Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Anchor Books

Critical Mass

Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs

By James Wolcott

About the Book:

James Wolcott’s career as a critic has been unmatched, from his early Seventies dispatches for The Village Voice to the literary coverage made him equally feared and famous to his must-read reports on the cultural weather for Vanity Fair. Bringing together his best work from across the decades, this collection shows Wolcott as connoisseur, intrepid reporter, memoirist, and necessary naysayer.
        We begin with “O.K. Corral Revisited,” Wolcott’s career-launching account of the famed Norman Mailer–Gore Vidal dust-off on the original Dick Cavett Show. He goes on to consider (or reconsider) the towering figures of our culture, among them Lena Dunham Patti Smith, Johnny Carson, Woody Allen, and John Cheever. And we witness his legendary takedowns, which have entered into the literary lore of our time. In an age where a great deal of back scratching and softball pitching pass for criticism, Critical Mass offers a bracing taste of the real thing. 

About James Wolcott:

James Wolcott is the long-time culture critic and blogger for Vanity Fair.  He is the author of a novel, The Catsitters, and the nonfiction work, Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants.  He lives in New York with his wife, the writer Laura Jacobs.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from the hardcover edition

O.K. Corral Revisited

Be advised, this piece is not for most of you, since it is concerned mostly with literary matters, the clash of two altogether large egos (indeed one of them is leviathan in its proportions), and the pyrotechnics of existential theater. A veritable cornucopia of conflicts. So, if you are intelligent (and patient) the sound of artillery should keep you awake.


Vidal: As far as I am concerned, the only crypto-­Nazi I can think of is yourself, failing that, I would only say that we can’t have . . . 

Howard K. Smith: Now let’s not call names.

Buckley: Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-­Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered—­

Smith: Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Let’s not call names.

The exchange printed above was the famous ad hominem cross-­fire between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal on ABC-­TV during the near-­to-­apocalyptic Democratic Convention of 1968. Keep the exchange in mind; we will return to it later; the symmetry of the argument will delight you.


Enough mystery. The Dick Cavett Show recently featured Gore Vidal, novelist and playwright; Janet Flanner, correspondent in France for The New Yorker; and Norman Mailer, American writer numero uno. Now television talk shows tend to be witty and vacuous (as is usually the case with Dick Cavett), dumb and vacuous (cf. Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson), or unctuous and vacuous (cf. the analingual David Frost). Talk shows, that is, usually are showcases for mediocre comedians telling dreadful jokes, politicians pontificating, writers pushing new books, singers doing new Bacharach material; a showcase of remarks and entertainments meant to be lively but not galvanizing, quick but never penetrating. When social issues—­dread the term—­are discussed, the discussion is carried on in tone and language so plastic and so pious that one would think the ghost of Adlai Stevenson was whispering in the wings.

But this particular show was different, extraordinarily different. It started as a more or less typical show, clever and safe as milk: Cavett did an extremely amusing monologue, Gore Vidal was introduced and spoke about Eleanor Roosevelt, ecology, and his new play entitled An Evening with Richard Nixon; Janet Flanner followed with little snack cakes of stories perfectly suited for any small cocktail party. All very nice, amiable, and dull.

After Mailer’s introduction, however, the mood-­temperature of the show went from lukewarm to warm (and it was to reach torrid before the evening was through). Mailer’s entrance on stage was done with such swagger and streetfighter toughness that he appeared to be the baddest gunfighter ever to kick open the doors of the Silver Dollar Saloon. When he got to his chair, he neglected all too obviously to shake hands with Vidal. Cavett, noting this, asked if there was animosity between the two. Indeed, there was. A short explanation follows.


