As much as we like to talk about how little book awards matter, sometimes an entirely deserving writer wins one and we just have to take a moment to appreciate the appreciation. Such is the case with James Wolcott taking home the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the art of the essay with his collection, Critical Mass. Honoring that book is a celebration of Wolcott, who for years has been one of America’s finest cultural critics, and no matter how little you care about literary awards, that’s a very fine thing indeed.
You could easily walk to your local bookstore and grab a copy of Critical Mass and Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out (and probably should if you don’t own it already), but to supplement those, here’s a brief primer on some of Wolcott’s work that you can find online. Sadly, the Village Voice, where Wolcott made his name in the 1970s, doesn’t have much in the way of an online archive, so there’s a lot of great stuff you can’t find on the Internet — hence the need to get Critical Mass. But if you look hard enough (and have a few subscriptions), there’s plenty of Wolcott’s work to be found.
After boycotting the 1980 Olympics, 1984 was a big one for the United States, especially considering they took place in Los Angeles. This piece is interesting because it shows Wolcott’s versatility as a journalist, and also highlights American gymnastics a year before Mary Lou Retton would capture the first gold in all-around competition by an athlete from outside of Eastern Europe. (Subscription required)
Nostalgia, Wolcott writes in this very recent Vanity Fair piece, is “mostly a white people’s pastime.” And although it seems that every generation needs another generation to emulate, Wolcott gets right to the things that make the possible “Last Great Decade” such a strange choice: “The ’90s were the decade when the last tatters of privacy were torn aside, a national forest of woodies seemed to sprout overnight thanks to the rollout of a little blue pill called Viagra, reality TV unthroned soap opera as the medium’s queen of discord, and political theater lit up like a porno set.”
Remember the dark days before this golden age of television that we’ve been enjoying since around the time when Tony Soprano decided it was time to kill Big Pussy? Wolcott wrote this piece in those pre-blog days when daytime talk shows hosted by Jerry Springer and Maury Povich actually had us declaring the death of television, and deciding that American pop culture was headed down a road to nowhere.
Literary criticism is a tough beast to conquer, yet Wolcott has shown time and time again that the key to good cultural criticism is to be able to pick apart the book you’re reviewing and see what makes it work.
You can read Wolcott’s own story in Lucking Out, but you can also go over to the Vanity Fair website right now and read this personal piece that will make you miss the old New York, old media, and maybe even Norman Mailer.