Critical thinking #4: Daniel Mendelsohn

An interview with the author, essayist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn
December 5, 2013
This is part of an ongoing series of interviews about the art of criticism. More to follow soon.

Daniel Mendelsohn has been hailed by the New York Times as “our most irresistible literary critic.” His essays, reviews and articles appear in many publications, most frequently in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, where he is a columnist. His books include two memoirs, The Elusive Embrace (1999) and The Lost: A Search For Six of Six Million (2006), which will be reissued in the UK in January; a two-volume translation of the works of CP Cavafy; and two collections of essays. He lives in New York City.

I spoke to Mendelsohn about deadlines, the difficulties of writing about TV, and why literature undergraduates should study Pauline Kael rather than Derrida.

Judging from previous interviews, you are a great perfectionist as a writer. What role does time play in your criticism? When do you feel you’re ready to write a piece?

I am a great believer in deadlines. I come from a scholarly background, having done a graduate degree in Classics before I ever dreamed of being a writer; and in that world, the rule is that you can’t write anything until you’ve read everything. So for a person like me, with that training but making a living as a writer for the past 20-something years, it’s useful to impose limits, as I could spend years researching a piece. Obviously you want some things to be timely—there are certain things that are momentous in the culture that you want to be discussed at the right time. For instance, I published a big piece about Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones in the New York Review of Books when it came out in 2009, and I remember trying to get it moved to a slightly later issue, mostly because I was so caught up in figuring it out, doing more research on the mid 20th-century French thinkers who inspired Littell, and Bob Silvers was emphatic that he wanted it to coincide with the publication, so I spent a rather madcap weekend working it up…which, in the end, was the right thing, as Bob knew well. Sometimes it’s good to have a push to get it done.

But in general, it suits me to do things in my own time. The New York Review of Books is not very interested in hanging a hot issue on a peg right away. Also, I often like to incorporate the reaction to something—whether a book or a movie or a TV show—into my analysis of it. This, to a large extent, betrays my training as a classicist: I’m always writing as if everything has been over for 2000 years. I like that angle because you get to see the whole of a phenomenon, and part of that is how other people have reacted to it.

How does your work come together? In many cases, such as your essays about the Titanic and Julie Taymor's ill-fated Spiderman show on Broadway, it feels like the ending might have been the seed for the entire piece.

That’s true in the case of the Titanic essay, which ends with an account of a novel that was written about a great ocean liner loaded with glittering passengers that collides with an iceberg; the kicker was that the novel was published years before the Titanic ever sailed, a fact that supported my notion that the Titanic is essentially “mythic,” that it existed in the cultural imagination independently of the event itself. So I knew I was working toward that. But that is fairly unusual for me. What I usually do is spend weeks, sometimes months, immersing myself in the subject, looking at everything else the writer or filmmaker or playwright has done. I don’t do an outline. I usually wait until pretty close to the deadline, and then I just write through the whole first draft at once, usually in a day, sometimes in a day and a half.

For me, the crucial thing is the beginning not the ending: the piece cannot be written unless I have my lede. And often I’ll be agonising because I have an idea of what I want to say about the work in general—I know what I’ve been thinking, I’ve been pondering for a long time, I have the “middle”—but unless I can think of the first sentence—which often comes on the train or eating a piece of pizza or something—then the whole thing won’t flow. I’ve never been a person who can write different parts of the piece before I start. I’m working through my thoughts as I’m writing the piece, which I suppose is why they have the shape that they do.

You have a strong belief that the job of the critic is to read everything on the subject that they are engaging with. At the same time, you are one of the most prominent defenders of the value of criticism. But it seems to me that the kind of criticism you’re defending only exists in a very limited number of publications. When you advocate on behalf of criticism, do you also have in mind newspaper critics, who of course write shorter pieces with shorter deadlines and who simply aren’t able to immerse themselves in a subject in the way you describe?

Well, obviously there are various kinds of criticism and various realities. I was a weekly critic at New York magazine for a couple of years, so I know what it’s like to have to turn out a review of something in a week flat. But I still think it’s imperative, even if you’re a weekly critic, to do more than read the book in question. It’s still inconceivable to me for anybody, including a newspaper critic with a weekly beat, not to read the other works by an author. It’s just irresponsible not to do that because you’re failing to do your job, which is to make things interesting and coherent for your reader. If you haven’t read the author’s other books, you don’t know if the book that you’re reviewing represents an evolution, an improvement or whatever.

