I bumped into James Wolcott two blocks before I reached Canteen, the cavernous Manhattan restaurant in which we had arranged to meet. Dressed in a striped cotton shirt, wrinkled khakis and a red L.L. Bean jacket, the most feared critic in America was shuffling along the street under a plus-size umbrella. Though infrequently photographed, he was easy to spot: rotund belly, massive forehead, lank hair and a spectacular collection of dark circles under piercing blue eyes.
At one of Canteen’s orange booths, where we sat far from the well-dressed Soho-ites, Wolcott ordered a plate of macaroni and cheese and a Coke. If he‘d finished off his meal with apple pie I wouldn’t have been surprised. (He ordered a second Coke instead.) Both in person and on the page, Wolcott is a strikingly unpretentious fellow — appropriately, since one of his critical specialties is to skewer the pretensions of others.
Yet the cultural critic for Vanity Fair is one of the highest-paid journalists in America, with a salary said to lie within the $250,000–$400,000 range. It‘s serious money for a writer, and he works hard to make those Conde Nast dollars count. In an age in which critics are either toothless or equipped with vast, cosmetic smiles, Wolcott draws blood. The insulted and the injured include Maureen Dowd, Richard Ford, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Woody Allen, Pauline Kael, confessional writers of all stripes, TV pundits, Darren Star, Michael Kinsley, Steven Brill — call them the Wolcott Wounded.
Wolcott is much more than just a sharpshooter, however. There’s real intellectual sinew behind his barbs. He is an unusually versatile critic, able to follow a masterly dissection of Martin Amis‘ prose style one month — “Amis’s early work was fast, mean, and vernacular, a sporty convertible capable of darting through traffic and turning on a hair. With fame and maturity his prose has lost its racing stripes. The slang and noise-density of his early work have been replaced with leather upholstery and a parliamentary drone” — with a thorough trashing of reality TV the next — “Survivor is economic Darwinism in a loincloth, complete with product placements . . . Today‘s Peeping Tom casts a cold eye, now that he’s become an entrepreneur.” In the last few years he has written about Alfred Hitchcock, Sex and the City, lesbian chic, confessional literature, scuzz movies and the Canadian writer-director Ken Finkleman. He a also contributes lengthy book reviews to The New Republic and the London Review of Books.
A college dropout and autodidact from a Catholic family in Baltimore, Wolcott began his career in the 1970s at The Village Voice, where he wrote about everything from politics to punk while particularly endearing himself to readers of his television column, Medium Cool, which ran in the paper from 1978 to 1982. (“I meet people now who‘ve barely read anything I’ve written since then and still remember it,” he told me, a claim I was able to verify a few hours later when I told a friend that I‘d just interviewed Wolcott. “Really?” he replied. “I loved that column he did in The Voice. What’s he been doing since then?”) Following an acrimonious parting of the ways with The Voice in 1982, Wolcott moved to Vanity Fair under Tina Brown, followed her to The New Yorker in 1992, then went back to Vanity Fair in 1996, where he has remained ever since, reading the culture‘s tea leaves and occasionally pouring boiling water over his victims’ hands.
Given how quickly and fluently Wolcott speaks, it‘s surprising that he’s not a more prolific writer. Blame it on perfectionism. (“There are two types of journalistic assignments,” he told me, quoting Martin Amis‘ dad, Kingsley. “The hard ones that turn out to be hard, and the easy ones that turn out to be hard.”) The perfectionism extended to the writing of his first novel, The Catsitters, published this week by HarperCollins. It’s a light novel, ideal for the beach, but Wolcott labored over it for the best part of a decade. Featuring an amiable actor-bartender hero named Johnny Downs — a man so mild he has been “pussywhipped by an actual cat” (his beloved Slinky) — and a ferocious Southern belle named Darlene Ryder (imagine Camille Paglia as a relationships counselor) who sets out to turn Johnny into marriage material, the book is an unpretentious and enjoyable romantic comedy of a curiously old-fashioned sort.
