Bookforum talks with Daniel Mendelsohn

Avatar and Aeschylus; Mad Men and memoirs; Sontag and Spider-Man: The Musical—nothing is too high or too low for the critic Daniel Mendelsohn to analyze and engage with. Waiting for the Barbarians (New York Review Books, $25), his new collection of essays, moves untrammeled across history, culture, and the arts to find us preoccupied with many of the same ideas and narratives of the Greek and Latin classics. For this “meeting of the ancient and the contemporary worlds,” as the author puts it, there is no better guide than Mendelsohn. Written mostly for the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker, these essays are witty, engaging, entertaining, and learned—much like their author. In his Chelsea apartment last month, Daniel Mendelsohn and I spoke about his new book, his early beginnings as a writer, and the much-debated role of the critic. Oh yeah: and why he thinks Mad Men sucks.

Bookforum: It’s clear in Waiting for the Barbarians how your background in the Greek and Latin Classics gives you a broad perspective on the arts. Did you arrive at that perspective consciously, or was it simply a natural result of your interest in the Greeks?

Daniel Mendelsohn: It's a sort of chicken or the egg thing. When I started a Ph.D. in classics the last thing I thought was going to happen was that I was going to end up being a writer. It was something I secretly fantasized about, but I assumed I would end up being an academic . . . So yes, I acquired a great deal of learning about the classics that has allowed me to see Greek paradigms in many places where the ordinary person might not find them. But then you could also say that my interest in the Greeks—what led me to study them in the first place—stems from a sort of preexisting way of seeing things. I wrote a lot about this in my first book; about how what I call the tragic paradigm was built into my family history and in my family's way of telling stories. Tragedy makes sense to me, so to speak.

But in a less exulted and fancy way, I think that the classics and classical literature have become a useful tool for looking at the kinds of things that are happening in pop culture. When you're studying the classics you are studying the pop culture of another era. Aristophanes is not so much more elevated than Saturday Night Live. What you are really learning is to read a culture from all of its detritus: the high culture stuff, the low stuff, etc. I try not to use the classics to beat up contemporary culture, because I see it as a continuum.

Bookforum: I don't think you're guilty of that.

Daniel Mendelsohn: I hope I wouldn't use it gratuitously because I find it very illuminating. For instance, it was very interesting when I was working on the Spiderman: The Musical review. It was Bob Silvers's idea; he's such a genius when it comes to matching critics with subjects, and he was very eager for me to do this. I went and saw it and I thought "Something is not working here." Well, that's what everyone was thinking, but I was curious to find out what was wrong with the DNA of it. And what was wrong was obvious to me from the start, as a classicist: The metamorphoses in the culture that Julie Taymor is interested in does not have the same meaning as the metamorphoses in comic book culture. It can't work. It's a grotesque mismatch.

Bookforum: That quote of hers that you end the essay with is so stinging; the remark she that she made in an interview years earlier saying she would never do Batman: The Musical.

Daniel Mendelsohn: That brings me to an important point about the responsibility of the critic, which is to do the subject justice. I know what it's like to be written about as the object of a critical inquiry. And there's nothing more frustrating than when someone hasn't done their homework. So for Julie Taymor's sake I read everything I could get my hands on about Julie Taymor. I may not have come to a conclusion that she likes, but at least I wasn’t writing out of ignorance. And it was in the course of that background research that I found this remarkable quote she’d made, years ago, about how she’d never end up doing a musical version of a blockbuster superhero movie. It was amazing.

Bookforum: How did you fall into writing criticism and journalism? It seemed from a recent piece on the New Yorker’s website that it was something you'd always wanted to do.

Daniel Mendelsohn: I've always had a fantasy of being a writer, I wrote tons of stuff as a kid and teenager, stories, poems, novels, even fledgling reviews, but until I was in my thirties I never thought it would happen. I discovered "popular" criticism before I discovered scholarly criticism, so I was reading Pauline Kael before I was reading Cleanth Brooks or Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorf. The tone of those reviews was a very important part of their appeal. It was just like when you come out of the movies and you're talking about what you thought of it. It was a wonderful way to discourse about something. And as I wrote in that New Yorker "Critics Manifesto," part of the excitement of encountering this form when I was at an intellectually very impressionable age was that it made me aware that anything could be the object of serious, reasoned, detailed, strenuous examination. I couldn't believe you could write whole columns about Rogers and Hart songs. Anything can be loved. I always thought that would be a wonderful way to write, and I thought it was important to preface the "Critic's Manifesto" with some indication of what I thought critics were about because it’s devolved so cluelessly into a sense that criticism is this low form of sniping. Which of course it is in many places, but that’s not what I thought critics were.

Bookforum: What effect did your scholarly training have on your work as a journalist? Sometimes these two approaches to literature seem to clash.

Daniel Mendeloshn: I never really entertained the idea until I was 3/4 way through grad school that I would be a working writer. But I never saw why being a scholar should or would restrict you. I was interested in all kinds of things. Not least, to the great embarrassment of many of my colleagues, design—I was very interested in design. And so I used to get W and Vogue and Architectural Digest and they would say, 'Oh how could you waste your time with that?" But it’s beauty. Beauty is beauty. It’s a chorus by Aeschylus and it’s a Saarinen Womb Chair or a Dorothy Thorpe candelabrum. I never felt, even when I was training myself for academia, that there was this high/low divide. And I’m against this notion—ironically—because of my training in the classics.

There’s a fabulous story of Athenian POWs during the Peloponnesian War singing lyrics from Euripides’s plays in order to get better rations from their captors. I think everything should be available to everyone. That’s the rhetorical positioning behind my criticism: I see it as a service profession, of making something available to the reader. You share your enthusiasms.