Then again, the form dictates the content, to some extent: I doubt anyone would be able to turn out a 5000-word piece, such as the ones I’m able to work up for the New York Review of Books, once a week; a weekly magazine gives you maybe 1500 words if you have a column, sometimes less. Although the New York stint was a great opportunity and gave me a terrific platform, and so on, it wasn’t a congenial length for my writing. I’ve been writing for a living for over two decades and nobody has greater respect for people who can turn in good snappy copy, at length and on time, than I do. Only real writers understand that writing is a job. So I’m not saying “Oh, those newspaper people, they’re not getting it right.” I’m just saying that for me the long form, and the preparation necessary to it are what makes sense.

Last year you published your essay collection Waiting for the Barbarians and you once again had the experience of being reviewed yourself. You said something interesting on this subject in a recent interview—namely, that you would prefer to read an intelligent but more critical engagement with your books than a stupid positive review. Can you explain that a little more?

I really should give proper attribution. It was my great friend, the editor and writer Bob Gottlieb, who said it. Right before my first book, The Elusive Embrace, came out in 1999, he took me to lunch and gave me a lecture about what it was like to be reviewed. He told me that the only thing worse than a stupid bad review is a stupid good review, and I have quoted him ever since—because it’s true.

I think that any serious author wants one thing: to be comprehended, to be read intelligently and generously. Whether the reaction that stems from an intelligent and generous reading is praise or blame, one wants to feel that the critic has wrestled meaningfully with one’s work. What could be the value of praise that’s based on an unintelligent reading?

Let me cite an example. There was a review of Waiting for the Barbarians in Bookforum that Bob Gottlieb brought to my attention, because he felt it had intelligent things to say. I read it, and although I felt it was a little bit competitive, a little grudging, it had an interesting point to make about my stance as a critic, which I think is probably right: to wit, that I’m more fully engaged as a critic by “problem texts”—texts with some good qualities and some bad qualities—than I am by things that I purely love. Now this review was not one that I’d brandish on the cover of the paperback, but I was so taken with its intelligence, and so grateful for the insight that it expressed, that I wrote the author an email to say how stimulating it was for me to read. Again: this was a mixed review, and it seemed to me that the writer—who had reviewed an earlier collection of mine, which made me wonder why he felt he had to review me again—had a slight agenda, a tiny critical chip on his shoulder. But the review was nonetheless illuminating, and for that I was grateful. In the end that’s what you want: for someone to think about you carefully.

Have you received emails like that from people you have reviewed in the past?

Yes, I have. I wrote a piece for the New Yorker a couple of years ago about a new translation of the Iliad by Stephen Mitchell. There were things about it that I admired and things I had reservations about. He wrote to me and we got into a very interesting dialogue which resulted in him altering something in his Odyssey translation. I was impressed by the degree to which he took one of my criticisms to heart. When you’re a writer and being reviewed, it’s easy to get defensive when people criticise you. I’m always impressed when people are generous enough to see beyond the ego considerations to what ought to be the important thing, which is the work. If something hurts a bit but can make the work better, then how could you not pay attention? That is the sign of a serious artist, to my mind.

I’ve occasionally made friends by reviewing authors. Jonathan Littell, for instance, contacted me about my review of his novel The Kindly Ones, even though it was far from a rave; Antonio Munoz Molina got in touch after I reviewed his novel Sepharad. What a terrific way to know an author, I think

The fact that you’ve built relationships with people who you’ve reviewed reminds me of a line from your review of Dale Peck's essay collection Hatchet Jobs. You noted that Aristotle’s critical judgements were “too polite to be much fun to read.” How much should you have in mind the writer as a person when you’re reviewing them? There’s surely the risk of becoming too Aristotelian, in the sense that one might be inclined to be too deferential.

Well, you understand that writers or artists or directors or actors are people, that they’re alive and they have feelings—although I like to joke that when I review things I act as if the author has been dead for 200 years, but the fact of course is that they’re not like Euripides, they’re not dead. That said, when I review a person’s work, that person is reviewed as an author, not as “a person.” When I’m reviewing a book by an author, I’m not thinking of that person as a father, husband, son or whatever… unless of course it bears interestingly on the work. The work is what matters.

