Thursday, March 20, 2014
Chiasson On Wolcott: Five Poison Darts
Dan Chiasson and James Wolcott are two of my favorite critics. They differ from each other in many ways. Chiasson is a Mandarin, an incredibly close reader, a cerebral Helen Vendler-style lyrical analyst, who writes mainly about poetry. Wolcott is a hard-bopping Vernacularist who shoots from the hip and lets it rip the way Pauline Kael did. He roams across the cultural field covering comedy, TV, books, music, and movies. But in one significant way, Chiasson and Wolcott are very similar – both are inspired conjurors of figuration. Here, for example, is Chiasson on Frank O’Hara: “His poems lacked the formal appliqué of rhyme and meter, and, where most poets deposited words with an eye dropper, O’Hara sprayed them through a fire hose.” And here’s Wolcott on John Updike: “Yes, as always, there are beautiful sentences here, metaphors and images that have the soft, preening splendor of flowers photographed by Irving Penn. But these are flowers scattered across brackish water.”
Recently, in his “ ‘The Absurdity of Straight Men’ ” (The New York Review of Books, March 6, 2014), Chiasson reviews Wolcott’s essay collection Critical Mass. In it, he has some kind words for Wolcott (“He is the preeminent critic of contemporary spectacle”; “He writes equally well of Philip Larkin and Telly Savalas, Bob Dylan and Designing Women”). But he also fires some acid-tipped darts at him:
1. Finding “a paucity of women” in Wolcott’s book, Chiasson implies that Wolcott prefers men as critical subjects because “women are harder to ironize, a tougher target”;
2. He calls Wolcott “a pure example of the critic as master and superior: always smarter, subtler, and more refined, as well as saner, more disabused, and morally evolved than the poignant wights he captures in his prose”;
3. He says Wolcott’s choice of subjects are “sitting ducks”;
4. He deplores Wolcott’s “attack on Woody Allen’s ‘Modern Library’ culture canon,” calling it “the lowest moment in this book”;
5. He says “there are better things to do with one’s three score years and ten than write about Chevy Chase’s horrible talk show, or the bloopers on Conan O’Brien, or the films of Doris Day and Rock Hudson.”
It seems to me that all these criticisms badly miss their mark. Firstly, Chiasson is wrong about there being “a paucity of women” in Critical Mass. The book contains nine pieces on females, including Vanessa Redgrave, Patti Smith, Doris Day, Joyce Carol Oates, Edie Sedgewick, Ayn Rand, and Anaïs Nin. In addition, many of his movie and TV reviews include descriptions/assessments of actresses’ performances. And while Chiasson may find that “women are harder to ironize, a tougher target,” Wolcott obviously doesn’t. See, for example, his brilliant demolition of Joyce Carol Oates’s A Bloodsmoor Romance (“As comedy, this scene is about as imaginative and subtle as a whoopee cushion slipped under the circus fat lady, but what makes it truly disagreeable is Oates’s shameless zeal – her willingness to do anything to tart up her book, even turn a writer as great as Twain into a pornographic buffoon”).
Secondly, far from being “master and superior” – “always smarter, subtler, and more refined, as well as saner, more disabused, and morally evolved than the poignant wights he captures in his prose” – Wolcott gives praise where praise is due, setting aside the imperfections of the subject’s life, and focusing on the merits of his or her work. For example, regarding John Cheever, when he says, “Now we come to the inevitable station stop in the piece where we say, But enough about the Life, with all its gauche lapses and unkempt complications – what about the Work? The Work holds. The Work withstands,” I want to cheer. How tonic Wolcott’s words are compared to, say, Colm Tóibín’s, who appears to relish calling Cheever a “drunk” and a “snob” (see “My God, the Suburbs,” London Review of Books, November 5, 2009). Wolcott approaches Mailer and Capote in the same generous way, according them the benefit of the doubt. Of Mailer he says, “But heedlessness was what helped propel this human cannonball into the highs of The Armies of the Night and the other daredevil triumphs as well as the belly flops into the sawdust where he wildly, erratically overshot.” I don’t detect the superior attitude that Chiasson speaks of. Yes, Wolcott can puncture and deflate. There’s nothing wrong with that. Pretension, condescension, prejudice – these are worthy targets. We need critics like Wolcott who can wittily mock them. Chiasson mistakes Wolcott’s irreverence in the face of pompousness and phoniness for superiority. It’s a serious mistake.
Thirdly, the assertion that Wolcott chooses ‘sitting ducks” for subjects is a low blow. It makes it sound as if his subjects are easy pickings. Updike’s essays, Hemingway’s letters, Larkin’s poetry, Hitchcock’s movies, Woody Allen’s movies – these are rich, complex, subtle works well worth Wolcott’s or anyone’s consideration.
Fourthly, Chiasson is wrong when he says Wolcott “attacks” Woody Allen’s “ ‘Modern Library’ culture canon (the Marx Brothers, Godard, Kafka, Mozart, James Joyce).” It’s not an attack. He’s merely pointing out that “Allen is preaching the Marx Brothers to audiences clued in to the Farrelly Brothers. Allen’s heavy intentions don’t fly in this period of lighter gravity” (“How Green Was My Woody”).
Fifthly, Chiasson’s assertion that “there are better things to do with one’s three score years and ten than write about Chevy Chase’s horrible talk show, or the bloopers on Conan O’Brien, or the films of Doris Day and Rock Hudson” trivializes cultural criticism. Chiasson spends his time analyzing, among other things, the tenses of Frank O’Hara and the narrative forms of Louise Glück. Some people (not me) might consider that a waste of time. If writing about Chevy Chase, Conan O’Brien, Doris Day, and Rock Hudson helped Wolcott generate some of those “hundreds, maybe thousands, of the most consistently surprising sentences any American critic has written” (Chiasson’s words), his time was well spent. Cranky Chiasson, with his de haut en bas “there are better things to do,” is the one who’s being “superior.”