Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahsby James Wolcott
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/i>/b>
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.
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.)
—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.'"
"An eclectic collection that reasserts the author's reputation as one of America's most perceptive, candid and human critics."
"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."
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.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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- Random House
- NOOK Book
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- 3 MB
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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