Staying Alive: With A New Memoir On The Shelf, James Wolcott Discusses The Writing Life

cn image size  Staying Alive: With A New Memoir On The Shelf, James Wolcott Discusses The Writing LifeFor a fellow practitioner of the journalism craft, meeting James Wolcott for lunch is a daunting prospect. It’s not just because at various times in a long career the TV critic-turned-movie critic-turned-rock critic-turned-media critic-turned-political blogger has secured regular gigs at such totemic outlets as Harper’s, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, where he now writes a regular column, but more so because the withering quality of his prose is enough evidence to assume the man carries a disemboweling knife in his frontal cortex.

This is, after all, someone who once described Piers Morgan as “a canned ham” and “a self-fluffer,” who suggested that Adam Gopnik had been “put on earth to annoy,” and who wrote a devastating 1,000-word takedown of Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn’s behavior at Tim Russert’s funeral (“I don’t question Quinn’s grief or the sincerity of her gesture, though I suspect that Quinn may have also queued up to receive Communion because it would give everyone at the service an opportunity to get a good look at her on such a somber, star-studded occasion. It’s hard to pass up such an opportunity for visibility. Nothing like a Mass with all the trimmings to blossom the drama queen within”).

But sitting at the Café Un Deux Trois in midtown—a favored postcinema haunt of his and one of his mentors, the film critic Pauline Kael—and sipping on a Diet Coke, Mr. Wolcott comes across as meek, if not a tad shy. He apologizes for not standing up, explaining that he fears knocking over the table. “I once did that. At a business meeting. Oof, it was awful.” (His girth has been a frequent object of derision from his critics, who often become his critics after Mr. Wolcott writes something untoward about them.)

Mr. Wolcott was there with The Observer to discuss his new memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, an engaging, snappily written remembrance of his early days in the city. Whenever the book hops from the ’70s into the present day, it is usually so that Mr. Wolcott can update us on how some shady character from back in the day turned out.

For example, a playwright who lived above Mr. Wolcott in his first basement apartment—and whose noisy lovemaking is described as “like a train chugging into the station, picking up speed as they reached the final whistle”—is spotted decades later walking across 23rd Street. Without breaking stride, he spreads his arms and shouts, “Hey, we got older!” A public access television porn purveyor/provocateur (there apparently were such types in the ’70s) is spotted on an uptown bus, looking like Shrek “if Shrek were the color of disgruntled instead of clay green.”

On the day we met with him, Mr. Wolcott had run into someone from Project Runway on the bus. “I mean, I love Tim Gunn,” he said. “Tim Gunn’s philosophy of life, I love: this is what the situation is. Make it work. Use your time. He doesn’t get into a cosmic thing. It’s a real utilitarian, almost Mr. Spock sort of approach.”

Lucking Out purports to be a look at New York during a time when “it wasn’t just the criminality that kept your radar alert, the muggings and the subway car shakedowns, it was the crazy paroxysms that punctuate the city, the sense that much of the city had suffered a psychotic break,” back when it was a “city of low rents and crappy expectations that didn’t require a trust fund or a six-figure income for the privilege of watching everything fall apart before your eyes.”

But really the book is a how-to on the writing life. In this regard, Mr. Wolcott was helped along not just by talent but by a pair of helpful mentors. The first of these was Norman Mailer, his boyhood literary idol. Mailer suggested Mr. Wolcott for his first job, at The Village Voice, on the strength of having been sent a single article that had appeared in the Frostburg State college newspaper.  At The Voice Mr. Wolcott was tasked with weeding through the slush pile, where he learned what to avoid if one wanted to make it into print:

“Avoid preamble—flip on the switch in the first sentence. Find a focal point for your nervous energy, assume a forward offensive stance, and drive to the finish line, even if it’s only a five hundred word slot: no matter how short a piece there has to be a sense of momentum and travel, rather than just allotted space being texted in. … Writing that was too talky lacked the third rail below the surface that suggested untapped power reserves, an extra store of ammo,” he writes.

