Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs

Overview

A career-spanning collection of critical essays and cultural journalism from one of the most acute, entertaining, and sometimes acerbic (but in a good way) critics of our time

From his early-seventies dispatches as a fledgling critic for The Village Voice on rock ’n’ roll, comedy, movies, and television to the literary criticism of the eighties and nineties that made him both feared and famous to his must-read reports on the cultural weather for Vanity Fair, James Wolcott has ...

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Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs

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Overview

A career-spanning collection of critical essays and cultural journalism from one of the most acute, entertaining, and sometimes acerbic (but in a good way) critics of our time

From his early-seventies dispatches as a fledgling critic for The Village Voice on rock ’n’ roll, comedy, movies, and television to the literary criticism of the eighties and nineties that made him both feared and famous to his must-read reports on the cultural weather for Vanity Fair, James Wolcott has had a career as a freelance critic and a literary  intellectual nearly unique in our time. This collection features the best of Wolcott in whatever guise—connoisseur, intrepid reporter, memoirist, and necessary naysayer—he has chosen to take on.
     Included in this collection is “O.K. Corral Revisited,” a fresh take on the famed Norman Mailer–Gore Vidal dustup on The Dick Cavett Show that launched Wolcott from his Maryland college to New York City (via bus) to begin his brilliant career. His prescient review of Patti Smith’s legendary first gig at CBGB leads off a suite of eyewitness and insider accounts of the rise of punk rock, while another set of pieces considers the vast cultural influence of the enigmatic Johnny Carson and the scramble of his late-night successors to inherit the “swivel throne.” There are warm tributes to such diverse figures as Michael Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Lester Bangs, and Philip Larkin and masterly  summings-up of the departed giants of American literature—John Updike, William Styron, John Cheever, and Mailer and Vidal. Included as well are some legendary takedowns that have entered into the literary lore of our time.
     Critical Mass is a treasure trove of sparkling, spiky prose and a fascinating portrait of our lives and cultural times over the past decades. In an age where a great deal of back scratching and softball pitching pass for criticism, James Wolcott’s fearless essays and reviews offer a bracing taste of the real critical thing.

Winner of the 2014 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
…epic, and epically rewarding…For while Mr. Wolcott has a reputation in some circles as a brawler and a takedown artist…this volume reminds you that he's primarily a reliable dispenser of heady delights…Mr. Wolcott is among the last of the great, garrulous, generalist critics, equally at home writing about TV, movies, literature, music, comedy clubs, you name it…Critical Mass scoops up the best of his material…It's a vacuum-packed anthology of tight arguments and shrewd observations.
Publishers Weekly
08/19/2013
In essays previously published in the 1990s and 2000s, Vanity Fair culture critic Wolcott (Lucking Out) fires off acerbic surveys of cultural fads and preoccupations, taking a special interest in punk rock, film noir, comedy, and the literary canon of “Great White Males.” The aesthetic that binds the volume is what the author succinctly calls “the writing I’m proudest of, happiest with, the pieces that carry a lift.” Of the school of “hard-throwing” criticism, distinct from “snack-dip entertainment” reporting and the nut-gathering of “squirrel-scholars,” Wolcott wields the same powers he admires in his subjects: “intelligence, wit, style, and a prodigious range of reading,” with an “eye for the succinct, telling detail.” Wolcott, quoting novelist Kingsley Amis, says, “Importance isn’t important. Only good writing is.” Wolcott’s prose is agile, alert, kinetic; the sentences swing and hustle, cratered with barbed metaphor. Wolcott has few idols and no saints; he deplores shoddy technique, gooey sentiment, platitudes and punditry, and takes the occasional goofy jab at himself. Forthright and fair-minded, but ferocious in disdain, with the sly, smart voice of someone in the know but never caught up in the moment, this collection might be “an uncoated pill,” but it preserves an unforgettable specimen of “that New York specialty—the well-informed wise guy.” Agent: Elyse Cheney, Elyse Cheney Literary Associates. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Epically rewarding... Mr. Wolcott is among the last of the great, garrulous, generalist critics, equally at home writing about TV, movies, literature, music, comedy clubs, you name it... Critical Mass scoops up the best of his material from Vanity Fair, for which he has written since 1983, as well as pieces from outlets that range from The Village Voice, where he got his start in the 1970s, to The New Yorker, Texas Monthly and The London Review of Books, among others. It’s a vacuum-packed anthology of tight arguments and shrewd observations... Few writers can nail a performance, or an artist’s body of work, with more ecstatic economy."
The New York Times

