gall and gumption

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Silliest Man in New York

Wolcott reviews Adam Gopnik's latest book in TNR. Wolcott isn't Marvin Mudrick, but he remembers him fondly.

Gopnik's writing about art in the New Yorker in the 1990s had an almost emetic effect on the boyfriend I was living with at the time. Each week the New Yorker would arrive, I'd devour it almost from cover to cover, and S. would browse it, and when he came across the latest bit of Gopnik he would break out swearing. He would read each Gopnik piece, I suppose with the same sort of curiosity that makes you open that plastic container that's been in the back of the fridge for three months. And the effect, as I say, was similar. S., for one thing, was an artist who had grown up in New York when it was a place where artists really lived and worked. His parents were both artists, and many of their friends were as well. S. went to Dalton when it was still a school for artists' kids, and he grew up, well, among some of the people that Gopnik wrote about. S. didn't live in New York any more, he lived in Southern California, but he still had a sort of proprietary air about these subjects, the way you would feel about your childhood memories.

My reaction was less extreme. I just found that I didn't want to believe a word Gopnik wrote. His facts were, of course, all right; it was his prose, his tone, his designs on the reader The effect of his prose on me was like shaking hands with someone who has an extremely wet and clammy handshake. You just want your hand back, asap. I would get through a Gopnik piece, just barely, and feel I had been slightly cheated out of something. What I was cheated out of was the experience of whatever Gopnik was talking about. Obviously if I read an article about painting I don't necessarily feel cheated out of the experiece of seeing the painting. When I read Robert Hughes, for example, I get motivated to go see paintings or see them again because in some way he is really offering the experience to the reader, generously. Even when I don't agree with his judgments I can feel that at least he isn't getting in the way, just giving me something to think about when I do go and look.

Gopnik's writing has the completely opposite effect. He manages somehow to distill experience down to pure vanity, A sort of whimsical gushy breathless arch sentimental earnest and deeply solipsistic vanity: it is epidemic to the higher reaches of the magazine business, and it's part of the New Yorker brand, gently satirized in its mascot, Eustace Tilley (the fellow with the top hat and the pince-nez). But it is now epidemic as a sort of stance, a pose, an entitlement of the arriviste. It is the pose you assume when you have achieved a comfortable niche in the mountain of radioactive poo: "OK you are now allowed to be interesting. But you will be interesting in just this exact same way as all the rest of us."

My brief exposure to this sort of thing in the real world made me feel depressed. But it seems to make Gopnik euphoric. It's like he has persuaded himself that he was born a New Yorker New Yorker, that fictional creature.

A careerist with delicate antennae, he wants to be encouraged, petted, praised, promoted, and congratulated. (In Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, Renata Adler memorably encapsulated his modus operandi: "I had learned over the course of conversations with Mr. Gopnik that his questions were not questions, or even quite soundings. Their purpose was to maneuver you into advising him to do what he would, in any case, walk over corpses to do.")

And you should read Renata Adler's book on the New Yorker.


At 4:34 PM, Anonymous paul k said...

A sort of whimsical gushy breathless arch sentimental earnest and deeply solipsistic vanity: it is epidemic to the higher reaches of the magazine business, and it's part of the New Yorker brand, gently satirized in its mascot, Eustace Tilley (the fellow with the top hat and the pince-nez).

OOO, that smell. Every time I flip through an issue of The New Yorker, the overpowering funk of institutionalized complacency comes wafting off far too many of its pages. Neither the Dadaist thumb-nosery of Tom Wolfe (“Tiny mummies!”) nor the sleeper-cell subversions of Pauline Kael or ex-editor Tina Brown has ever managed to free the magazine from this odor, a head-spinning mix of those designer-fragrance scratch-and-sniffs found in yupscale rags and what Michael Wood calls a “dandyism” that “freezes too easily into condescension.”

Wood made that remark in a review of Brendan Gill’s Here at The New Yorker, but with a little tweaking it could apply just as well to Gopnik’s current opuscule:

We can admire Gill's frankness about his satisfaction with his lot—"Sometimes, and with reason, I boast of never having done an honest day's work in my life"—without being quite as captivated by it as Gill expects us to be. It is a minor act of courage to confess without remorse, as Gill does, to blatant good fortune and gladly accepted privilege, but the thinness of feeling which is evident everywhere in this book suggests that such a life has its drawbacks. I don't mean suffering or poverty ennobles us. I mean simply that Gill's poise and considerable honesty seem inseparable from smugness.

Note the continuity from one generation of New Yorker scriveners to the next: “Thinness of feeling” and “smugness” pretty much sums up the tone of Gopnik’s prose when he’s in his we-few-we-few-we-happy-few-we-Noo-Yawkers mode---infuriatingly self-amused, and, well. . . gushy breathless arch sentimental earnest and deeply solipsistic, as someone put it.

