James Wolcott dropped out of college and left Maryland in 1972 with eyes full of literary dreams and a letter of recommendation from Norman Mailer in his pocket. He wanted to be a writer, so he did the only logical thing that all young, aspiring artists do. He moved to New York City.
He quickly realized that things might be a little more challenging than expected. After interviewing for a nonexistent position at The Village Voice, even with Mailer’s stamp of approval, he failed to impress editors. But he didn’t get discouraged. Rather than run back home, Wolcott physically just hung out around the Voice offices while looking for work, dropping in “randomly” to see if he could pick up an assignment. Eventually, he snagged one and talked his way onto the payroll by working in circulation. Soon, he’d be churning out pieces about late ’70s culture in New York, writing about rock music, books, theater, and more, befriending Pauline Kael, Patti Smith, and many other members of the scene. His memoir, Lucking Out (Anchor), which gets its paperback release today, tells the story of that time in New York and how it shaped him. Wolcott spoke with the Voice over the phone while spending time by the Jersey Shore due to some apartment renovation. He chatted about being broke in New York, the current restructuring of The Village Voice, and how technology has shaped counterculture journalism.
Your book came out right around the same time as other books about ’70s in New York, like Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Will Hermes’s Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. Was that just a coincidence?
I think part of it is that there’s a sense that the city has really changed in ways that it’s not going back to—in that it was hospitable to all kinds of ground-up movements and general funky experimentation that it just isn’t anymore, because real estate is just too expensive. It just is gone. The sense of when people come to New York now, it’s very much a Bloomberg city.
What do you mean by “Bloomberg city”?
Well, it’s just so expensive, and the neighborhoods are kind of blending into each other. In the ’70s and ’80s, neighborhoods had very distinct identities. Soho was a very distinct thing, and now Soho has the same kind of high-end stores that other neighborhoods have. Tribeca is not that much different. There are pockets, but, you now the fact is—it’s a cliche that everybody brings up, but it’s true—every block has a Duane Reade and its two banks. I moved to Washington Heights a little while ago, and it’s very, very local, but the big thing they’re building right now is one of those TD Banks. It’s this huge space in the middle of these little funky bodegas and restaurants. Now it’s spreading north. Another thing it reflects is that everyone now feels like Brooklyn is the place where things are happening.
I live in Brooklyn, and there still is that feeling of “moving to New York to make it” among young people.
I was in Williamsburg [recently], and you could see it was a lot of hole-in-the-wall places, strange little antique places next to makeshift art galleries and little restaurants, and it reminded me a lot more of the East Village when I came to New York—although the East Village minus the menace and the heavy drugs.
What characteristics has the city lost with the “menace” you mention disappearing?
I think the ability to live cheaply and kind of figure things out as you went along. It was much easier to live without any kind of major income back then. In New York now, unless you have family money, if you don’t have a good job or you’re not making much money, you’re not going to last very long. It’s not like when people used to be able to crash at one person’s place and then another and move around. There was a lot more cross-breeding of artistic forms and artistic sensibilities. In the East Village and the Village itself, there was a lot of crossover between the art people, the rock people. Patti Smith is a good example of that. Somebody who was working in a lot of different genres. Now it feels like when people come in, they’ve got their discipline, they’ve got their path, and that’s what they’re going to stick to.
What did being broke and young in New York in the late ’70s teach you about yourself? What are you concerned is lost with the new generation?
There is so much more consciousness about money. It’s much more on people’s minds. People needed money to get by, but they didn’t think about money all the time, like it was a subject or an atmospheric thing. I don’t recall obsessing about money. Except for people needing to maybe borrow cab fare or something, I don’t recall anybody ever really having intense money conversations.
It’s funny, I feel like most of the conversations with my friends revolve around being broke.
People didn’t have a lot of money, but because the rents were cheaper, the overhead of living in the city was less… you know, you just didn’t have that anxiety all the time. Like, suppose I don’t make this month’s rent? I’m amazed that people can get by now. I don’t know how they do it. And I guess a lot, just, don’t.
What were some of the expectations you had about New York before you arrived, and how did that mesh with reality?
I never really had a romanticized view of it, because at that point New York was in such terrible condition. A lot of my sense of New York came out of Johnny Carson monologues. It was always about muggers, about Central Park. I remember a piece in The Village Voice when I was early on there about spending the night in Central Park. And I think it was a cover story. That’s how dangerous it was. When I came to the city, you were told, “Do not go to most of Riverside Park at night. Do not cross this part of Union Square Park.” So I didn’t have a terribly romanticized idea of the city at all, but what I did romanticize was I thought that, based on movies I saw, the literary world was going to be this glittering, witty, sharp place. Instead, you realize, no, it was just jockeying for power and possession. It wasn’t people holding drinks in their hands saying witty things. Sometimes when you met people you looked up to, it was [disappointing.] Like, this is it? All they are doing is complaining about the food.