Bookforum: In the “Critic’s Manifesto” you brought up a phrase that I remember from the preface to How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken, that the word critic comes from the Greek and means 'to judge." Do you feel that is ultimately the duty of the critic?

Daniel Mendelsohn: Yes, I do think so, because there’s something important at stake. It’s a moral activity, I would say, if I really wanted to get up on my high horse. You’re deciding what’s good and what’s not good; I can’t think of anything more crucial, more moral, than that. The good critic should instruct through his or her judgments. In a lot of this recent debate about the role of negative reviews, I kept thinking to myself: Where’s the critic as teacher? Where’s the critic as a person who, as I see it, intervenes in a meaningful way between a work and a public? And to abdicate the negative review is like abdicating half of your brain.

If you could only "like" things the world would just look like Facebook. It’s puerile, it’s ridiculous. But then so is the whole negative/positive divide in the first place. Probably 99% of reviews should be mixed reviews, because no book is perfect. This is the pernicious inheritance of Amazon; the rankings, the thumbs up, thumbs down. That’s not what criticism is. It’s not intellectually useful, it’s a consumerist approach: should I buy it or should I not buy it? Well, I don’t give a fuck if you buy it or not. If you don’t read Aeschylus I guarantee you it’s not gonna hurt Aeschylus; it’s certainly not why I’m talking to you about Aeschylus. So I think this whole debate about the critic’s role, about the virtues of negative and positive reviewing, is very interesting and has been very fruitful. I do not think that the fact that because everyone can suddenly say what they think about books and publish their thoughts online as Amazon reviews or whatever problematizes the activity of people like me. I don’t think it’s a problem because what I do is a very specialized activity that not a lot of people can do. Nor are they mutually exclusive. You can have people ranking stuff on Amazon—that doesn’t make me obsolete. But having that discussion, I think, is very healthy and very interesting.

Bookforum: Yes, though I thought it was a shame that someone—I forget who—found it necessary to compare the critic to a parasite.

Daniel Mendelsohn: That was my friend Richard Brody. He has a high-Romantic view of the artist as Promethean creator, which I’m not disagreeing with, but the idea that critics are just parasites can’t be right. He said something to the effect—disdainfully, as I took it—that criticism is a secondary order of creation. Well, unless you’re God everything is a second order of creation! But it also evades the question. OK, fine: I’m a parasite. But then at least let me be an interesting parasite. There are parasites that are healthy and live in your gut, after all—without them, you cannot digest nourishment. So maybe that’s the parasite analogy I’d favor, if I had to go there. But I think it’s just a distracting characterization.

Bookforum: Another idea from How Beautiful It Is is the fear that what you love will eventually be broken, or that when you are reviewing books or films or art you are always in some sense defending the activity itself.

Daniel Mendelsohn: I’m interested in literature, of which film and theater are, to my mind, sub-sets: These are all artistic productions of meaning through texts. They can be cinematic or literary or theatrical, verbal or visual. That’s what I’m interested in when I’m reviewing. Is the work serving literature? Is it serving the project of literature? That’s one of the questions you ask—not in some naïve, high-minded way, because I’m not gonna go see Transformers 2, as I did, and expect it to be The Oresteia. But everyone who makes something—and I take this very seriously, it’s why I love writing about pop culture—has an agenda and a vision.

So: what are its aims? Does it fulfill them? Are they interesting aims, are they worthy aims? Is it living up to its own level? Being critical means having judgments about things, and having a judgment means using appropriate standards. But you approach everything with curiosity. People who don’t know anything about what working critics do have this idea—particularly if you go against a perceived idea about something—that you set out wanting to do a “take-down” of something. It’s never the case, in my experience. Everything I review I’m genuinely curious about. Take my review of Mad Men, to use a famous, now notorious, example: I love TV, it’s not like I’m some snooty academic that descends from the stratosphere to review TV. I was excited about Mad Men, but by the second episode I was just totally bemused. I simply didn’t think it was that good, but I was interested in what people who did like the show responded to. These are legitimate factors to consider, because the reaction to a work is part of the work. What you’re writing about is partly the story of the reception. And the point is not to agree with the critic, but to be stimulated into a point of view on your own.

Bookforum: There’s an essay in Waiting for the Barbarians about memoirs. I’m curious about the relationship between memoir and criticism, and if you think they overlap or are separate activities.

Daniel Mendelsohn: No, I don’t think they’re separate at all. I’m always amused when people interview me about my books and they refer to my criticism like it’s just my day job, when really all my books are the work of a critic. Even my memoirs are about what it’s like to live through texts, to see yourself through reading: both The Elusive Embrace and The Lost interrupt the narrative frequently to consider in detail some apt text—Sophocles, Genesis—in order to get a handle on the meaning of my own story. So for me all the writing is contiguous, or continuous. I think like a critic; I think in terms of texts, of what texts can tell you about yourself.

I shocked some French interviewer once by saying that I think my critical essays are just as personal as my memoiristic writings; he’d asked me about my memoir, which has all this stuff in it about my gay life and picking up boys on Eighth Avenue, and whether it made me uncomfortable to expose my private life. But why should that make me more uncomfortable than exposing my thinking would? It’s just as intimate. I think it’s a kind of cultural prejudice that one’s emotional life is the greater intimacy. I’m just as self-revealing when I write criticism. It’s very autobiographical; it’s a record of my thinking. Look, I’m not God. Criticism is not omniscient. It’s subjective. And yet the critic has to be a person whose subjectivity speaks sufficiently to a sufficient number of people that you are, hopefully, worth reading.