I also like Mudrick, but I think Wolcott was right about one of his limitations (re his dumping on the Bard):

Surely Mudrick knows that Shakespeare's reputation will prosper long after his spitballs have caked on the chalkboard, so why is he making such a commotion? Again, I think Mudrick has become overly smitten with his image as literature's fearless enforcer; he's taking on Shakespeare as a show of nerve.

And I think Michael Wood’s comment is fair:

[Roger Sale says that] Mudrick is "learned, witty, grim, quick to scorn and delighted to praise." He has an extraordinary gift for quotation, and a large fund of good sense. But that is all he has, and I am less taken with Mudrick's tone than Sale is. I find it strident and jangling, full of the sound of a man laughing at his own jokes.

P.S.: It's a monocle, dear.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Oh fudge! It is a monocle! Thank you.

Thank you also for those the quotations about Marvin Mudrick. I shall elevate them to a post of their own and discuss them with some care. It may take me a day or two (dogs, commute, job search etc.) so I hope you'll watch this space.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger mmw said...

"A sort of whimsical gushy breathless arch sentimental earnest and deeply solipsistic vanity" is perfect. I would only try to squeeze "facile" in there somewhere. And "perversely self-contradictory."

When Varnedoe died, I tried to ignore the above and analyze Gopnik's intellectual incapacity.

At 3:45 AM, Anonymous suemick said...

I began to boycott Gopnik pieces after suffering through a preposterous description of his rationale for moving his family to Paris - apparently, he couldn't bear to be exposed to Barney on PBS.

At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Max Renn said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I loathe me some Gopnik. He moves his family to Paris and then slags on Europeans for being anti-American.

Aggh! He's a pampered pundit puppy of the first water, and is, more than Jonah Goldberg, the avatar of Felix Carbury (h/t FDL)

At 10:12 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Felix Carbury? From the Trollope book? Or is there another Felix Carbury I should know about?

At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with this post is that for people who don't particularly remember Gopnik's style, you offer no examples. Your post is all about YOUR reaction, not what Gopnik writes. Er...I don't care about your reaction UNLESS it's connected to what Gopnik writes.


At 5:33 AM, Blogger Kia said...

If you want to be informed about Gopnik or any writer, you have to go read him or her yourself. Anything I write here about books or writers takes that as given. You're right, this is an impression, like a lot of literary commentary everywhere: sometimes justified at more or less length, with more supporting quotation, with none. Different cultural experiences call forth different responses. You check such impressions against your own experience, and you ask yourself, "Does this feel like what I felt when I looked at/read/heard etc..."

Although you are not interested in my impressions, I'm actually interested in yours.

Not completely satisfied? Mail back unused portion for a complete refund!

At 5:56 PM, Blogger JJB said...

It's going against the grain of this strand, but I'm standing by Gopnik, at least until I read Children's Gate.

If Gopnik's most passionate detractors can't vituperate as delightfully as Wolcott, they should stick to nouns and verbs in their denunciations.

Is it only me who feels that this much-quoted phrase is a little too salt-laden?

"He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much."

At 9:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first round fired in the Gopnik wars probably came from Cristina Nehring, writing for Harper's Magazine in April 2001: First graph follows:

"Scoot over Hemingway; here comes Mr. Rogers. Or, rather, here comes Mr. Gopnik, New Yorker correspondent and author of the world's coziest recent book on France, Paris to the Moon. He's come to reclaim Paris for the new homebodies, and, God knows, they are grateful. Finally, they sigh in reviews from L.A. to Boston, someone "has loosened the death grip Hemingway had on the place" and "given us back a Paris we can enjoy, a Paris as it surely must be." What Gopnik has given us is a Paris as many of us clearly want it to be. In essays on everything from his son's swimming lessons at the Ritz to his own kitchen tours of Arpege, Gopnik has given us a new and unintimidating Paris--a place that neither challenges nor upsets us; a place we can move to with cable TV, super-babies, and prejudices intact and feel just fine. It is a Paris bled of both legend and difference--a castrated capital of befuddled salesmen and quaint customs, bourgeois dainties and wide-eyed restaurateurs waiting to learn from their avuncular American customers. You too can live here, Gopnik's essays cry: Forget all that Paris lore of love and genius, sex and starvation. Forget Hemingway selling his coat for a baguette, Henry Miller bargaining with a prostitute over a franc. Forget late-night literary debates and having to hold your drinks and wives. Paris is just a little dollhouse town these days, and you don't have to be a lover, a poet, or an alcoholic to live there. All you have to be is a snob in slippers--and with the exception of a few hurdles involving hot chocolate at the Ritz, you'll fit right in."

At 6:58 AM, Blogger sprinkel said...

I can't sleep. I went to bed perusing Mudrick on the web-don't even wonder why after all these years his voice is singing high ptched over my shoulder as I read what I type.

Thought to steal more Mudrick off the web. After the third google page it gets slim. Then the slight reference here, but as if from his head if not his voice, Oh yeah, Gopnik. So that was why he made me uncomfortable. The thing about Marvin was that you loved him so much despite every reason to dislike him.

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