But isn’t that too neat a separation of the writer as a person from the writer as a writer?

Obviously it’s messy, but there are certain things you don’t say such as “The author’s fat and ugly, so it’s no wonder his character’s thin and beautiful.” I think it's worth noting this, because with the advent of internet criticism and unedited personal responses in the comments sections and in blogs, it’s worth reminding people that the personal is off-limits, that the only thing you can come at legitimately is what’s on the page. And I will repeat that if the review of one’s work is intelligent and legitimate, one doesn’t feel hurt personally. I can be grumpy professionally—I don’t like it when someone says that I got something wrong, that this or that in my book didn’t work, or whatever—but I’m not personally hurt.

I also wanted to ask you about another way reviews can fall into dishonesty. That is, the way in which the force or logic of an argument can pull you into misrepresenting the book—leaving out those inconvenient exceptions to your argument.

This is precisely what editors are for: they rein you in, they keep you honest and don’t let your arguments run away with you. Bob Silvers at the New York Review is always saying, “But isn’t it also the case that the author did this or that, too—are you sure you’ve got it right?”, or “Don’t you think you should tone it down?” The best advice anybody ever gave me was when I was working on my dissertation. I had what I thought was a grand theory of the two Euripidean tragedies I was writing about, and when I first started writing the temptation to ignore everything that didn’t fit into my theory was terrific. My dissertation advisor pulled me into her office one day and said, “Your problem is that you think that what looks like inconsistencies, what doesn’t fit, are “problems.” What they really ought to be are the keys to developing a larger and more interesting thesis.” The point was that, instead of sweeping the anomalies under the rug you have to expand and adapt your argument so that it can accommodate everything in the text. I’ll never forget that moment—it literally changed that way I think about and interpret texts.

On that theme, re-reading your Mad Men piece, it was less harsh than I had remembered. It’s been branded as an uncompromising takedown, but there are many concessions to the elements that make the show appealing.

Right. The whole point of the end of the piece is to suggest that the show gets something really right about our relationship to the period represented in the show—and by “our,” I mean people of my generation, people who were kids in the Sixties. Despite my great aesthetic reservations, there was something overall that was highly seductive, and I think I made that clear in the piece, which goes out of its way to point to certain very effective moments in the show. The only thing that was written about the Mad Men piece—and the response was huge and, for the most part, angry and dismayed, to put it mildly—the only thing that really irritated me was Emily Nussbaum’s review in the New Yorker of a subsequent season of the show in which she characterised my piece as something like “that oh-I-am-smarter-than-everyone-who-likes-Mad Men-piece by Daniel Mendelsohn.” I didn’t do that at all. I bent over backwards to show that I was really implicated in this phenomenon. It’s that kind of snarky shorthanding of other people’s work that irritates me, because you spend a lot of time writing reviews and making them dense and complicated, and then someone reduces three or four months of work to one phrase. I must say I was surprised that it got past the fact-checkers.

How consciously do you approach your writing on film and TV in a different way to your writing on books?

Not consciously at all. As I mentioned, my scholarly subject was Greek tragedy, where one is thinking very deeply about the text—the script, as it were; mostly, at this point, because we don’t have the music, the acting, the singing, the dancing. So that deep orientation to the written text is, for better or worse, what has coloured my approach overall. In my thinking about theatrical literature—which to my mind included film and television—I think very structurally and formally. But as I go on I try always to push myself to look at non-textual, non-plot, non-dialogue-related elements: direction, shots, things like that. There’s always room to grow.

There’s been a lot written about TV over the last decade but it’s hard to capture what it’s really like to watch a TV show—the visual aspect, the sense of living with the show and so on. In a book review, you can quote the writer, but of course that’s not possible with film or TV criticism. Might that difficulty be one of the reasons why the writing about TV has, at least until recently, lagged behind the quality of the TV shows themselves?

I do think there’s a lot to be said for trying to encapsulate the experience of what it’s actually like to watch TV—the difference between regular serialisation, for instance, and binge watching. After the Mad Men piece came out, someone wrote to me to say that I had just got overloaded because I had watched four seasons all at once. At first I thought there might be something to that, although I actually watched the show over a number of months. But ultimately I don’t really buy that argument. I watched the first season of 24 in about 28 hours, in a state of complete ecstasy. I don’t think the way in which one watches should impinge too heavily. Anyway, the critic should factor these aspects of the response into the finished piece: You’re supposed to take a deep breath and think about everything after you’ve absorbed it before you start writing.