"Mr. Wolcott’s cultural criticism is ecstatic and alive, and this big box of his best stuff is absurdly entertaining — a rolling series of intellectual lightning strikes. Pound for pound, sentence for sentence, for a certain kind of reader, this is the book of the year."
- Dwight Garner's 10 Favorite Books of 2013, The New York Times

“For the past forty years critic James Wolcott has been a cerebral antidote to the dullness contaminating our cultural pages… There’s also tremendous value in [his] sharp-eyed seeing…in doing what critics have been doing from Aristotle to Walter Pater to Mary McCarthy to John Updike: enhancing, augmenting art and culture by helping to explain the complexity and dynamism in their DNA. Some of Wolcott’s analysis forever tweaks how you see, hear, and read.”
—The Daily Beast

"Forthright and fair-minded, but ferocious in disdain, with the sly, smart voice of someone in the know but never caught up in the moment, this collection...preserves an unforgettable of 'that New York speciality—the well-informed wise guy.'"
Publishers Weekly

"An eclectic collection that reasserts the author's reputation as one of America's most perceptive, candid and human critics."
Kirkus Reviews

"Wolcott is a wickedly cunning, agile writer with a special talent for quick-sketch characterizations... Critical Mass is the perfect bedside-table book because its short entries promise pleasure from even the briefest dips into its pages."
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Library Journal
From his early work at the Village Voice on TV, and in film and rock and roll to his seminal literary criticism in the 1980s and 1990s and his current work as a culture critic and blogger for Vanity Fair, Wolcott is the critic's critic, defining the genre while setting a new, higher standard. Here's the best of the best.
Kirkus Reviews
2013-08-15
A veteran culture critic for Vanity Fair and other publications weighs in and waxes wise on TV, comedians, music, movies, books and writers. Wolcott, who has written a memoir (Lucking Out, 2011, etc.), a novel and a collection of political commentaries, is an unusually erudite critic who writes with considerable humor, compassion and empathy--though his toolkit includes a deadly straight razor, as well. After a brief introduction, he launches into the collection, which is almost entirely chronological within each section (there are a few exceptions). He begins with that classic TV flare-up between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in 1968, an event which he revisits more than 400 pages later in a lacerating review of Fred Kaplan's biography of Vidal. One of Wolcott's great strengths is his visual sense and his metaphorical power; something impressive appears on nearly every page. Johnny Carson was "the comedic virtuoso of the superego"; Parker Posy, "scarily thin…plunges blade-like into every scene"; Sam Peckinpah "seemed to have a hand grenade for a heart"; Joyce Carol Oates' A Bloodsmoor Romance is "a speck of inspiration that somehow metamorphosed into a word-goop with a ravenous case of the eaties"; Truman Capote was "a debauched angel." Hungry readers will gobble these phrases like Halloween candy. Throughout the collection, Wolcott reveals his admiration for the work of Norman Mailer; his ambivalence about Vidal; his disdain for Oates and Richard Ford; and his respect for Philip Larkin and James Garner. He deals frankly with the private lives of writers--the laundry of Mailer and Styron dangles in the open air--and there is a series of essays about the Amises, father and son, which reveals all their darks, lights and grays. An eclectic collection that reasserts the author's reputation as one of America's most perceptive, candid and humane critics.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385527798
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/15/2013
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 689,707
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