In the first winter of this year, Mailer published a book-­length essay entitled The Prisoner of Sex, the work being a rebuttal to Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and exploration of the issues involved in Women’s Liberation—­sexual technology, the family orgasm, homosexuality, the literature of Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence (Mailer’s defense of Lawrence soars like a windhover). The effect on Mrs. Millett was devastating—­she was so badly lacerated that she is still bandaging the wounds. In the essay was a short slicing reference to Vidal: “The subject”—­i.e., women’s lib—­“was too large for quick utterances: The need of the magazine reader for a remark he could repeat at the evening table was best served by writers with names like Gore Vidal . . . ” Vidal, not without pride, to say the least, did not enjoy being trivialized. So in an article in the New York Review of Books, Vidal formulated a prototype male called M3; M3 being an equation for Henry Miller–Norman Mailer–Charlie Manson and representing the sort of male who thinks that women are “ . . . at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed.” Comparing Mailer to Manson was hyperbolic enough, but consider this datum: Mailer, married four times, non-­fatally stabbed his second wife. All right? Back to the show.


After admitting he had just come from a bar, Mailer added that he hesitated to break the jovial mood of the show, but that he was furious with Vidal for what he had written and that it was obvious that Vidal as a writer was slipping badly. (Note: From this point on, all dialogue is printed as close to the facticity and spirit of the show as memory permits. The quotes, that is, are composed from memory and should not be taken as actual transcript.) He chastised Vidal for being so decadent as to write a play about Nixon; it was “too easy” and it could very well get Nixon re-­elected because such a play, coupled with Philip Roth’s Our Gang, would only generate sympathy for the president—­“It’s overkill, Gore,” remonstrated Mailer. Vidal responded weakly, Cavett did not get the conversation going, and Mailer told him, in effect, do your job (that is, don’t let silence set in). When Janet Flanner saw that the mood was going to be contentious, she made some puerile remark about talking sensibly and not dredging up old problems. Mailer, in street-­cop staccato, fired back, “Listen, after vomitation, examining the contents of Gore Vidal’s stomach would be no more interesting than examining the insides of an intellectual cow.” Murder was in the air. And Mailer was not finished—­he was to escalate the attack the rest of the evening in order to get Vidal out from under the table.

Vidal did attempt to defend himself, of course. He said a) that the attack by him on The Prisoner of Sex was not personal, b) that Mailer was in constant metamorphosis, and c) he took exception to Mailer’s argument that good sex makes good babies (to be precise, Mailer wrote “Good fucks make good babies”) and d) despaired of Mailer’s love of the violent as revealed in Mailer’s statement that “murder . . . is never unsexual.”

To which Mailer replied that comparing him to Charlie Manson was personal, and intellectually shoddy—­indeed lumping in Henry Miller, “America’s greatest living writer,” multiplied the insipidity of Vidal’s equation. Mailer charged that the comparison to Manson was a calculated smear—­the parallel between the murder of Sharon Tate and Mailer’s wife-­stabbing would escape no knowledgeable reader. And since Vidal’s approach to sex was so superficial, he would never know if good fucks make good babies, the question being was Muhammad Ali in a good fuck or a bad one? To Vidal’s last point, Mailer asked, “How do you know murder is not sexual?” Vidal: “Well, seeing that I haven’t killed anyone lately . . . ” Mailer: “You killed Kerouac.”

You killed Kerouac. No doubt 90 percent of the audience missed the reference. Kerouac, of course, was one of the most famous of the Beat writers, the author of On the Road. If we quote from Vidal’s most recent book, a novel-­memoir entitled Two Sisters, we will see where the homicide took place: “ . . . Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans in which he describes . . . (with) astonishing accuracy an evening he spent with William Burroughs and me. Everything is perfectly recalled until the crucial moment when Jack and I went to bed together at the Chelsea Hotel . . . ” Now note: Vidal is a missionary bisexual, Kerouac was never known to be bisexually inclined until this passage was published, and the passage was written and published after Kerouac’s death . . . it was Kerouac’s reputation as a man that was murdered in print, ambushed when it was impossible for Kerouac to defend himself.


