In a 1983 interview, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl tried to articulate why critics do what they do:
I think at the root of the critical impulse is some kind of adolescent outrage at growing up and discovering that the world is not nearly what you hoped or thought it might be. Criticism is then a career of trying to move the world over and make it more habitable for your own sensibility.
Schjeldahl perfectly captures criticism’s petulant seriousness, its blending of the utopian and the intemperate. Why can’t things—this painting or that poem—be what they’re supposed to be, the critic demands? Why can’t the world give me more of what I like (Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping) and less of what I don’t (Richard Powers’s The Overstory)? Why, why, why, the critic asks, stamping her foot. Ask this question long enough, and with enough intelligence, and you might make the world more hospitable, or at least less antagonistic, to your own tastes and desires.
I happened upon Schjeldahl’s account of “the critical impulse” in Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me (Grove Press, 272 pp., $27), a new and fascinating memoir by his daughter, Ada Calhoun. Schjeldahl is a longtime and beloved art critic at the New Yorker, an occasional and very good poet, and, decades ago, the would-be authorized biographer of the New York School poet Frank O’Hara. (The project flamed out in the 1970s after O’Hara’s surviving sister fired Schjeldahl.) In Calhoun’s telling, Schjeldahl was also a “reckless, mercurial, occasionally mean father.” He drank too much, didn’t buy her Christmas presents, and “did not know [her] teachers, [her] friends, or [her] shoe size.” To be clear, he did love her and said as much. But, Calhoun writes, “he’s never seemed particularly interested in me.” Among many other things, Also a Poet is Calhoun’s attempt to get her father as interested in her as he is in a Velázquez. Hey critic, hey dad. Look over here!
The book opens dramatically. One day, digging through the basement of her parents’ East Village apartment building, Calhoun happens upon dozens of old cassettes. They’re the interviews that her father conducted in the early stages of his O’Hara project. Calhoun digitizes the tapes and begins listening. Eavesdropping on conversations with painters (O’Hara was a curator at the MoMA and a legendary art critic) and writers (he was roommates at Harvard with Edward Gorey), she lambastes her father’s approach. “He keeps wanting to show off,” she says, “when everyone knows the way you get good quotes is by playing dumb.” Calhoun claims that she “want[s] him to be better,” yet there’s an undercurrent of glee whenever she notices her father screwing up this plum writing job. The ambivalence, often acknowledged but not always, is captivating.
An essayist and critic in her own right who has written three books under her name and many more as a ghostwriter, Calhoun knows that her father is “considered the real writer” while she is “the hard worker.” He’s the flake, while she’s “compulsively reliable”; he has the talent and she has the discipline. (Of course, to write on deadline, as Schjeldahl has for years, suggests that he has some kind of discipline, even if it’s not of the parenting kind. And Calhoun sells herself short. She can be a gifted portraitist, as in this description of O’Hara: “With his crooked nose and wide smile, high forehead and light blue eyes, O’Hara looked soft and hard at the same time: part boxer, part librarian.”) Listening to the tapes, noting where she would have pressed the interview subject further and where she would have pulled back, Calhoun begins to dream. “Maybe my Frank O’Hara biography wouldn’t have been as poetic or elegant as his Frank O’Hara biography,” she thinks, “but by god it would have gotten done.”
Calhoun has made her career out of finishing things, on time and to spec. Why can’t she write this O’Hara book, too? After all, she has her own credentials: “In my twenty years as a journalist, I’ve successfully interviewed hundreds of people, including difficult celebrities in their four-star Los Angeles hotel suites, lawyers in sleepy Southern towns, and gang members at the sites of Brooklyn shootings.” These are bona fides of a sort, though it’s unclear how well suited they are to literary biography—a genre that calls for the elegance and style she says aren’t her strongest suits. As she admits, “I’m no poetry expert.” (She worries that O’Hara’s stock has fallen because his titles aren’t available in eBook form. A better barometer is how essential he remains to our strongest poets: Michael Robbins, Hannah Sullivan, Maureen McLane, among many others.) There’s an irony in Frank O’Hara, a poet of whim and gossip, the light and casual, getting a try-hard biographer.