Daniel Mendelsohn is the prizewinning writer and cultural critic whose latest book, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” is newly published by the New York Review of Books. Mendelsohn comes to the ALOUD series series at the Los Angeles Central Library on Thursday, where he’ll be in conversation with Jonathan Lethem. He answered our questions about his essay collection and the state of criticism today via email.
The criticism in your book covers both high culture (19th century German literature) and pop culture (“Mad Men”). Do you think the high/low division still exists in our culture?
Well the division is certainly there, I think; I just choose to ignore it, because I’m interested in many things -- literature of course, since that’s my background, but also popular movies and theater and opera and especially TV. (To my mind, the best writing happening in this country right now is in television, not “high” literature: it is the dominant art form of the present moment, the most exciting and lively: it’s where culture is happening.) Oddly enough, it’s my training, a long time ago, as a Classics scholar that gave me this broad perspective. When you study the ancient Greeks and Romans, you don’t just study the “high” stuff -- you study everything, high and low, the erudite poetry but also the bawdy popular theater, with its scatological humor and foul-mouthed diction; you look at graffiti and pornography and kitchen utensils and tchotchkes, and try to put a picture together of what the whole culture was like, based on your deep study of all this detritus. In a way, I guess you could say that that’s what I’m trying to do in the criticism I write: I’m looking at everything, from “The Lovely Bones” to “Avatar” to a new novel based on the Iliad, and trying to figure out what it all means -- as if it were the year 4012 and I’m looking back 2,000 years at “American culture.”
You wrote nice things about “Avatar” and found little to like about “Mad Men” – in both cases, relatively surprising opinions. To what extent is it the critic’s role to take on commonly held ideas?
Actually I don’t at all think it’s the critic’s “role” to be contrarian: I think the critic’s role is to deliver an honest, informed, stylish take on whatever his subject happens to be. I think it’s very dangerous to base your reputation -- to get your critical traction -- merely from the fact that you’re in the minority: it ultimately locks you in to a “take” on things, and that in itself will be limiting to you as a person whose job it is to respond to what’s out there in the culture. I wrote a very stern review years ago of the novelist Dale Peck’s collection of flamboyantly nasty reviews (“Hatchet Jobs”), and part of my concern about his book was precisely that, because he had set himself up as a critical hitman, the criticism became much of a muchness -- it had a certain sadistic entertainment value, but it couldn’t, ultimately, be good criticism. You have to stay open to things. When I sat down to start watching “Mad Men,” I was eager to like it -- I’d heard great things about it, of course, and I’m a TV junkie, so why not? But the love wasn’t there, and that’s what I had to report -- my job was to present my disenchantment and account for it (and to account for what I thought was its strong appeal to other people). It’s not like I sit around looking at what other critics say and then decide to be ornery just for the heck of it. In the cases of “Avatar” (which I loved) and “Mad Men” (which I disliked intensely), I just happened to differ from the mainstream opinions. But there are plenty of cases in which my reviews (positive or negative) were in sync with the prevailing critical take on things. You have to be true to your responses, period. That’s ultimately why people read you: because of the authenticity of your response.
On the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, you wrote about the lure of criticism for you, and its importance. How do you see blogs fitting into today’s critical discussion?
It’s the most interesting question in criticism right now, really. I’m 52, and hence belong to the last generation of working writers who grew up in a world in which the only critics were professional critics: people whose expertise or style (or both) attracted the attention of publications that paid these people to opine. Those opinions, as a result, had a certain weight: not only because of the intelligence or acuity or élan of the writer, but also because a distinguished institution (The New Yorker, The New York Times, whatever) was putting its own weight behind that person--its own reputation, naturally, but also its editors, its fact-checkers, the whole apparatus that underpins whatever gets published in a publication like that. When I write for the New Yorker, for instance, it’s not just “what Daniel Mendelsohn thinks of the new David Malouf novel”: it’s what I think of the new Malouf novel as filtered through many levels--subjected to the intelligent intervention of a number of editors, to the verification of fact-checkers, and so on. And I must say that the fact that one gets paid for this work is a factor that bears on its gravitas: this is a profession.
Blogs, by contrast, represent something new in the world of literary activity, something quite different, which has, with the explosion of Internet culture, greatly stimulated how we talk about books (or whatever). The blogger is an interesting hybrid, to my mind: a private person, privately producing opinions for public consumption (a small corner of the vast new culture of private expression for public consumption: Facebook, Twitter, etc.). A given blogger can be as intelligent, acute, and shrewd as a given professional critic, but because the nature of publication is entirely different, the review you read in a lit blog (say) has a different character from the review that the editors of the New Yorker have commissioned. Note that I say, merely, “different "-- not “inferior”: as we all know, there are lit bloggers out there every bit as good as traditional critics. But because the conditions of writing and publication are radically different, you experience the opinion of a blogger differently from how you experience the opinion of a professional critic. The blogger is a private individual, self-publishing his or her opinions. It’s just different, and how the rise of blog criticism affects the status of people like me remains to be seen: I like to think that the two activities, professional criticism and blogging, are complementary, not mutually exclusive. I’ve often been asked by readers why I don’t do a blog myself, and my response is always the same: I have been writing for a living since 1994, and I don’t do a blog because I can’t afford to write for free.
You’ve written about memoir as a form, as well as winning prizes for your memoir, “The Lost.” Have you read any recent memoirs that stand out to you as particularly good – or bad?
I’m actually not terribly interested in reading memoirs right now.... Unless, of course, they’re really hilarious phony memoirs, which I adore. I particularly enjoyed the one by the Belgian woman who claimed to have survived the Holocaust by living with a family of friendly wolves, and who turned out not even to be Jewish. Naturally, the French made a movie of it.
You’re coming to Los Angeles after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation of New York City, where you live. Are you able to use your critical lens to look at what it’s like to leave the city at this moment? Is that something you can imagine writing about?
No. I am a professional critic, and I use my critical lens only to look at works of the imagination offered to a public audience: books, television, cinema, theater, music. The devastation of New York City, which as a resident of downtown I experienced firsthand (in a very trivial way compared to many) cannot be the object of my professional gaze because it is real life, not art. (When I write about ‘real life,’ I write in my memoirist mode, and it’s a totally different activity.) The people whom we need to be reading about Hurricane Sandy are journalists. When someone writes a book or play about Sandy, that’s when my “lens” becomes useful.
And finally, is there anything (other than appearing at the ALOUD series) that you’re looking forward to in Los Angeles?
I’m actually one of those New Yorkers who really loves L.A., so I’m always happy to be here. Unfortunately I’m on a deadline this week to produce an essay about the works of Gregor von Rezzori -- the author, most famously, of “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite” -- and so apart from my onstage conversation with Jonathan, I’ll be spending most of my time here in my hotel room, reading and writing. Business before pleasure!