There are phrases tucked throughout the book that seem to be social commentaries on, not only the direction of young writers, but the direction of young culture in New York. “Nothing makes writers happy very long,” or “That’s why we’re all so lonely,” in a reference to editing on computers all the time.
There really is no mentoring. I don’t even know if I’d call what I got mentoring, but I certainly got really, really good editing. There were certainly people who were mentored. There is a whole group of writers who, in a sense, were mentored by Bob Christgau. Mind you, that’s a positive and a negative aspect. I’m sure they were slapped down like bear cubs every once and awhile. But there was that sense. There’s a much greater sense now that you’re totally on your own. You’re totally a freelancer.
What impact does that have?
It means you don’t really have a grasp as to where the next thing is coming from. If you’re starting out as a freelancer, you can hope that you do enough freelance work and, back then at least, some magazine would pick you up. There was almost a ladder, a progression, where if you got a lot of attention in the Voice, this other magazine might pick up on you. That’s what happened with me. I wrote for the Voice, but then Esquire hired me, and Harpers. Now, no one is hiring basically. No matter how well you do, it’s very iffy whether or not you’ll get any type of regular gig. I think it makes people feel like they’re constantly starting over and at square one. Also, the other thing is that when I started out, we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook or any social media. There was no way you could dissolve yourself into that. Every writer has their procrastination habits, but now these make it even more insidious because you’re procrastinating, but you can also tell yourself that you’re writing. It makes people feel, kind of, “Where does it go?” I think what happens now is people are hoping that they do freelance, get enough attention, and then maybe they get a book contract. But of course, those aren’t the money they used to be. I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve always been based in some magazine. But a lot of people I know who used to be based in a magazine, they got let go and now they’re freelancing in their forties, fifties, and sixties, and they’re not going to pick up that much work.
How have you seen social media affect readers of counterculture journalism?
I think it’s pretty much killed investigative reporting, because now no one has the resources to do it, so you get a lot more opinion stuff. On the most basic level, I find that because I read so quickly online, I have to be really careful because, now, I tend to drop words out of sentences. It’s like my brain is doing shorthand and jumping ahead. If you do a lot of texting and emailing, it’s very easy to start writing in code. That can be a real problem.
What kind of code?
You’re assuming that everybody knows certain shorthand phrases. Twitter is full of loaded phrases and catchphrases, and so it’s very easy to fall into that, and not write more formal writing. It’s also a real temptation to have a very splintered approach. You’re attacking something from this angle, but you’re not building a whole, like a writer like John McPhee or others who really assemble a piece. You don’t really see the structure, but it’s there. Writing on the Internet can really dissolve structure and turn everything into assertion. Plus, a lot of people get sucked into battles on Facebook and Twitter that are going to do them no good. It’s not like you’re arguing something out in The New York Times, where a lot of people are going to see it. It basically becomes a series of running feuds. I’ve seen so many people get sidetracked, and you can tell they’re spending their whole afternoon in a state of indignation on Twitter, firing back at people. It’s not going to do you any good, and on the most basic level, you have to say, “Am I going to make any money? If I need to write for money, how is arguing with a guy with a semi-obscene nickname on Twitter with 48 followers going to help me? What is the point?”
In the old days of the Voice, there were battles and they were sorted out in the pages of the paper, which was more entertaining, the letters section. Now, especially with the way that Twitter is structured, if you haven’t been following the whole thread, you don’t even know quite what the argument is about because you have to go all the way back to the origin, and even then you might not understand. I think there has been a great splintering of attention, and splintering of time, and I’m guilty of it too.
How did starting your career at The Village Voice shape the way you think?
It taught me what works with readers and what doesn’t. There was a lot of great immediate feedback from Voice readers. You could tell right away whether or not you were connecting. I mention in the book how it taught me how you gotta really start a piece off with a bang. Not a gimmicky opening, but you’ve got to make the reader care at the very outset for what you’re doing. And another thing, because there were such different types [of people] at the Voice, you just saw that there were so many different ways of working and sensibilities. Everyone had talent, and the talents were so varied that one writer may not be able to do what you did, but you couldn’t do what they did.