At the Café Un Deux Trois, Mr. Wolcott expanded on this notion.

“You have to remember that you always write for readers,” he said. “Most people, their idea of a reader is not even a person, it’s like their expectation of what this piece will do for them. … You have to realize that if you don’t make something clear, if you don’t make something interesting, they will abandon it in the second paragraph.

“It’s one of things I learned, that even if you are Norman Mailer, you can’t set up road blocks for the reader—they don’t owe you.”

The second of these mentors was Ms. Kael, who tracked Mr. Wolcott down in that basement apartment and brought him into her orbit for late cinematic discussions at the Un Deux Trois, or still later ones at the Algonquin. It was Ms. Kael who preached the importance of dispensing with mercies in criticism.

 

“Tender feelings were a fraudulent cover for larger failures of nerve,” Mr. Wolcott writes.

In an interview, he mused on what made both of these giants take him under their respective wings.

“I think it was because they felt I was actually speaking my own mind, that I wasn’t working second hand,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine not wanting to do that because where is the fun of writing if you are always second guessing yourself, if you are killing the energy in what you write through qualms and self-doubt, and ‘so and so won’t speak to me again’? One of the things I quickly learned was that it doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t speak to you again because they probably won’t speak to you anyway. If you are a New Yorker, you get snubbed by people you don’t even know anyway.”

Lucking Out wasn’t Mr. Wolcott’s idea. He had other ideas for his next book (he has already written two—a novel and critique of the media in the run-up to the Gulf War).

When his agent suggested a memoir, he was skeptical.

“I thought that if I am going to do a memoir, I don’t want it to be a bleeding heart. I don’t want anybody to have sympathy for me. Because there is no reason for anybody to have sympathy for me. But you know how writers are. They will milk the sympathy.”

Mr. Wolcott said he wrote the book in part to describe a lost world, a world where even a dropout from Frostburg State could gain a foothold on the journalistic rockface. “To start out as a writer then was to set out under a higher, wider, filthier, more window-lit sky,” he writes. “A writer could still dream of climbing to the top, or at least getting close enough to the top to see who was up there enjoying themselves.”

In the city he lives in today, rents are too expensive and outlets too few for anyone to arrive, as he did, on a bus at the Port Authority and expect to find a job. And there certainly wouldn’t be a Pauline Kael looking around for people to go to the movies with.

“One of the things I didn’t realize until later, the kind of generosity that Mailer had, and that Pauline had, most writers don’t have because they feel like there is a limited amount of success out there and I am not going to give anybody any of it,” he said.

The invocation of Ms. Kael is an elegiac one, and not simply because the legendary film critic is now a decade dead. She wrote at a time when criticism and the arts mattered in a way that they don’t now. And she represents a time when a film critic could go elsewhere besides the movies. Mr. Wolcott may be the last of this breed, one whose TV review gig turned him into an authority on punk rock, and who is still asked to write about everything from movies to ballet and books.

Mr. Wolcott doesn’t have a circle of young acolytes around him like Ms. Kael did. If he did, he said he would tell them, “Simply don’t hold yourself back as a writer when you start out. I don’t know how people can market themselves—that’s a whole other thing—but don’t hold back as a writer from the outset because once you hold back, all sorts of patterns will follow. There are very few writers that start out cautious and careful and then as they get older loosen up and go into a gallop.”

But if there is one message in the book it is that success in the writer’s life, or in any life, really, is as much a matter of lucking out as anything else.

“There are so many ways it can fall apart,” Mr. Wolcott said. “Thing just happen in life. You marry the wrong person, you start drinking, you have an illness, you go for the job that you think is the ideal job and it turns out to be the thing that kills you. Or they stay too long at the fair—too long at a certain magazine or at a certain gig. If you don’t change tactics or change the way you work at some point it really does just become filing copy. You don’t want to be one of those writers whose name comes up and people go, ‘Oh, is that guy still alive?’”

dfreedlander@observer.com