So Norman Mailer kept hammering away, his “Retaliator in and out of Vengeance Mews.” The audience was against him, Janet Flanner was interrupting with comments worthy of a doughty truck stop waitress on the morning shift, Vidal was attempting to stay Above It All, Cavett was pandering to the mood of the audience. After one of Miss Flanner’s more odorous bird droppings in defense of Vidal, Mailer in indignation worthy of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker demanded, “Miss Flanner, are you the referee or are you Vidal’s manager?” A perfect short, direct hit, the first time in remembrance a meddling guest was told by another guest to, for the love of Jesus, keep your mouth shut.

Cavett, repelled by Mailer’s chutzpah, asked if he wouldn’t like two more chairs brought onstage to contain his giant intellect; Mailer replied, “As long as they bring out fingerbowls for the rest of you.” And Cavett, in an embarrassing charade, pretended not to understand what Mailer meant. But Cavett also got off the funniest line—­there was a silence and Mailer said, “Why don’t you look at your question-­card?” Cavett: “Why don’t you fold it five ways and shove it where the moon don’t shine?” The timing was exquisite, the studio audience exploded with laughter . . . but it made one somewhat ill to hear it. The line was freeze-­dried, stored away to be a smartass counter-­punch, it was as programmed as Johnny Carson’s cute comments as Carnac the Magnificent. The line was sharp, very sharp, but it betrayed Cavett’s small nightclub comic core.

But if Cavett was a comic with a zip-­gun, Vidal was a priest with a rosary. We have been, he said, divided enough and listened to enough heated rhetoric and nothing was served by hateful dialogue, etc. Did I say he sounded like a priest? No, Vidal sounded worse than that . . . his voice echoed Rrrammsey Clark. It was the audience, however, that was most hostile to Mailer. Mailer asked for five minutes to address the audience.


“Listen,” he said, head raised to address the balcony, “are you all truly, really idiots or is it me?” “You!” the audience hooted almost in unison, to which Cavett quipped, “Oh, that was the easy answer.” Mailer invited the audience to yell their condemnations to determine why HE was the idiot. “You’re rude!” yelled one. “Male chauvinist pig!” bellowed a woman. One female’s thin, liberal, shaky, despondent voice rose above the others: “You come on the show and insult everyone and the other guests are polite and dignified and calm and you’re rude and boorish.” “Okay,” said Mailer, “the reason I am rude and boorish is because I’m rude and boorish and the reason they’re polite and dignified is because they are polite and dignified—­and they would slit my throat in the alley if they could. All right?” The hostilities out in the open, Mailer asked the audience, “Can I talk to you now? Can I reach you?”

Mailer then delivered a five-­minute peroration for himself, a short speech cauterizing with existential brilliance. It was a speech that the best English professor on the best day of his life could not give, because the nuances of Mailer’s voice spoke of the frustrations, victories, and attrition of pursuing the Great Bitch, that mother-­woe of a novel not meant to be written. The difference between an English professor and Norman Mailer describing the quest of the writer is the difference between a war correspondent and a weary battle-­wise lieutenant describing a military siege—­one writes of skin, the other of blood.

So Mailer communicated the knowledge that comes from going over the ridge. “Great writers,” he began, “were traditionally men of letters, they respected tradition and literary punctilios even when they transgressed them in order to further their work. But it was Hemingway who first knew that writers, especially American writers, take as much abuse and punishment as prizefighters, and, moreover, he, Hemingway, wanted to be champion. Hemingway wanted to be the best American writer, he wanted to be the champion, BECAUSE THAT’S ALL HE CARED ABOUT. He wasn’t just the lute that the sweet winds of Art played—­he was a writer with an existential quest, he wrote to deliver himself as a man. I wrote a book called The Prisoner of Sex and found that my ideas about sex were terribly complex and, in a sense, Gore is correct in saying that my style is becoming unreadable because the ideas are so complex that it is getting more and more difficult to express them on paper. But after the book was published, it was as if it had never been written: it was taken as an anti–women’s lib diatribe and dismissed. Which is why some libber will shout ‘male chauvinist pig.’ Well that’s dull, it’s DULL, it’s beneath us as Americans to use frozen rhetoric, to pollute the intellectual rivers while everyone howls over ecology. Bad enough when the ignorant do the polluting, but it is enraging when someone like Gore Vidal, who’s been around in the literary world and knows what he’s doing, intentionally misrepresents my work. Because, understand, like Hemingway, I want to be the champion because that’s all I care about, and after twenty-­five years of working and writing to be the best American writer of our time, I am not going to let myself get kicked in the balls by Gore Vidal.”


