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In Conversation with Joan Acocella

Updated: Dec 4, 2018

Interview / I talk to the New Yorker’s dance and book critic, Joan Acocella, about writing, editing, and the political constraints of criticism.

Photograph by Bob Sacha

“The virtue of a piece is the writer’s thoughts.”

—Joan Acocella

Every so often, we come across writers whose ideas we like so much that we want to read everything they put on the page, even when they write about subjects we don’t normally care about. We simply have to know what they are going to say next. The New Yorker’s dance critic, Joan Acocella, is one of those writers. In addition to dance, she also reviews literature, and has published books on topics ranging from multiple personality disorder to the novelist Willa Cather. But it wasn’t until 1998, when she joined the staff of The New Yorker, that she could earn a steady income from criticism. At that time, she was in her 50s.

Originally, Acocella had planned to be a professor of comparative literature. She had nearly completed her Ph.D. program—only the dissertation remained—when financial constraints forced her into hiatus from the academic world. “I was married and we had a child and an apartment that needed to be renovated—we’d bought an old raw loft—and we needed money,” she told me. Acocella had always been a skilled copy editor and started working for the Random House textbook department, where she moved up until she eventually co-authored an abnormal psychology textbook.

This was in the 1970s, the prime of George Balanchine’s career at the New York City Ballet, and the beginning of Acocella’s fascination with dance. She started going to the performances, loved it, and joined the New York City Ballet Guild, which allowed her free admission to shows in exchange for volunteering at the gift shop selling trinkets. A seat was not guaranteed, so she often stood, but she was able to go to a few shows a week, and the result was life changing—she fell in love with the ballet.

By then, she had been away from academia for six years and was hesitant to return. Instead, she hoped that the royalties from the psychology textbook she had worked on, which had sold quite well, might bring enough revenue to support her while she wrote dance criticism. “But,” she said, “my then-husband persuaded me—Thank heavens!—to go and write a dissertation that would have to do partly with ballet, so that I could use the knowledge that I had built up in the preceding few years.” So, Acocella returned to her Comparative Literature department and completed a dissertation on the reception of the Diaghilev Ballet Russes by artists and intellectuals in Paris and London before World War I. “It was really a story about how fin de siècle symbolism turned into modernism, and how that affected the reception, the attitudes toward the Ballet Russes in the two cities.”

She started writing dance reviews, mostly for Dance magazine, which was one of the few places willing to publish her at the time. Her assignments were not complicated, she made little money, and her audience was comprised mostly of teenage dance students. But then, rung-by-rung, she climbed her way up to The New Yorker. “By digging in my claws, I went from one place to a better place, a place that would pay me more.” She worked for the Village Voice, became a regular reviewer for the Daily News, and the New York correspondent for the Financial Times. She also frequently contributed to The New York Review of Books, and wrote profiles and essays for TheNew Yorker. In 1998, Arlene Croce, The New Yorker’s dance critic left, and Acocella got the job. Finally, she could support herself doing what she loved.

Construction: Your writing feels so effortless, but I have to imagine that it’s more difficult than you make it seem. What are some of the struggles you face during the process?

Joan Acocella: I guess the primary problem that I face is wondering whether my ideas are good enough. I don’t fear that I won’t be able to get ideas across; I know how to write a paragraph and a sentence, I know how to integrate quotations into what I’m saying, I know how to write an outline. These things, they’re not easy, but they’re second nature to me now, the way a carpenter would know how to drive a nail into a board. But I do worry that my ideas aren’t good enough, or that I’ve gone off on tangents, or that because I’m not excited about the subject I won’t have anything interesting to say. Like all journalists, I write about a certain number of things that I don’t care that much about, but that the magazine has decided the public wants to know about.

Maybe two-fifths of my subjects are chosen by The New Yorker. I could turn them down, and I certainly do, but I’m often writing about something that they suggest. They also take my suggestions about three-fifths of the time, but if you are assigned a book review, you’ll have the chance to thumb through the book, you’ll look at what it’s about, but you don’t read it before you accept it. In journalism, schedules are tight; it’s not leisurely, like the academic world. So you can find yourself having accepted a book, getting into the middle of it, and realizing, Oh my god! I have no interest in this! And then you’re in trouble, because you can’t convey interests that you don’t have. Also, if you’re me, you get tired after a while of writing negative reviews. I might add that The New Yorker, because its space has been reduced by the recession, is less interested in publishing negative reviews. Or that’s the way it looks to me. Their feeling, right now, seems to be that if something is bad, we don’t have the room to write about it.

Construction: How do political considerations affect or limit your writing? I’ve read that in the past it was difficult to criticize any dance performance that was about AIDS or, say, an ethnic dance performance . . .