Undeniably, that comes as a surprise. But having spent the last quarter of a century showing how clever he is in his criticism, Wolcott evidently didn‘t feel the need to prove it all over again by putting on an intellectual fireworks display in his first novel. In fact, one of the notable things about The Catsitters is that it doesn’t feel like a first novel at all. This is a controlled — almost too controlled — performance, in which, unlike most first novels, the parts have been sacrificed to the whole and not the other way around. It‘s also, let’s face it, a commercial work of fiction — a book with readers in mind, and perhaps viewers too.
Deliberately ignored in The Catsitters is the kind of downtown “scene” one might expect to find in a novel written by a mordant star of America‘s glossiest publishing empire. There are no junkies, supermodels, media-world machinations, fashion designers or roman a clef gossip. The book is “old-fashioned” in other ways, too — not least in its optimism about male-female relationships. The section in which two college-age girls — the titular catsitters — spend a drunken week with Johnny after their official catsitting duties have ended, has the kind of relaxed, witty sexiness that makes you feel, “God, if only life was always like that!” The episode ends in disaster, of course, when Amanda, Johnny’s very uptown, very marriage-minded girlfriend, arrives unexpectedly. But then Amanda and Johnny were never meant to be anyway — or so decides Darlene, who turns out to be a much trickier character than we first realize.
Darlene may be a spiky cynic, but ultimately her advice boils down to the idea that women want to get married, and men do as well — even if they don‘t realize it. By coating Darlene’s words with bile, Wolcott disguises the fact that what‘s being prescribed is a dose of gentlemanly good manners. “You’ve never been willing to do what needs to be done to keep a woman, Johnny. You‘re like most men, oblivious,” Darlene says near the beginning of the novel, and what follows is a complete course in How To Get a Woman To Marry You (from Johnny’s point of view) or How To Turn a Likable Schlump Into Something Worth Marrying (from Darlene‘s).
Wolcott himself has been married for seven years, to Vanity Fair writer Laura Jacobs. They live together on the Upper West Side with their three cats. He says that his novel is based on some of his own premarital dating woes. An edited version of our conversation follows.
L.A. WEEKLY: I liked the fact that The Catsitters was funny and witty but it wasn’t knocking itself out trying to be funny and witty.
JAMES WOLCOTT: I knew going in I did not want to write a jokey book, and I didn‘t want to write a book where the so-called funny lines are really sarcastic lines. I read these New York novels, and everybody in them sounds like they’re auditioning for Friends. I‘ll read novels set on the Upper West Side, and everybody talks in the same rhythms, with the same frame of reference. So I wanted to have characters that were funny, but people are not funny in the same way. Some people are funny because they are totally laconic and drop in a comment when you least expect it, and other people are funny because they go off on riffs like standup comics. Everybody’s different. I didn‘t want it to be one of those novels where everyone’s at a cocktail party and exchanging clever putdowns. A lot of downtown novels are like that, novels about the literary scene. The thing is, most of these are not novels that make it. If the characters are recognizable, the New York press will make a big thing about it, but the rest of the country doesn‘t care at all.
Your book struck me as being a very courtly, old-fashioned New York novel in a lot of ways. It’s certainly not Sex and the City.
I wanted the novel to be so old-fashioned it would seem new. One of the things I‘m really happy with is that it’s not a cliched New York novel. It‘s sort of an idealized portrait of New York. It’s the way I‘d like Manhattan to be, because Manhattan now is so money-insane. The other thing I strove to do was to create characters you can imagine holding their own in a separate book. In so many novels there’s a protagonist and narrator, and everyone else is kind of filler. I wanted people to feel that at any point Darlene could just take over and say, “You know what? It‘s my novel now.” Or Gleason. Or Claudia Prentiss. To me Claudia is a fascinating character. Because there are women like that. You can never quite figure them out.
