Daniel Mendelsohn is author of "Waiting for the Barbarians." (Matt Mendelsohn / HarperCollins )
Daniel Mendelsohn is the prizewinning writer and cultural critic whose latest book, "Waiting for the Barbarians," is newly published by the New York Review of Books. Mendelsohn comes to the ALOUD series series at the Los Angeles Central Library on Thursday, where he'll be in conversation with Jonathan Lethem. He answered our questions about his essay collection and the state of criticism today via email.
The criticism in your book covers both high culture (19th century German literature) and pop culture ("Mad Men"). Do you think the high/low division still exists in our culture?
Well the division is certainly there, I think; I just choose to ignore it, because I'm interested in many things -- literature of course, since that's my background, but also popular movies and theater and opera and especially TV. (To my mind, the best writing happening in this country right now is in television, not "high" literature: it is the dominant art form of the present moment, the most exciting and lively: it's where culture is happening.) Oddly enough, it's my training, a long time ago, as a Classics scholar that gave me this broad perspective. When you study the ancient Greeks and Romans, you don't just study the "high" stuff -- you study everything, high and low, the erudite poetry but also the bawdy popular theater, with its scatological humor and foul-mouthed diction; you look at graffiti and pornography and kitchen utensils and tchotchkes, and try to put a picture together of what the whole culture was like, based on your deep study of all this detritus. In a way, I guess you could say that that's what I'm trying to do in the criticism I write: I'm looking at everything, from "The Lovely Bones" to "Avatar" to a new novel based on the Iliad, and trying to figure out what it all means -- as if it were the year 4012 and I'm looking back 2,000 years at "American culture."
You wrote nice things about "Avatar" and found little to like about "Mad Men" – in both cases, relatively surprising opinions. To what extent is it the critic’s role to take on commonly held ideas?
Actually I don't at all think it's the critic's "role" to be contrarian: I think the critic's role is to deliver an honest, informed, stylish take on whatever his subject happens to be. I think it's very dangerous to base your reputation -- to get your critical traction -- merely from the fact that you're in the minority: it ultimately locks you in to a "take" on things, and that in itself will be limiting to you as a person whose job it is to respond to what's out there in the culture. I wrote a very stern review years ago of the novelist Dale Peck's collection of flamboyantly nasty reviews ("Hatchet Jobs"), and part of my concern about his book was precisely that, because he had set himself up as a critical hitman, the criticism became much of a muchness -- it had a certain sadistic entertainment value, but it couldn't, ultimately, be good criticism. You have to stay open to things. When I sat down to start watching "Mad Men," I was eager to like it -- I'd heard great things about it, of course, and I'm a TV junkie, so why not? But the love wasn't there, and that's what I had to report -- my job was to present my disenchantment and account for it (and to account for what I thought was its strong appeal to other people). It's not like I sit around looking at what other critics say and then decide to be ornery just for the heck of it. In the cases of "Avatar" (which I loved) and "Mad Men" (which I disliked intensely), I just happened to differ from the mainstream opinions. But there are plenty of cases in which my reviews (positive or negative) were in sync with the prevailing critical take on things. You have to be true to your responses, period. That's ultimately why people read you: because of the authenticity of your response.
On the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, you wrote about the lure of criticism for you, and its importance. How do you see blogs fitting into today’s critical discussion?