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The King James Version

Critic James Wolcott, the reigning monarch of the literary put-down, is about to publish his first novel, and legions of his victims are already sharpening their knives.

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James Wolcott knows about envy. He's spent the past seventeen years holding two of the most sought-after writing gigs in America: Vanity Fair, of course, but also a four-and-a-half-year stint at Tina Brown's New Yorker. His salary is one of the highest in the business (as high as $400,000, according to Inside.com.). And everyone pretty much agrees that he's got the most powerful pen in popular culture. He's a hanging judge who rides a wide circuit. One month he's demolishing Aaron Spelling's protégé Darren Star; another he's making the contrarian case for Doris Day and Rock Hudson. He's written about Janet Jackson and Truman Capote. The New York Times and the photographer Weegee. For breakfast he dissects self-help books, and for lunch he guts Frank Rich. A piece on Broadway shows with nudity? Done that too.

It doesn't help matters, at least in the enmity-and-envy department, that Wolcott uses his pulpit -- Vanity Fair as well as lengthy pieces in The New Republic and The London Review of Books -- to deliver mordant, personal attacks. His columns aren't just critical reviews or clever commentary, they're laced with humiliating zingers.

"Today it's so much about creating a persona to market your work," he says. "So I feel that I have to write about the persona people create."

Media heavies are favorite prey. He's called Steven Brill a "self-made superman" and the "Rudy Giuliani of the print trade"; Rush Limbaugh is "the cuddly master-blaster of conservative diatribe." Michael Kinsley is "a carbonated version of a policy wonk" who's so socially ill-at-ease that he "gives the impression he would shoot straight to the ceiling if anyone ever gave him a hug." Charlie Rose, as Wolcott sees him, gets tangled in a "verbal ball of yarn."

But for some reason, he's hardest on fellow writers. Gloria Steinem has "the nun-glow of a strict forehead"; Martin Amis was "the scowl of a new generation" who made writing look "insolently easy"; David Denby is "the boy who cried wolf. Easily excitable and always concerned." Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis write a "ticker tape of dropped names." On Richard Ford's taste for hunting: "Well, now we know who killed Bambi's mother. It was Richard Ford on one of his death strolls."

Then again, it's not like his victims are taking it lying down. Wolcott regularly endures the sort of ad hominem counterattacks you usually only hear in the WWF. McInerney has called him a "righteous Nerd-Avenger," who can be seen at "Manhattan publishing events, hunched in a corner looking pained and miserable with his self-imported Diet 7-Up." John Gregory Dunne put him in a novel as a character described as looking like Queen Victoria.

It gets worse. "People were furious about Richard Ford," Wolcott says, "and I heard that one of his friends was telling people: 'Wolcott needs to be taken on a walk in the woods.' And I thought, what does that mean? At the end of the walk I'm shot like someone in Miller's Crossing?

"Harold Brodkey wrote an absolutely vicious piece about me," Wolcott says of the late writer's retaliation. "And when I arrived at The New Yorker, he was telling people, 'I'm ready, I've got a baseball bat.' I didn't go up on that floor that day."

John Irving chose a different weapon. "He was mad at me," Wolcott recalls, "and he ran into Fran Lebowitz and said, 'I wish you would work Wolcott over.' And it was like, Wait a minute, you're the wrestler! Why do you need Fran Lebowitz to work me over?"

What seems to animate the insular literary world is Wolcott's invulnerability. Books are generally reviewed by other writers, not free-ranging critics immune to the pressures of logrolling and blurb-mongering -- a situation that might explain the tepid nature of most book reviews. Except, next month James Wolcott will publish his first novel, The Catsitters, and he's finally going to be an easy target.

But it's not the book anyone was expecting. Not an exploration of his beloved postwar English writers. ("There's a lot of Anthony Powell and Auberon Waugh in this book," Wolcott insists.) Not a novel of ideas. ("The very notion makes me want to lay down my sleepy head.")

"When I was thinking about doing this novel," Wolcott admits, "people told me, 'Don't do it! You've got to cover your ass.' But where's the fun in that?"

In the summer of 1998, David Hirshey, a former editor at Esquire, was trying to adjust to his new career in book publishing at HarperCollins. One item on his to-do list: Contact James Wolcott about doing a book of nonfiction -- maybe a collection of columns. What Hirshey didn't know was that Wolcott had been working on a novel for years, and that's what his agent, Elyse Cheney, submitted instead.

"I thought I was going to be reading an evisceration of the chattering classes," Hirshey says of the manuscript. "And it's as far away from that world as one could imagine." Wolcott, he was shocked to discover, had been laboring over a sweet little dating comedy, a male Bridget Jones's Diary.

Which is not to say that Hirshey didn't express some substantial six-figure enthusiasm to Cheney; she countered by saying she could get a million dollars somewhere else.

That afternoon, as Hirshey was recovering from lunchtime networking at Michael's, the phone rang. He was expecting another go-round with Cheney. But he heard, to his dismay, the drawl of Knopf's Gary Fisketjon, editor of Ford, McInerney, and Ellis.

"I hear that some shit-heel over there is offering a million dollars for Wolcott's book," Hirshey remembers Fisketjon saying with menace.

"I can vouchsafe that no shit-heel has offered a million dollars," Hirshey replied.

"You tell that shit-heel," Fisketjon continued, "that if he buys that book he won't have any friends left in the business."

Strong stuff. But by this time, Cheney had begun to make conciliatory gestures. So Hirshey put his social position at risk and jumped at the chance to make it a two-book deal -- for $500,000 he would get his collection of columns too.


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