Given that the majority of fiction readers are women, how concerned were you that the novel would appeal to them?
I definitely wanted The Catsitters to appeal to women, or at the very least not alienate them unduly. Publishing people are always puzzled when a new Philip Roth novel doesn’t sell up to expectations, given the rave reviews. I‘m not — I’ve spoken to too many women who‘ve said they avoid Roth because they consider him so sexist and misogynist. Since I’m not a macho sort, I never intended to write a sexual-conquest novel, so it was never a matter of pandering to a female audience by betraying my own impulses or attitudes. The character who chafes on some women readers is Darlene, because she‘s so cutthroat in her comments and unsentimental. I’m happy to hear some readers don‘t like her, because I intended Darlene to be a divisive force — she’s what keeps the novel from becoming too cute and cuddly.
You obviously enjoy writing about women, which is one of the nice things about the book. It‘s a guy’s book in a way, and yet women are at the center of it.
I‘ve always been much more interested in women than men. Guy talk is very uninteresting to me. I was once at a party for Nancy Lemann, it was a book party and so there were all of these New Republic, Newsweek, Harvard, yuppie journalists, and an incredibly attractive batch of female fiction writers. These guys formed a conversational circle and paid no attention to the women in the room at all. They were all doing shoptalk. “Did you hear who Charlie Peters hired at the Washington Monthly? I hear Spy has an attack coming out on so-and-so.” In fact, as I recall, Nancy’s fiance was in a separate room because there was a Knicks game on. He was watching a Knicks game with his friends at his girlfriend‘s book party. And every so often you’d hear a roar of applause because the Knicks had scored a three-pointer. I couldn‘t believe how unsexed these guys were. It was hilarious.
Where did you get all this relationship advice that Darlene spouts? Did you actually go and read a few self-help books?
I did read those, but they actually were not that helpful. I had a lot of Southern female friends. They were not girlfriends, but they were female friends, and they were incredibly sharp about men and women. In fact, one of the things that fascinated me was this notion that Southern women are sort of Southern belles, la-di-da, lounge around — these gals were spitfires. Some of them would come up North and say, “I’m amazed at the way Northern women behave. And they wonder why they don‘t have a boyfriend?” Northern women would often have this attitude of “You’re probably going to screw me over because that‘s what men do and that’s what‘s been happening to me and you’re no better than the rest. So treat me right by hurting me!” In fact, one Southern woman once said to me — this was at a party I‘d thrown — “I could take the man away from any woman at a this party. Not because I’m better-looking, I just know how to do it.”
The New York Post ran an item about you in which they referred to your book as “lowbrow.” What do you say to that charge?
Lowbrow, highbrow, middlebrow — these categories have become completely arbitrary. Stephen King was considered lowbrow until he started publishing in The New Yorker; now even his trashiest stuff gets respectful treatment. Joyce Carol Oates has always been a trashy lowbrow decked out as a tortured highbrow. I knew when I started the novel that if I didn‘t write something inside and packed with allusions I would be accused of slumming. But I wanted someone who had never read or heard of me — the vast majority out there — to be able to pick up the novel on a whim and become engrossed in the story and characters. I never assumed there was an audience out there panting for a novel just because it was by me.
Has the experience of writing The Catsitters made you feel any different about reviewing novels yourself?
It gives me a better sense of how it works internally. And I’m much more sympathetic now to what a writer goes through, and how hard it is to actually have a career, to actually bring out the fourth or fifth novel, because there are so many things working against you. Not only bad reviews, but a general indifference to your work, the sense that you‘re no longer the flavor of the month. What will probably change in my reviewing is that I now won’t be reviewing people bringing out their first novel, unless it‘s a novel that’s getting a huge amount of attention and can‘t be ignored. I feel now I’ve been around long enough, it would be kind of bullying.
Who were the critics that influenced you?