And then just the incubator atmosphere of the Voice. It really prepared me for the blog world in a way that a lot of people weren’t prepared. Voice people got in each other’s faces a lot. There was a lot of arguments. Yelling fits. There were feuds that went on and people didn’t talk to each other. It kept things bustling. I took that like that’s the way it worked everywhere, but then when I eventually went to other magazines, I was like, “Wow, everyone is being so cordial and polite.” It wasn’t that people were rude at the Voice, they were just much more direct and much more likely to say what’s off the top of their head. When I went to magazines, everyone was a lot more cautious about what they said. It prepared me for the blog world because a lot of it made me feel like, “Oh, I’ve been through this before.” I knew writers who hadn’t been through the Voice experience, and when they went online and went through a [onslaught] of hostility.
The Voice also prepared me for just taking things as they come. One of the great things about the Voice was that they didn’t box you in and say, “You’re this type of writer,” or, “You’re this type of critic.” I was able to write about theater, books, TV, and rock music. Now it’s like, if you’re a rock critic, or a theater critic, that’s what you do.
Why is that specific focus harmful?
Because the arts really do bleed into each other. One of the things that really hurt certain rock writers is that rock is all they knew. They didn’t know theater. They didn’t know what else fed into it. There are a lot of movie critics, and movies is all they know, and spend their free time watching more movies. Pauline Kael could compare images to certain paintings, or talk about the soundtrack. But critics now, every movie relates to another movie, and that’s the extent of the context.
You used the phrase “Voice Person.” There has been a lot of public discussion over the past few months as to what that term means.
To me, it was having a very individual, literal voice. The writers didn’t all sound like each other. There wasn’t an institutional voice. People used to talk about how, even if a writer had a very distinct voice, once they got through the New Yorker editing process, it had been so muted and shaped and molded. Voice writers were much more independent minded, feisty, not as careerist. I don’t know as many Voice writers now, just the few who have held on, but there is still great reporting pieces in the Voice. It’s not the Voice‘s fault that the advertising model just completely changed. It hurt everybody.
What are your thoughts on the corporate restructuring of The Village Voice?
I don’t really know about it. I’ve been doing this whole thing with the renovation and moving out. I’ve been getting a sense of it on Twitter. My knowledge of it comes with whatever somebody was let go, there was always great mourning, like when Hoberman was let go. But then I look at it, and it’s like, well, Hoberman is all over the place now. He’s writing everywhere. He’s not marooned. I’ve noticed a lot of hostility on Twitter, people who say things like, “How could these other film critics write for the Voice given what’s happened?” And it’s like, well, they have to write somewhere! I never try to deny anybody an outlet or opportunity to write. All I know is that [Tricia Romano] started a Twitter thing about it, but I couldn’t keep up with it. And also, I don’t want to hear people bemoaning and beating the people who are there and are still trying to make it work.
If it were up to you, how would you direct the Voice?
Well, it’s going to take a real visionary, which I’m not, unfortunately. But somebody who can really just figure it out and say, okay, we still want the paper to be a free weekly because that’s the easiest way to distribute it. Now, what advertising market isn’t being reached, and what can we do to make people absolutely have to have it? I don’t know who could figure it out. There might be ways to do it. But it’s very, very tough. I don’t know. But the very fact that you do have the distribution system means that you’re going to reach some type of audience. That’s already in place. I don’t know how you outwit the fact that there are fewer and fewer newsstands. I think people still want to hold something in their hands. It’s kind of a drag reading things online. I mean, I do it, but it’s not pleasurable.
You’ve been a TV columnist for years, and the medium has seemingly entered a golden age the past 10 years or so. What do you think it is about the current culture that’s allowed TV to become such a force?
There are clearly some really smart people working in TV. I think probably smarter people than who are working in movies. The paid cable allowed people to do all sorts of things they couldn’t do before. Even if they had originally pitched it, you couldn’t have done The Sopranos on a network. You couldn’t have done the level of violence. So the pay cable opened it up. There’s a lot of really good, almost auteurism in television now. In movies, it’s very much like the big directors are protecting their reputations. It costs so much to get it all together that everything has to be the perfect big package. I just marvel at the way a show can begin and then three years later, it’s in a totally different place than you’d expect. There’s just a lot of talent there.
When I sit in a movie now, it’s very rare that I’m surprised by what happens. Usually it’s like, well, okay, there’s a closeup. They’re starting to feel remorseful. They talk about beats, like there are two beats in this scene or this scene. But it’s to the point now where we all kind of know the beats that are going to be in a movie, whereas with television, all of the sudden, you go, whoa, I did not see that happening. I did not expect to see a kid get shot on a motorcycle. There’s much more an element of surprise.
The shows that lose me are the ones that have incredibly complicated storylines, but then you realize that the show doesn’t really know how to resolve them either. Like, I was never really into Lost. Everyone doing their interpretative dancing as to what it meant. And a lot of these shows I can’t get into because I just can’t follow the intricacies. When I read the synopsis of a True Blood episode, I’m like, c’mon.