringly stupid remark made about a writer.”

Even after devoting so much of this memoir to the ill-advised settling of the grudge in that Voice column and its gossip-page follow-up (and sure, who among us could resist? Also: What if they had Twitter back then?), Wolcott doesn’t stop there. He goes on to claim that any number of men had a hand in Adler’s takedown. He calls it an “inside job”: “It was conjectured that William Shawn himself tacitly condoned the piece, distressed over the coarse improprieties Pauline kept traipsing across the stage like a burlesque queen’s tatty boa. . . . Shawn denied that this was so.”

That “Shawn denied” “tacitly condoning” —may I be overly Adlerian here? William Shawn denied having not ever said anything? He recanted his previous wordless approval? How on earth?

What seems most notable about all this is that in the fall of 1980, Kael was sixty-one. Adler was forty-one. Wolcott was soon to turn twenty-eight. So this we can look at as the time-honored practice of the young defending their older idols, while those in the radical middle are trying to burn down the church.

Wolcott will turn fifty-nine this year. His eloquent cautionary tale is really this: that the awful behavior and tactics and attitudes we inherited from the critics of the ’70s and ’80s are far more terrible things than nearly any of the weirdo arrangements we are now making for ourselves. I suppose it comes in waves—as Wolcott’s own arch-nemesis from those days, Renata Adler, has reminded us. “In Manet’s time, for instance, there were all those people, and they were friends, if that can be believed. Mallarmé came in every day after teaching, and he and Manet sat and chatted, and there’s a day when Manet and Monet and Degas are all in one place,” Adler told New York magazine in 1983, not long after the Kael dustup. “There isn’t a community like that now at all. I mean, there are conspiracies and cabals, but as far as I know there isn’t a community in the arts of people who wish each other well.”

Choire Sicha is coeditor of The Awl.

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