I was incredibly sympathetic to Marvin Mudrick, who was one of my favorite critics. He wrote a review of Susan Sontag that is the most hilarious, brilliant, totally disrespectful piece ever written on Sontag. He didn‘t take her seriously for a moment. He deconstructed her writing and showed how the same words appeared in essay after essay. He also threw in a shot at Elizabeth Hardwick that shocked the hell out of the New York publishing world, because nobody had ever dared to take a poke at Hardwick. He quotes some of the Hardwick introduction to the Susan Sontag Reader — this ardent introduction — and then says, “They should both take a cold shower — preferably not together.” People couldn’t believe it. He was utterly fearless.
My models were always Jewish hipsters like Mudrick, Albert Goldman, Seymour Krim, Manny Farber. I‘m not Jewish myself, but these guys to me — they were the real swingers, all of them incredibly funny writers. Manny Farber’s film criticism was brilliantly hilarious.
Who do you like now?
There are very few people I read now, because there are very few people who write with that kind of energy. I‘ll tell you who I really like is the New Criterion poetry critic, William Logan. He’s every bit as good as Randall Jarrell was. He takes on everybody. He‘s terrific. I like Dave Hickey a lot. He did a tribute to the Carpenters that I thought was one of the great pieces of criticism I’d read. There aren‘t many others. The thing about all those Jewish hipsters was none of them were careerists.
You have a reputation for being vitriolic.
I think it’s totally overblown. A lot of that reputation was based on stuff I wrote 15 years ago at The Village Voice. When you‘re writing for The Village Voice, you can throw uppercuts in a way. You’re taking on bigger institutions and bigger writers. But at The New Yorker you could really kill somebody‘s career, and the same thing at Vanity Fair. I’ve always thought of myself much more as like a comedian.
Speaking of The Voice, you did an interview with New York Press recently in which you were very critical of what was going on there politically when you left.
By the time I left The Voice, there really was a political filter, and if you had a certain politics you were not going to get in. The only person who escaped that was Stanley Crouch, but Crouch is black. And I‘m not sure how conservative he was when he first came in, because he was mostly a jazz writer. But Stanley would deliberately say these incredibly provocative, anti-P.C. things that other writers could not get away with, but he could. And then they got rid of Stanley when he popped some other writer in the mouth. But then — forget it. It wasn’t just that you couldn‘t be conservative, they had to know where your politics were coming from. They really did. They did not want some independent who might fool them.
I don’t like all the writers they use particularly, but it was very smart of Salon, which was clearly pro-Clinton, to let a David Horowitz or Camille Paglia write for them. I cannot tell you how [monotonous] the standard drumbeat on Camille Paglia is. “Why do they run Camille Paglia . . . I hate Camille Paglia . . .” The fact is, Camille‘s column gets a lot of hits and Camille makes a lot of sense. Camille has an incredible strain of common sense.
I think that’s what people hate, actually — common sense. That‘s what rankles.
Yeah, it really rankles! They want her to be more of a lunatic. But what I notice is that it isn’t enough that they disagree with her column. They don‘t want it in there to begin with. See, that was the kind of thing I hated at The Voice, this thing of a “We don’t want that spectrum to be heard.” It affected the paper in a lot of ways. Even now, one of the things that‘s hilarious about The Voice is the way people who don’t even write about politics will stick in the Bush-Cheney references just to show that “Hey, I‘m not sold! You can’t make me bend to the hegemony of . . .” It makes for a real dreariness. Salon is much better for having different voices. I wish more magazines would do that. The thing is, I don‘t even think they’re afraid of their readers. I think it‘s all internal dissent. I think they’re afraid of people in the office having hissy fits. I did a joke in The Voice, and all these people circulated a petition to protest my joke in The Voice.
You made a joke in the office?
