Brow Beat

James Wolcott on the Life of a Critic

James Wolcott is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. He also blogs for the magazine. Previously he was a staff writer at The New Yorker. His new book, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, was published yesterday. Below is an excerpt, in which he reflects on the lives, reputations, and roles of critics.

Being a critic isn’t anyone’s childhood dream, an occupation that schools set out a booth for on Career Day, a religious calling that glimmers in the goldenrod. It’s impossible to imagine George Sanders’s Addison DeWitt from All About Eve as anything other than a fully formed adult, issued from a printing press. To those literary cubs who fancied having a cigarette dangling from their mouths like Albert Camus or Jack Kerouac, or sharing a club table with Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tama Janowitz to anteater a line of coke from here to the Vegas strip, or getting a Chinatown tattoo alongside Mary Gaitskill, or watching Jonathan Franzen adjust his eyewear (and who today would be happy just to get through breakfast without feeling as if everything’s turned to gravel), to them, critics are the snipers in the trees that the director Sam Peckinpah heard whenever the palm leaves rustled. To creatives, the Critic is the undermining inner voice maliciously put on the intercom to tell the whole world (or at least the tiny portion of it that still cares), You’re no good, you were never any good; your mother and I tried to warn you this novel was a mistake, but, no, you wouldn’t listen, Mister-Insists-He-Has-Something-to-Say. Failed artists consider critics failed artists like themselves, but worse, because unlike them they took the easy way out by not even trying to succeed, critics not having the guts to climb into that Teddy Roosevelt arena that everyone likes to invoke as the crucible of character, or risk the snows of Kilimanjaro. Even prestige authors who flex their fingers at performing criticism as if filling in at the piano on Monday nights feign disdain of it as a secondary activity, siphoning off the creative juices necessary to keep genius fertile and gurgling. For some reason, the elegant retort “If doing criticism didn’t cost Henry James, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and John Updike any candlepower, what makes you think you’re too good for it, buster?” never seems to stick.

Journalistic critics such as myself were, are, and forever will be routinely disparaged as parasites, sore losers, serial slashers, Texas tower snipers, and eunuchs at the orgy (what orgy? where is this orgy we seem to have missed?), which would hurt our feelings, if we brutes had any. The journeyman critics who are both perceptive and funny—genuinely funny, not jokey, their wit flipping off their wrists like a sneaky curveball—can escape the accusations of jealousy hurled across the notions counter and earn the affection accorded durable entertainers. But there’s a catch—there’s always a catch, for everything. Like Woody Allen’s comedians, such elegant wiseacres can often feel as if they’ve been denied a seat at the adults’ table, unless it’s the Algonquin Round Table that’s their ideal, where they would have been right at home, passing the soup to Dorothy Parker. They can even start to talk about their reviewing as if it were a minor knack at which they got nimbly adept, like card tricks or shooting pool. But it was these Parcheesi champions with whom I felt the most kinship in the seventies and beyond, the ones unafraid to crack jokes that had a hickory snap to them, such as, yes, John Leonard. Though I didn’t share his enthusiasm for that bevy of neurasthenic seismographs—among them, Elizabeth Hardwick, Joan Didion, and Renata Adler—he escorted round the cotillion whenever one of them had a new book out. He and I had a vaudeville moment in the seventies when I was entering the auditorium for the National Book Critics Circle Awards just as he was exiting and he halted, did a classic double take, and asked, “What are you doing here?” as if the purpose of the organization were to keep people like me out. Then he clapped a friendly hand on my shoulder as if to say, It’s okay, you can go in.

Excerpted from Lucking Out by James Wolcott. Copyright © 2011 by James Wolcott. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Being a critic isn’t anyone’s childhood dream, a