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Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs Hardcover

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (October 15, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385527799
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385527798
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #515,803 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In essays previously published in the 1990s and 2000s, Vanity Fair culture critic Wolcott (Lucking Out) fires off acerbic surveys of cultural fads and preoccupations, taking a special interest in punk rock, film noir, comedy, and the literary canon of Great White Males. The aesthetic that binds the volume is what the author succinctly calls the writing I'm proudest of, happiest with, the pieces that carry a lift. Of the school of hard-throwing criticism, distinct from snack-dip entertainment reporting and the nut-gathering of squirrel-scholars, Wolcott wields the same powers he admires in his subjects: intelligence, wit, style, and a prodigious range of reading, with an eye for the succinct, telling detail. Wolcott, quoting novelist Kingsley Amis, says, Importance isn't important. Only good writing is. Wolcott's prose is agile, alert, kinetic; the sentences swing and hustle, cratered with barbed metaphor. Wolcott has few idols and no saints; he deplores shoddy technique, gooey sentiment, platitudes and punditry, and takes the occasional goofy jab at himself. 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 might be an uncoated pill, but it preserves an unforgettable specimen of that New York specialty—the well-informed wise guy. Agent: Elyse Cheney, Elyse Cheney Literary Associates. (Oct.)

From Booklist

Critic Wolcott follows his rapier memoir, Lucking Out (2011), with a mammoth retrospective essay and review collection. A writer of mettle and skill zestfully committed to critical journalism, Wolcott pairs probing opinion with vigorous yet concrete language and pushes so far beyond the bland that his reviews, even decades later, are fiery and daring. At times prescient, as in his 1975 recognition of Patti Smith’s mustang power, he is also neatly funny. Pauline Kael was his mentor, Dorothy Parker a precursor, Susan Sontag a goad, and Norman Mailer an inspiration. Wolcott’s enthusiasm for get-it-right attacks and appreciation burns as brightly whether he’s writing about television, comedy, music, movies, or books. Wolcott’s subjects range from the seventies sit-com, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, to such current hits as Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire, Johnny Carson to David Letterman, Brian De Palma to Woody Allen, Ayn Rand to John Updike. He constructs each analysis and argument with shrewd, securely grounded observations and briskly establishes richly dimensional biographical, social, and aesthetic contexts. Wolcott’s provoking and illuminating critiques both channel and fuel the cultural ferment. --Donna Seaman

More About the Author

Born and raised in Maryland, James Wolcott is a columnist for Vanity Fair and has written for The New Republic, The London Review of Books, Bookforum, and many other publications still treading water. He--I mean, I--also have a blog at the Vanity Fair website, where I keep tabs on politics, Project Runway, Mad Men, the dance scene, books, birding, and generally make a nuisance of myself, but in a fun, passionate, caring way. My wife Laura Jacobs is a novelist (her latest is The Bird Catcher), a dance critic, and Vanity Fair writer, and we live a wacky sitcom life in Manhattan with our two ocicats, Henry and Veronica, who deserve their own spinoff series. We also have a small bungalow on the Delaware Bay side of the Jersey Shore, where I sleep on the screened-in back porch and harbor any cricket who happens to pop in. My memoir about the Seventies in NYC, those years of punk and Pauline Kael, was published in 2011 by Doubleday. And in the autumn of 2013, Doubleday published my bulging nonfiction collection Critical Mass, which received (if I may be immodest) a rave in The New York Times.

I have published two bestselling Kindle Singles: The Gore Supremacy, about the life and strife of writer-provocateur Gore Vidal, and Wild in the Seats, a recreation of the tumultuous first performance of Stravinsky-Nijinsky-Diaghilev's The Rite of Spring on its 100th anniversary.

I can be followed on Twitter:

Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Readers of his articles have long praised or damned Wolcott's confident, acerbic tone, and his use of metaphor and the polished phrase to sum up or put down the figures and films he covered. Those familiar with his memoir will find certain episodes repeated from CBGBs or his movie reviews, and within this five-hundred page anthology of his past forty years, perhaps inevitably, stylistic tics ("Whatever." "nowhere fast") appear more than once. The payoff is finding Wolcott engaging, irritating, and insightful.

Waiting for this collection, I first reviewed Lucking Out, his memoir of dropping out from a rural Maryland state college in 1972 to come to New York City to make it as a writer. James Wolcott surveyed the magazines which employed him, the films he reviewed under the guidance of Pauline Kael, and the music he heard at CBGBs as Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, and the Talking Heads began their careers. Finally, Wolcott's recollections shifted into ballet and literary criticism as he looked back at the start of his long career at, in turn, The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.

Over six-dozen entries defy easy summation. Working through the galley proof (which limits my ability to evaluate Wolcott's style, as this hampers my scored rating), my attention did not flag, a testament to the author's commitment to record his reasons, his emotions, and his insights, honestly and determinedly.

Wolcott explains he selected pieces able to stand up long after the cultural moment had passed. He leaves out those needing footnotes by now, he keeps those relevant decades later, and he even lets go some that while they "still have a bop to them" might have further damaged their targets.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Russell H. Manning on November 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Absolutely delightful! A compendium of his columns, reviews and op-ed pieces tracing United States history and culture, the arts and politics in urbane and witty treatments. Also, as I have been been reading the Gore Vidal collection of his prose from 1952 to 1992 treating similar topics the Wolcott is the ideal companion to Vidal. While not as erudite as Vidal whose edge is truly rapier-like, I still find surprising reads of areas I would normally page through in some magazines. "Critical Mass" allows me to pick and choose, like a varietal menu and also lets me go back to put something in a different context than it was on its own. What a smorgasbord with a dessert tray heavy laden.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Mark Mosca on February 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Woollcott writes brilliantly, originally and I dare you to find a single cliche. The problem: a significant part of the collection is focused on "media studies"' and the media content under his glass is too often out dated - the late 70's and the 80's are given far too much space in this many- hundred page book. This means admittedly skilled and funny deconstructions of Dino and the Rat Pack, Dick Cavett, and what Marianne Moore said about Lillian Hellman on Carson one night. OK if that's your aging meat, but . . . The latter part of the book, on literary subjects of continuing relevance, are of much greater current interest. So, not a bad book at all to choose from, but it could have been edited down to more current and relevant topics.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Mitchell on December 28, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Some of the film and book reviews in particular were excellent -- open-minded,
original and insightful. Other pieces, especially regarding TV and rock music, seemed to express well-considered judgments, but did not open any windows or let in much light. From my perspective, better editing and whittling could have produced a smaller but higher-quality body of work.

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