An interview with the author, essayist and critic Daniel Mendelsohnby David Wolf / December 5, 2013 / Leave a comment
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.