Daniel Mendelsohn’s faculty apartment on the campus of Bard College, where he teaches literature, is filled with books. He’s a prolific essayist and critic; Mendelsohn’s reviews of literature, film and television appear most frequently in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. He’s the author of two collections of criticism (How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken and Waiting for the Barbarians), as well as two memoirs.
Over a cup of tea infused with lemon balm from his garden, Mendelsohn (Col ’82) reflected on the role of a critic, and how his time as a UVA undergraduate in the late 1970s broadened his outlook.
Do you think the critic’s role in our society has changed in the course of your career?
When I began there was no such thing as the internet. When I was young if you wanted to contact a writer, it was a laborious thing—it’s not like you could look up their email and fire off at them. ... The question constantly comes up: “Who are you to be able to write about this?” So you have to justify yourself more, which I’m perfectly happy to do. I do think there’s such a thing as expertise.
Do you have any personal rules for reviewing?
The great rule is, you can’t write about anyone you know, or you have some kind of pre-existing animus against or bias for.
The other rule is, I’m reluctant to review a first novel that I don’t like. Twenty years ago, I might have written about it, because I thought it was a great example of something that I didn’t like. But now, I think someone coming out in print for the first time should have the benefit of the doubt.
Whom do you find yourself in conversation with as a critic these days?
When I write, I write for myself. I write because I want to figure out something, my own reactions to things.
But all of these [new] outlets are also vehicles for finding new voices that we wouldn’t have known. For example, the New Yorker’s “Page Turner” is a great place for younger talent establishing themselves. I read James Wood, and I read Laura Miller, one of my best friends. I’m always interested in what they say. Often, they have quite different reactions to things. The difference now is the conversation is always happening somehow, somewhere, in different forms.
You’ve said that a critic is someone whose knowledge intersects persuasively with their taste. Is taste something that’s innate?
Everyone’s taste is different. In the case of a critic, that becomes a salient consideration, because your own taste has to intersect not only with your knowledge but with other people’s tastes often enough that you’re reliable.
I think the most authentic kind of critical argument or exchange is exactly like when you walk out of a movie with some smart friend of yours who has a different head than you have, and you’re talking about the movie. That’s what it should be like.
Last December, your review of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a book that was widely praised, set off a small storm. “Yanagihara’s novel has duped many into confusing anguish and ecstasy, pleasure and pain,” you wrote. Yanagihara’s editor at Doubleday took issue with that word, “duped,” and wrote a response to your review; you then wrote a reply. Were you surprised he wanted to weigh in?
In the case of Jerry Howard’s response, it’s very unusual for a publisher to complain about a bad review on grounds other than factual grounds, as you know. Just to say, “We’re not happy that you didn’t like the book”—that’s kind of remarkable.
But I didn’t mind responding. It’s a bad idea to complain about a negative review in the New York Review of Books because, unlike some other places, they always allow the writer to respond. I only get to state my case again and again and again. I once went three rounds with Tom Stoppard about a play of his, and at the end I felt almost bad for him because every time he kvetched I was able to just say again what I didn’t like about it.
But I’m all for that kind of exchange because, unlike so many kinds of exchanges in our current culture, they’re still governed by rules. So if somebody wants to complain, fine. I’m happy to go back and forth with them.
How did your time at UVA shape you as a critic?
UVA had a huge influence on me; I go back quite often. The professors who were my young professors at the time are now retiring. I was a Jewish boy from Long Island when I went down there. My vision of the world was very narrow—culturally and sociologically. I didn’t really know anything, except from books. It was a different culture—I think more then than now, because it’s so cosmopolitan now, and the student body is so heterogeneous. But it was really much more local and Southern in the late ’70s. There was a formality of that education, and a kind of dignity that one felt that one was supposed to rise to. It made me feel more grown up.
What are you reading or watching just for fun these days?
I tried watching Breaking Bad three years ago. It’s something I heard so many people I respect say they were wild about. And I watched a few episodes and I wasn’t taken by it. And then a month ago, somebody else I know was saying, “This is one of the very greatest things ever on television.” This is a useful lesson for critics: I thought, I just have to go back and see this thing, because maybe I missed something. So I pushed through, and I was totally hooked, and now I’m on season four, and I’ve been enjoying it enormously.
Do you believe in “guilty pleasures” of cultural consumption?
I really do believe that the high-low distinction is more invidious than not. The aesthetic components of “guilt”-inducing pleasures are usually melodrama and sentimentality. I have a great aversion to the aversion to sentimentality. To me, what made Mad Men unbearable was its own incredible overweening need to be cool. And because it was so cool and so cynical about everything, I just didn’t care about it, whereas in the first five minutes of watching Friday Night Lights, I thought I was going to die if I didn’t know those people were going to be okay.
Why not love something like Love Actually? What’s so terrible about just caving into your crazy human heart every now and then? You don’t always have to be armored.