No, no, it was a joke in my column. I was talking about a certain television personality, and I said something like, “I don‘t need this person screaming at me about my inadequacies. That’s what girlfriends are for!” Which I thought was very mild, because really it‘s a joke about me, saying I’m the sort of person who frustrates girlfriends. And I said, “You can write anything you want in terms of petitions, but do you realize how absurd it‘s going to be if you run a letter in The Voice protesting a joke with 18 or 20 names attached to it?” That’s the kind of thing you do about, you know, “We deplore the bombing of the Palestinian townships . . .” You don‘t do it for a joke.
But at The Voice this tension would build up, and a lot of the feuds that would break out were not about the subject itself, they really were office animosities that had been building for years. Nat Hentoff was the focus because the feminists hated him, and Hentoff would goad them sometimes, when he wrote about abortion and things like that. So there would be these big battles in The Voice that would seem to be about a particular issue, but they weren’t. They were really about the fact that they wanted Hentoff out. And I think that‘s why a lot of publications are very cowardly. They don’t want that interoffice friction. You need certain publications to have almost a benign dictator at the top, to say, “I‘m going to open up the paper to different voices, and if you don’t like it you can leave. But don‘t tell me that so-and-so has no right to be in the paper.”
In your essay about Pauline Kael and her followers, you made New York intellectual life sound pretty intolerant.
It’s absurd the way it is in New York: William Buckley‘s phrase, the “averted gaze” — “I notice you, but I’m not going to look at you.” Or, “I‘m going to snub you and make it a point that you know I snubbed you.” A lot of people get demonized. Hilton Kramer in person is incredibly agreeable, funny, and knowledgeable about New York intellectual life of the past 50 years, but if you were to mention him in certain circles — it’s not that they don‘t want to read Hilton Kramer, it’s [that they believe] people like him should not be allowed to exist. Why can‘t he just go away? Oh yeah, let’s just leave it all up to Arthur Danto and the October crowd! I don‘t take my disagreements with people personally, I really don’t. If someone disagrees with me about a movie or a writer, I don‘t pretend they don’t exist if I‘m introduced to them. I thought New Yorkers supposedly thrived on give-and-take. All this stuff you read about the Partisan Review gang, how they would argue into the late hours and get vocal but still keep coming to each other’s parties. Now it‘s like, “Oh no, you won’t be invited if you say something that somehow doesn‘t fit.”
As I remember in your Paulettes piece, that was true when you first arrived in New York. That’s not a recent development.
I think it‘s gotten worse. I wasn’t around during the Vietnam period, which I‘m told really did turn people against each other, but I saw it happen when things really did become much more P.C. I think it’s been more and more true. It was certainly true of the movie critics. All of a sudden they would do this thing of sniffing, “Oh, you didn‘t get it.” My wife and I walked into this book party, and there were two of Pauline Kael’s proteges, and they saw us and they went for the door. That article was taken as the biggest sacrilege I‘ve ever committed. Because I let out secrets.
Are you still friends with Kael?
Oh no, this was the end. She once said to me, “I don’t tell them what to write.” And I was thinking, “Oh, Pauline, they don‘t have to be told. They’ve known you for 10 or 15 years.” F.R. Leavis didn‘t have to tell his followers what to write. They knew at a certain point. They knew who they were expected to be in favor of and not in favor of. You know, Pauline played her favorites, and it was clear, and it was okay, but if you disagreed with someone about a movie, they would literally fall dead silent and turn their head away. Like you had made a joke about their dead mother or something.
Do you ever feel bad about past remarks?
I thought I was much too personally severe with Michael Kinsley when I wrote about Slate. I was a little rough there. I feel bad that Pauline Kael took it as deeply as she did, because we’re all independent critics, we‘re all strong-willed critics, and it’s not as if Pauline hasn‘t had scrapes with her friends before, a lot worse than this. So, I regret it, but if that’s how it plays out I‘m not going to change it. If you start pulling your punches in advance, that’s deadly. So I don‘t try to go out of my way to be nasty, but at the same, a lot of times I think, “Okay, I’m just going to say it, and if the person gets upset, they get upset.”