So what are we to make of all this? Was it just a fencing match, a shoot-­out, an intellectual slugfest? It would appear that way perhaps to the unperceptive, but something more profound, something closer to the nerve took place. The question is whether or not one’s work is important; is one’s writing merely an activity, a way of making one’s way economically through the world, an exercise in self-­expression, a means of achieving fame? Because if that is all there is, then to be a good writer is knowing best how to toss impure pearls before swine (the more the swine, the greater the writer by this logic). But if writing is a pilgrimage across the fever-­swamps of experience in search of the Hemingwayesque big two-­hearted river, if it is that great a mission, then one had damn well better carry a revolver fully loaded.

Yes, if Lord Byron wrote to save himself from suffocating on cum [decades later, I have no idea what I mean by this—JW], and D. H. Lawrence out of fear that he was less than a man, and Hemingway from his sense of mission, then in our time, even as crass and cheap and cynical as it is, Norman had an imperative to destroy the intellectual pretensions of Gore Vidal.

But a defense of Mailer rests on a crucial assumption—­that ideas have importance. Of course, most would say in the abstract, of course they do. But we are not talking abstractly and we are not talking of ideas as opinions chewed over at faculty dinners, solemnized at seminars, buried in textbooks, carried around compartmentalized in the head of a near-­dead scholar. In such a context, Vidal’s gamesmanship and charlatanism are nothing to be concerned about. But if ideas and language have meaning, if they are as much in the blood and gut as sex and love, then those who knowingly and proudly defecate in the river have got to stand trial.


“Epic, and epically rewarding. . . . A vacuum-packed anthology of tight arguments and shrewd observations.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[Wolcott] is the preeminent critic of contemporary spectacle, matching his own supercharged style to the highlights of forty years of TV, pop music, books, and movies.” —The New York Review of Books

“If any book could stir up my moldering competitive instincts, Critical Mass is the one. . . . Back in those long-gone Voice days, not a few of us cockily fancied that we were—or were going to be—pretty good. Jim was better.” —Tom Carson, Bookforum
“One of America’s finest cultural critics.” —Flavorwire

“In an age of inane Twitter commentary, ‘likes,’ and instant publication, one of the few critics standing athwart our culture and writing serious criticism is James Wolcott. . . . Critical Mass collects some of his most winning assassinations.” —The Daily Beast

“Wolcott is a wickedly cunning, agile writer with a special talent for quick-sketch characterizations. . . . Critical Mass is the perfect bedside-table book because its short entries promise pleasure from even the briefest dips into its pages.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“The thought hits every now and then when I read another critic: I wish I had written that sentence. Reading James Wolcott, though, ‘every now and then’ turns into every paragraph. . . . Sacred cows and conventional wisdom don’t stand a chance against his pen.” —Chris Vognar, The Dallas Morning News

“This book offers a sublime buzz.” —Prospect Magazine

“Forthright and fair-minded, but ferocious in disdain, with the sly, smart voice of someone in the know but never caught up in the moment, this collection.” —Publishers Weekly

“An eclectic collection that reasserts the author’s reputation as one of America’s most perceptive, candid and human critics.” —Kirkus Reviews

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