But, to answer your question, I think criticism is catching up to TV because I think it’s only very recently that there’s been TV with a “literary” enough distinction to really want to focus on it in this way—in this depth, with this much aesthetic sympathy and intellectual generosity. The most brilliant thing I’ve heard on this subject is Lorrie Moore’s recent lecture on this subject. She has a lot to say about the texture of television: the serial aspect, the lapses of time between episodes, the fact that the makers of TV series can actually take their time to do things, that the shows themselves happen over long periods of time, that the actors become a real force in the writing and the “feel” of the work; and that all of this helps us think about (and rethink) what we know about narrative in general. It was one of the best things about the quality of narrative in what I keep calling “the new golden age of television.”

I want to end by asking you about your experience of teaching. Do you think it might be worth teaching undergraduates not only how to write academic essays but also how to write criticism of the kind one finds in magazines and popular journals?

First of all, I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word “theory” until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorise about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.

Later on, when they’ve had experience in close reading, when they have a number of works under their belt, they can be introduced to theory—to the wide array of approaches to texts that they already will have “owned,” in some small way. That is exciting. But to flatter the vanity of 19-year-olds by letting them think they know about “theory” before they have read anything in real depth strikes me as preposterous. That very approach bred a generation of academics whose approach to literature is contemptuous.

So would you like to see popular critical essays on the curriculum?

Yes. One of the courses I like to teach is a Great Books course that’s mandatory for first year students, and after I read their first papers it’s always very clear to me that they have no model, no template for what a critical essay is supposed to do—what (or how) you’re supposed to be arguing when you’re writing about a text or a movie or anything. They don’t understand there is a rhetoric of criticism—that there’s a stance you have to have, that you have to position yourself, that you don’t just blather about your impressions or your “opinions” or, worse, your “feelings” about a work. They literally have no idea, at first, what the point of being critical is—no doubt because, in part, they are being raised in a culture where a bland, everything-goes, multi-culti niceness is the paramount virtue. You have to know who you are—as a person, but also as a member of a given civilization—in order to speak about a work.

I always tease them at the beginning of the semester about their writing—I say, “Whenever you write me at 11 o’clock on a Thursday night begging me for an extension on the paper, the prose is always so beautiful and the email is so wonderfully structured.” It’s a joke, but it’s also not a joke—in that situation they understand the rhetoric of the form to which they’re committing themselves: They understand who they are as a writer and a beseecher, they understand who I am as the person in charge, they understand what evidence to adduce in their favour—their dog died, their computer broke or whatever. Which is why the email begging for the paper extension is always a well-written piece. But whenever they have to write three paragraphs about women in Genesis or whatever—when they have to make an argument—it’s basically “word salad,” because they’ve never read anything that presents a text, wrestles with it and comes up with some conclusions. For that reason, I think it’s better that they should be reading Pauline Kael reviews in the New Yorker than Derrida.

If you were to recommend a particular book or writer to someone getting interested in criticism, what would you choose?

I’m torn. On the one hand, I want to say that one of the best collections of essays on what was then contemporary literature, which turned out to be right about virtually everything, is Axel’s Castle by Edmund Wilson. But I would tell my own students, if they asked, to read Pauline Kael about the movies, Arlene Croce about dance and Gore Vidal about anything. Those are people I read growing up. Or Helen Vendler on poetry. I didn’t know anything about poetry when I was 15 but I read her in the New Yorker all the time. That’s how you get a sense of what an essay should accomplish. That’s the tradition to which I like to think I belong. I never think of myself as anything but a popular critic, in the broad sense. I’m writing for anybody who can pick up a piece of paper and read. On the other hand, what’s admirable about all those critics is that they knew their stuff. What enabled them to be as free and informal as they are is precisely that they know everything about what they’re talking about. That’s what gives you the liberty to have fun.

More interviews with critics:

Critical Thinking #1: Adam Kirsch

Critical Thinking #2: Ruth Franklin

Critical Thinking #3: Dwight Garner