April 07, 2007


steve mitchelmore

You're right Mark, I wasn't "poking" at you so much as what I see as the inexplicable regard for James' writings in general. I can understand the polite welcome he has received if one hasn't heard of him before or read just an occasional essay.

The quotation from Indiana's review is a possible explanation for such a welcome. It's not necessarily a criticism of James' work, though in effect it is. But in my defence, I'd say on my blog I challenge the most common assumptions about literature even when "displaying" my own prejudices. But I'd say it was unpacking my prejudices rather than displaying them. Curiously, I'm not feted by liberal magazines and reviews with money offers to write 5,000 word essays!

The reason why I dislike James' writings has nothing to do with attacks on Sartre or Celine. I have no particular interest in these writers (except to complain that Sartre obscures greater French writers and thinkers). It is because he writes far too much and says too little. Have you seen those interminable essays in the TLS on drivel like "The West Wing"? And then there's his bizarre attack on Isaiah Berlin, his argument with Gore Vidal over the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Vidal challenged assumptions and CJ stoutly defended them), and his recent appearances on the BBC sneering at those opposed to the liberal-humanist terror campaign (he seems to very much in the same camp of his buddies Amis and Hitchens).

But are you aware of his celebrity status over here? In the last 30 years or so he's been a regular on British TV, presenting talk shows, travelogues etc. I'm sure they must have appeared over there alongside David Attenborough nature docs. He even chaired an occasionally excellent arts discussion programme that was soon taken off air for being too clever by half. So I don't know where that stuff about us having no use for him comes from. He's what might be called a public intellectual (if such a thing were legal over here).

J.P. Smith

"Public intellectual" is a good way of putting it. James (who was once a near neighbor of mine when I lived for a time in the UK) has a foot in both the popular culture and high culture camps. He's as comfortable writing about Leopardi as he is (famously) for writing about Judith Krantz. His TV review for the Observer were brilliant and paved the way for other "intellectual" reviewers as Julian Barnes. I fondly remember his late-night show on LWT called "Saturday Night People". Very funny stuff.

Would he be differently regarded if he just stuck to literature? I'm not so sure he'd succeed as well there as he does as more of a renaissance man--even "dilletante" might serve him better--with far-ranging interests and a few that actually go fairly deep. I do applaud him, though, for at least learning foreign languages so as to read in the original, and never begrudge him his enthusiasm over more popular genres in whatever medium.

It was Proust who once said that there was more truth in a song sung in a smoky low café than in an aria at the Opéra on a Saturday evening.



Thanks as always for the thoughtful comments - sorry, "no use" was a poor choice of words; I meant that he probably suffers from overexposure (and perhaps, as you suggest, closer examination) on your side than on ours.

I wonder, then, if it's not (to some extent) inevitable that the more one says, the more there will be to take issue with. I suspect that sounds rather simplistic and obvious on its face, but I merely mean that when someone's output - and interest - are as voluminous as James' appear to be, if there isn't simply going to be more opportunity to misstep. Because, yes, you're right - I read the West Wing piece, thought it beneath him. And perhaps there's a trace of gun-for-hire hackery that might creep into such efforts over time.

But the notion that James' appeal is "inexplicable" is the one that brings me up short. Frustrating to some, perhaps; irritating to others, sure. But no one - not even you, I think - would argue that he's got smarts and style (though you may not care for the ends to which he deploys them), and such writers will always find a welcoming readership. (For example, I quite enjoyed his demolition of Leni Riefenstahl in the recent NYTBR - a typically Jamesian bit of hatchet work).

Does James belong on a shelf beside the Deep Thinkers of His Age? Probably not - though I'd be hard pressed to stock that shelf just now. But - and this is a purely subjective, unscientific response - I always greet his byline with a certain kind of pleasure, looking forward to certain kind of pungent, arch (and sometimes jaundiced) view of the subject at hand. Will he be one of my intellectual guiding lights? Depends on the case, I think. But will he always entertain me - absolutely. And in the current grim climate of intellectual affairs, that's not something to utterly devalue. Warts and all.


Little enough personally to have formed an opinion on James, though I do remember a relatively recent British tv talk-show appearance, followed by David Bowie, and in their little moments of mental jousting Bowie very mcuh wiped the floor with Clive. I think he's a relatively bright light intellectually in an age of mediocrity. I don't think he is more of this mediocrity than above it.


Emm........I do think he is more of this mediocrity than above it.

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