JAMES WOLCOTT is the long-time culture critic and blogger for Vanity Fair. He is most recently the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Lucking Out, and his essays, features, and reviews have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and numerous other publications. He is also the author of a novel, The Catsitters, and a work of political commentary, Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants. He lives in New York with his wife, the writer Laura Jacobs.
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Table of Contents

Introduction
 
I . Talking Furniture
O.K. Corral Revisited
Liv and Let Die: Scenes from a Marriage
Hartman Is the Best Thing About Lear
Stanley Siegel: Jack Paar in the Age of est
The Vindication of Vanessa Redgrave: Playing for Time
The Crane-Shot That Captured Christmas: SCTV
Potter’s Reel: The Singing Detective
Designing Couple: Designing Women
“X” Factor: The X- Files
Prime Time’s Graduation
 
II. Comedians
Who’s Laughing Now?: Is Stand-Up Comedy Dead on Its Feet?
Late Night
    What Keeps Johnny on Top? Insincerity!
    Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye
    The Swivel Throne
    Letterman Unbound
    Great Carson’s Ghost!
Jerry Lewis: Last Tuxedo Standing
Christopher Guest: Mystery Guest
Mort Sahl: Mort the Knife
 
III. Punk , Pop, Rock
Patti x Two
    Patti Smith: Mustang Rising
    Tarantula Meets Mustang: Dylan Calls On Patti Smith
The Ramones: Chord Killers
A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground
Lou Reed Rising
John Cale Refuses to Die
Richard Hell Comes in Spurts
Johnny Rotten x Two
    Kiss Me, You Fool: Sex Pistols 77
    Rotten and Vicious: Rotten, John Lydon
The Noise Boys: Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer
The Bollocks: Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
The Lives of Albert Goldman
When They Were Kings: The Rat Pack
 
IV. Movies
French Fries and Sympathy: Diner
Your Flick of Flicks: My Favorite Year
Brian De Palma x Three
    The Godfather Goes Slumming: Scarface
    Double Trouble: Body Double
    De Palma and the Women
Of Vice and Mann
Sam Peckinpah: Slay ’em Again, Sam
A Fistful of Woodys
    The Great White Woody: Broadway Danny Rose
    Liquid Shimmer: Purple Rose of Cairo
    Upper West Side Story: Hannah and Her Sisters
    How Green Was My Woody
Death and the Master: Alfred Hitchcock
New York Noir
The Executioners
Rock Hudson and Doris Day: Lovers Come Back
From Fear to Eternity: The Americanization of Emily
An Unforgettable Face: A Face in the Crowd
 
V. Books , Authors , Critics
Knowledge Is Good?: The Intellectual Killer Elite
On the Ropes: Selected Letters, Ernest Hemingway
Stop Me Before I Write Again: A Bloodsmoor Romance, Joyce Carol Oates
Richard Ford: Guns and Poses
Three Critics
    Manny Farber’s Termite Art
    The Stand- Up Critic: Mudrick Transcribed: Classes and Talks by Marvin 
         Mudrick

    Seymour Krim: Foreword to What’s This Cat’s Story?
R.I.P.: Edie: An American Biography, Jean Stein
Life Among the Ninnies: The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume Seven (1966–1974)
Philip Larkin’s Enormous Yes
Amis Père et Fils
    The Old Devil: Difficulties with Girls, Kingsley Amis
    Kingsley’s Ransom
    The Amis Papers
    The Yob That Failed: Lionel Asbo: State of England, Martin Amis
Updike x Three
    Running on Empty: Rabbit Is Rich
    Caretaker/Pallbearer: The Widows of Eastwick
    The Prince of Finesse: Hugging the Shore
It’s Still Cheever Country: Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey
Ayn Rand: Rand Inquisitor
Kerouac’s Lonesome Road
Remaking It: New York Days, Willie Morris; Kafka Was the Rage, Anatole Broyard
The Truman Show: Truman Capote, George Plimpton
William Shawn: The Love Bug
Norman Mailer: The Norman Conquests
Bow. Wow.: Gore Vidal, Fred Kaplan
I Adore Your Mustache: Selected Letters of William Styron
 
Acknowledgments

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