What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Two Paulettes: David Denby and James Wolcott

What was it like to hang out with The New Yorker’s great movie critic Pauline Kael? Two recent memoirs tell us: James Wolcott’s “Like Civilized People …” (in Lucking Out, 2011); and David Denby’s “Pauline Kael: A Great Critic and Her Circle” (in Do The Movies Have a Future?, 2012). It’s interesting to compare them.

Both pieces are deeply admiring, but avoid idolization. Wolcott says, “Much as I adored her, I didn’t want the godmother to have total jurisdiction.” Denby says,

Looking back, I’m happy that she wrote as well as she did for so many years – that was the most important thing she did for young critics who admired her and became part of her circle. I’m equally glad that she took me up in my mid-twenties when I was a nobody and that, for a while, we were friends. She may not have intended to do me a favor when she threw me out, but it was a favor nonetheless, since I might not have grown up for years if I had remained in that group.

Wolcott’s piece is juicier, more intimate, vibrant and wisecracking (more Kaelesque, you might say); Denby’s is more analytical. Wolcott is a dazzling metaphorist. Here, for example, is his description of Kael’s compositional process:

Entire paragraphs were x-ed out and new ones inserted, sentences were transposed within paragraphs that themselves were moved around like modular furniture, commas deliciously planted by The New Yorker’s notoriously comma-promiscuous copy department (resulting in sentences that resembled a higher plane of constipation, bogged down in late-period Henry James particularization) were plucked out and em dashes liberally thrown like left jabs.

That “comma-promiscuous copy department” is terrific.

Denby beautifully describes Kael’s writing style:

 As a writer, she had the natural beat of a good musician, alternating the tension and weight of a long sentence with the brutal quick jab of a short one. Her prose was so urgent and heated that a complexly argued piece seemed to burst forth in a single unbroken stream of words that combined sternly proper syntax with free-ranging, rowdy habits of phrasing. She was a master of informal rhetoric – the bullying mock question, the interjected taunt – and a great liberator of critical language, establishing the right, by means of charged rhythm and color, to speak one’s mind on the page as one might talk to one’s friends over a drink. She used slang, contractions, hype, insult, syncopated compound adjectives – anything for greater speed.

Both pieces capture Kael’s glorious profanity. “Oh, honey, you’ve never been fucked by a bear,” was one line she used, according to Denby, to snap argumentative protégés back to reality. Regarding Hollywood, Wolcott quotes her as saying, “Never underestimate how much those in power resent those with talent – talent being the one thing they can’t buy for themselves. But they never tire of fucking with it, that’s their talent.” Denby calls her “a good witch with a wicked tongue” and “as bawdy as a San Francisco madam.” He talks about her “insatiable need to win arguments.” Given her combativeness, I’ve always wondered why she didn’t rebut Renata Adler’s hatchet job, "The Perils of Pauline" (The New York Review of Books, August 14, 1980). Denby refers to it as a “notoriously wrongheaded piece.” But neither critic indicates why Kael chose to remain silent in the face of Adler’s vehement attack. My guess is that she didn’t want to get into a pissing war with a skunk.

Denby and Wolcott show Kael in a fascinating variety of settings: screening rooms, her New Yorker office, talk show, taxi cab, lunch, the Algonquin, her Central Park West apartment. My favorite passage is Wolcott’s description of her at her house:

She did her writing on the second floor of her house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, bent over at a drawing table facing light-flooding windows looking out on her long, descending lawn to the road below. She wrote in pencil with a rubber thimble on her thumb, her phenomenal concentration pouring from the point of her pencil across the page as she followed the line of argument wherever it led, keeping every circuit open.

Kael was cruel to Denby. She told him, “You’re too restless to be a writer.” She said, “I’ve thought about this seriously, honey. You should do something else with your energy.” Denby was devastated. Who wouldn’t be? He says, “There was a heaviness in my chest and a slight roaring in my ears, as if a wave had knocked me over and the waters were swirling around my head." He eventually recovered. To his credit, he isn’t spiteful. He calls Kael “an astonishing woman.” He wrote in her obituary, published in the September 17, 2001 New Yorker, “In both abundance and quality, her work was a performance very likely without equal in the history of American journalism.”

Credit: The above photograph of Pauline Kael is by Chris Carroll.

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