I think it’s about time I told you about my association with James Wolcott.
It started in early 1997. I was going to college back in Houston, and I was a major Wolcott-head. Throughout high school and college, I’d venture to the various libraries around town to read and/or photocopy articles he did for the Village Voice, New York, Harper’s, Esquire, Vogue, etc. The previous Christmas, I asked my mother for a year-long subscription to The New Yorker, where he was doing duty as a TV/media critic at the time. I started getting the magazine at my place of residence, but I started to sense something was amiss. I wasn’t seeing his byline much.
It wasn’t until I was in line at a Blockbuster Video (R.I.P., by the way) and saw his name on the cover of Vanity Fair that I realized that he had gone back to the magazine, where he did the “Mixed Media” column all through the ‘80s and early ‘90s —that is, until the magazine’s famed editor Tina Brown announced in 1992 that she would be presiding over The New Yorker, taking several VF writers with her, including Wolcott.
I was incensed that Wolcott moved his byline back to Vanity Fair. Now, what the hell was I gonna do with this damn New Yorker? The only reason I read the magazine was to see his latest pop-cultural dispatches. I was so livid, I actually wrote to Wolcott, via the VF offices, where I said how disappointed I was that he left The New Yorker. I also requested a free subscription to Vanity Fair for my troubles. (Man, I was ballsy—or nuts—back then.)
I stated the case that I was a major fan of the work and was studying to be a journalist and critic much like himself. Considering that he once famously wrote to the late Norman Mailer, informing the author of how much he inspired him (which resulted in Mailer sending him a letter of recommendation that Wolcott used to get into the door at the Voice), I figured he’d see my intentions were positive. I also enclosed some articles I wrote for some free publications to show him that I wasn’t a nutjob pissed off that he changed jobs without my knowledge.
I sent the letter, virtually oblivious to the fact that I sent what could be seen as deranged hate mail to one of my heroes. Not too long after that, one Saturday morning, I got a letter in the mail from the one and only Wolcott. It started off as so:
“Dear Craig D. Lindsey,
He then went on to say I couldn’t get a free subscription to Vanity Fair and I should give The New Yorker another chance. (I believe he was being sarcastic about that since he gave a few writers less-than-flattering nicknames and referred to the magazine as “quality infotainment.”) He also said he liked the clips I sent him, and I should send him some more. Hell, you don’t have to tell me twice.
I sent him another letter filled with clips, and he responded with a letter that included his New York address. (Guess he didn’t think I was as nutcasey as he initially assumed.) I could send my correspondence directly to him now. For the following five years—we slowed down on the letter-writing after 9/11—Wolcott and I would send missives back and forth, each filled with various musings on pop culture and the world around us. Sure, we could’ve emailed each other (he did hip me to his email address at one point), but for me—and I don’t know how he felt about it—receiving letters from him felt like I was getting exclusive, privileged content. While the rest of the world was reading Wolcott on a monthly basis over at Vanity Fair, I was getting these personal pearls straight from the man himself. I even got to meet Wolcott during this time when I flew to New York for a movie press junket. We ventured to a diner and shared a gargantuan slice of some dessert as he delighted me with stories of his journalistic travels.
So, what prompted this trip down memory lane? Well, Wolcott’s latest book, Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades and Hurrahs (Doubleday) has just been released, filled with many of the pieces that made me want to get in this damn business in the first place. What I love most about the collection (which has been a long time coming; when his debut novel, The Catsitters, came out in 2001, there was talk he’d follow it up with a collection of pieces called Personal Attacks) is that it shows how, when it comes to the various aspects of popular culture, Wolcott is well-versed in practically everything.
Wolcott may have been branded as a snob once or twice during his 40 years or so of writing, as he racked up various enemies thanks to the printed pimp-slappings he often gave his subjects, but the man’s pop-cultural tastes are fascinatingly versatile. Anyone who read his 2011 memoir Lucking Out knows that dude can enjoy both a lovely evening at the ballet and a skanky night out at CBGB with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm. Wolcott can write about books, TV, movies, punk rock and stand-up comedians, all with the same sharp, savvy, florid analysis, for they are all connected. For him, a well-done episode of SCTV merits the exact kind of sophisticated kudos as a Brian De Palma movie or a Kingsley Amis novel.
Throughout his travels, writing for various publications, Wolcott subconsciously preached a sense of open-mindedness. It’s OK if you love or hate something, but goddammit, give it a chance first, especially if it’s not in your comfort zone, and it just might be something that surprisingly suits your tastes. His writings certainly taught me not to be instantly dismissive as a writer and a critic. You can find critical analysis in anything, and make it quite entertaining for the reader as well. I once remember giggling my head off while reading a piece he wrote on Baywatch and a Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue TV special – IN THE NEW YORKER!
It amused me to see the articles he compiled for the book, especially since I have photocopies of many of them in a box in my bedroom closet. (Technically, I’ve been reading this book for years before it came out.) It’s interesting to see what he chose for each of the book's five sections. For example, in the “Movies” section, he includes several reviews he did back when he was the film critic for Texas Monthly in the ‘80s, which became a fertile ground for him to strip down the blockbusters of that era. As a critic, he was able to recognize the rampant homoeroticism in Top Gun, the sadistic violence in the second Indiana Jones movie and the pitiful display of merchandise that was Return of the Jedi. It wasn’t a completely bad time—he caught flashes of Bill Murray’s comic genius when he saw Ghostbusters.
Unfortunately, he didn’t include any of those reviews. He also didn’t include the assessments of Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Janet Jackson for Vanity Fair in the 80s in the “Pop, Punk, Rock” section, which includes many essays on the myriad punk/underground rockers he saw and admired in his younger days. A lot of his TV pieces I adored – he did a 1993 New Yorker review of Def Comedy Jam that reminded me how coonish that show could be – aren’t around. Also missing is that 1983 New York review of Late Night with David Letterman that Letterman himself publicly said felt like endless blows to the body. (“Dead Letter” was the headline.)
In the intro to the book, Wolcott wrote that he omitted including pieces for various reasons: too dated, too arcane, too mean. (He purposefully left out his notorious 1997 Vanity Fair takedown of mentor Pauline Kael and the critics she’s influenced—the “Paulettes,” he dubbed them—since it caused a regrettable rift between Kael and him that continued right up to her 2001 death.) But that’s the funny thing about Critical Mass: even though it clocks in at 512 pages, it only scratches the surface. Wolcott has written so much throughout the years, enough to merit another collection. And if the day ever comes for Wolcott to compile another tome, perhaps his old penpal could be of some archival service.
By the way, if Helen Mirren or Christina Hendricks is reading this, get at me, ladies!