Dec. 13, 2022
Oscar Wilde would be a New Yorker critic or late-night TV host if he were alive today, says editor of new collection of Wilde’s writings
English professor Nicholas Frankel shares insights on Oscar Wilde’s lasting impact on pop culture review, critique and how we consume media today.
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Oscar Wilde, the 19th-century Irish author, is well known for his plays and fiction, including his controversial novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” But what about his nonfiction work as a pop culture critic?
Some of Wilde’s earliest writings were reviews, critiques and journalistic contributions to The Pall Mall Gazette and other newspapers or magazines of his day. His critical writings, said Nicholas Frankel, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of English in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences, are not widely known and in some cases familiar only to “die-hard Wilde devotees.” Frankel edited and annotated his latest book, “The Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Selection” (Harvard University Press), set to release this week, with this in mind.
“Wilde introduced a freedom and wit into critical discourse that had not been present since the days of 18th-century critics (Joseph) Addison and (Richard) Steele, and there was no topic that he was afraid to take on,” Frankel said. “Alongside thoughtful meditations on the nature of art or the artist’s place in society, his critical writings include hilarious reviews of books about cookery, marriage and the art of conversation, as well as entertaining essays on artists’ models, the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou, the ‘artistic’ forger-murderer Thomas Wainewright and the ‘invasion’ of London society by American women.”
Frankel has written and edited several books about Wilde’s life and works and recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the best books by great wits, Wilde included. Frankel spoke with VCU News about his new book, Wilde’s legacy as a cultural critic and what it means for how we consume media today.
What sparked your interest in exploring the particular writings you've annotated in this new collection?
“The Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Selection” follows on naturally from other annotated editions of Wilde’s writings that I’ve published recently with Harvard University Press. But I’ve always been interested in Wilde’s combination of sharp wit and wisdom, especially when it comes to the subjects he takes on in his criticism — first and foremost, the importance of art, beauty and creativity as ends in themselves, but also individual fulfillment, the performance of gender, style, fashion, sexuality, the contemplative life and the need for meaningful social transformation. Certainly, Wilde’s ideas about these things are implicit beneath the surface of his fiction and drama too, but they are nowhere more clearly reflected than in his critical writings.
However, this makes Wilde’s criticism sound much heavier than it is. For all the wisdom on display, there’s also great wit and style, and Wilde’s critical writings are tremendous fun to read. No less than his plays, they are full of sparkling epigrams and paradoxes — of the kinds of instantly memorable utterances for which Wilde is justly famous — and one always feels as if Wilde himself is in the room. He held that criticism is a creative form of writing no less than poetry, fiction, and playwriting; and the best of Wilde’s critical writings possess qualities reminiscent of the finest conversation.
What are some of the lasting impacts of Wilde's influence on pop culture and cultural critique today?
On the one hand, Wilde broadened the scope of criticism and made it more truly popular, in ways that we perhaps now take for granted in an era of podcasts, celebrity columnists, public broadcasting and 24-hour commentary. Modern critics such as Molly Ivins, Christopher Hitchens, Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell are his lineal descendants in this regard. If Wilde broadened criticism’s range and reach, however, he also introduced a style and lightness of touch that became the keynote too of later figures, such as Max Beerbohm, Dorothy Parker, H. L Mencken and S. J. Perelman among others — like Wilde, all known for their wit as much as their discernment. I like to think that, were Wilde alive today, he would be writing for The New Yorker or, like Trevor Noah, he’d be a fixture of late-night TV.
"Wilde broadened the scope of criticism and made it more truly popular, in ways that we perhaps now take for granted in an era of podcasts, celebrity columnists, public broadcasting and 24-hour commentary. Modern critics such as Molly Ivins, Christopher Hitchens, Adam Gopnick and Malcolm Gladwell are his lineal descendants in this regard. ... I like to think that, were Wilde alive today, he would be writing for The New Yorker or, like Trevor Noah, he’d be a fixture of late-night TV."Nicholas Frankel, Ph.D., professor of English at VCU and editor of “The Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Selection”
For longtime Wilde readers, what's new in this collection that they'll find interesting?
First, there are the writings themselves, some of which have barely seen the light of day since Wilde first published them. “The Philosophy of Dress,” for instance — one of several writings on fashion included in the selection — was only unearthed a few years ago, while I also include witty book reviews, short essays, letters to the press and aphorisms that only die-hard Wilde devotees will already be familiar with. And even many longtime fans may not know the entertaining dialogues “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist” that formed the backbone of Wilde’s 1891 book “Intentions,” the most enjoyable and sustained expression of his ideas about art, criticism and their relation to reality.
But I hope too that even the most dedicated devotees of Wilde will be intrigued by my curatorship of these writings, especially my annotations. As in my previous editions for Harvard, the annotations are designed to illuminate Wilde’s texts for both first-time and experienced readers. In a few instances, they are quite deeply researched. For instance, I carefully relate Wilde’s writings on dress to the broader late-Victorian movement for “dress reform” and to the slow emancipation of Victorian women (Wilde’s own wife was briefly an officer of the Rational Dress Society), while in other instances I relate his ideas to strands in socialist and anarchist thought, or to developments in the world of visual art. But I’ve also taken to heart Wilde’s strictures about writing as a form of conversation, so I hope even my most “scholarly” annotations strike the general reader as pleasurable to read. Moreover, Harvard has brought a lot to the table, especially from a design point of view, and they’ve allowed me to include many rare photographs and historical illustrations, also designed to illuminate Wilde’s texts.
How do you hope this book will make an impact on readers?
First, I hope to finally put an end to the persistent notion that Wilde is somehow not a thinker or intellectual in any true sense — that he was simply a shallow showman, not to be taken seriously. It’s an idea that persists in popular culture more than among those who have actually read or studied Wilde. But even those of my readers who think they know Wilde fairly well already through his fiction and plays will, I hope, be impressed by the range and depth of his thought.
Second and no less important, I hope that readers new to Wilde’s critical writings will be charmed by their wit and style, so much so that they end up cherishing them no less than his better-known masterpieces “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” For as Wilde himself writes, criticism can, in the best hands, become the most delightful and creative form of literature. And as the poet Alexander Pope remarked three centuries ago, although many authors are partial to their own wit, and critics to their own judgment too, nothing quite compares to the criticism or “censure” of those, like Wilde, “who themselves excel,/ And have written well.”
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