By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
For as long as he’s been writing, James has maintained a steady tone of moral outrage about totalitarianism in general and the Holocaust in particular (this collection has three related pieces, including a spirited vivisection of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners), which is unusual for a non-Jew writing in a country whose hatred for “Gerry” was predicated less on what the Germans did to the Jews than on the German threat to England’s view of itself as top nation. James is resolutely un-trendy, heaping scorn on dogma of the right and the left, and excoriating the complacency of the “free society” even as he defends Western democracy to the hilt. As of This Writingis prefaced by a quote from the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut: “Barbarism is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step.”
James is one of the last truly independent intellectuals who operate, as he puts it with becoming immodesty, “in the vital space between the hack reviewers of the periodicals and the dust contractors of the universities.” If he was cutting-edge in the 1970s, he remains today a brilliant antidote to both the high-culture crowd who look down their nostrils at all popular culture, and the humorless cultural-studies hordes (I toiled among them, as the five people who have read my Ph.D. thesis on television families will attest) who dismiss high culture on pseudo-democratic principle, elevate pop to a standard it can hardly bear, and mutilate the English language with argot that no one but they can understand. Among journalists, James’ imitators are legion, but reading the seemingly effortless grace of his prose, his generosity toward colleagues, and his enjoyment at being, as he puts it, “a beeg theenker,” only underscores the shrill opportunism and backbiting that disfigures so much English journalism today. James pokes fun with egalitarian brio, but he never condescends to his subject or his reader, and he’s rarely nasty. The closest he comes to real malice in this volume is “N.V. Rampant Meets Martin Amis,” a delicious parody of the “mini-consensus of the minimally gifted” writers who take down his old friend for the sin of being talented and successful.
One doesn’t have to agree to admire James’s loyalty. Not to mention his sense of fun about his own mortality. “When it comes to the last word,” he writes in the introduction to his new book, “I will multi-punch the laptop with my face, my fingers only halfway through the sequence that activates the most sadly beautiful of all modern rubrics, Windows is Shutting Down. And English grammar are checking out.” Not on his watch.
AS OF THIS WRITING: The Essential Essays, 1968–2002 By CLIVE JAMES | W.W. Norton | 619 pages | $35 hardcover