Joan Acocella: This was in the ‘80s, and it was really a tough time for critics—in dance, and in many, many things—because it was the beginning of the culture wars. The ‘80s was really a terrible time, and much, much art—good art, too—was political. There was a very strong message being conveyed, about race . . . also very emphatically feminism, homophobia . . . and America’s actions in the rest of the world. But definitely I would say race and gender were the primary subjects. So the problem was that if the dance was for a good cause, then your editor was very often disturbed, and sometimes your readers as well, if you said a bad thing about it. I remember once, I was writing about . . . do you know what P.S.122 is?

Construction: No.

Joan Acocella: It’s an experimental dance organization in the East Village. They have a couple of theaters, they have an upstairs theater, and they have a kind of small downstairs theater. In a review for the Village Voice, I said the downstairs theater at P.S.122 is not so much a theater as it is a gay pride club. And my editor, who was an extremely permissive, relaxed guy, Burt Supree—and don’t forget that this was the Village Voice, where you could say a little bit more of what you thought than in other places—Burt asked me to take it out. He said it could be read on the floor of Congress, it could result in less funding for dance, it would give comfort to the enemy and so on. And I did take it out. But the thing is, the original wording told the truth. Not just about these artists’ subject matter, but with the word “club.” It wasn’t just that it was about the experience of being homosexual and crossing gender lines, but a lot of times—and this was true for much of the work of the period—the artist felt that good intentions were enough. A lot of the work I’m talking about was presented in the spirit of gaiety. It was very unfinished. Actually, that was part of its politics: that classical form, and a finished look—and virtuosity—were part of what was considered the enemy.

Construction: What got me thinking about all of this is your 1995 essay on Willa Cather that later grew into a book, and obviously that’s about the politicization of criticism.

Joan Acocella: That’s about exactly the same thing.

Construction: So in Willa Cather’s time, during the Depression, there was basically a battle between left and right that manifested itself a lot in the nature of the criticism of the time. In the case of Willa Cather, who was a more traditional, old fashioned writer, her actual work, the artistry of it, was ignored. She became the subject of a tug of war between left and right—the left hating her for ignoring the daily struggles of the working class, and the right championing her by default. Today we are also going through a financial crisis, and are in the midst of a very politicized time in the U.S., with Occupy Wall Street and, in general, extreme polarization in our politics. Is there any comparable effect on current criticism?

Joan Acocella: I’m not sure how we stack up compared with the ’30s, but the situation in reviewing today is not as bad as in the ’80s. That decade was really a nightmare for critics. I should say, though, that I am still under pressure as a writer not to say things that will anger any groups in the population who can be seen as disadvantaged, or historically disadvantaged. When I make criticisms of the Alvin Ailey company, my work is carefully monitored. And then there’s the matter of prior restraint. In other words, as you’re sitting down to write, you know what’s going to happen in editing, and so you pull your punches.

Construction: What about when you are critiquing books? Do you find the same to be the case?

Joan Acocella: You know, with books I have so much more choice. Books are so varied; there are so many different kinds of books. I have a tendency not to review books that I regard as illegitimately pushy about politics, and this includes my politics. So, yes, you’re right that political feelings are still very strong and adversarial in the United States. But think about it, we have an African-American president! [Laughs.] As recently as the 1980s, which is thirty years ago, that would have been inconceivable.

I’m nervous all the time, and sometimes I take yoga classes and sometimes I take pills.

When I was a kid, the first presidential election that I was very much aware of was the election of John Kennedy, where there was a huge fuss over the fact that he was Catholic. And when Nelson Rockefeller wanted to run for president, he didn’t get through the primaries because he had married a woman who was not only divorced but had ceded custody of her children to her husband. In the old days, the pre-feminist days—and of course this is still somewhat true today—a divorced woman who had let her husband have custody of the children, was considered to have committed a bad sin. That’s thirty years ago, when people felt that children belonged with their mothers, and that meant, of course, that mothers belonged with their children.

But all I’m trying to say to you is that things have really changed. The world has become—no, the United States has become—more liberal. Of course we have this huge right wing movement now and a lot of things within the society—for instance, evangelical Christianity, which I’m writing about now—that support conservative politics. Just to choose a small example that’s been in the news: the business of birth control. Birth control means a great deal to women; it means that they don’t have six kids, the way my great grandmother did. If you have only one kid, which is what I have, you have some freedom. But six kids, unless you’re rich, you’ll never get anything done outside of the house.

Construction: Evangelical Christianity, choreographers, Freud, Michael Jackson, Willa Cather . . . you have such a wide range! You mentioned during a panel at the CUNY Grad Center in February that you tend to get nervous when approaching people and when writing about subjects you aren’t familiar with. How do you overcome this?

Joan Acocella: Well, getting nervous—you just live with it. You know, I’m sure that people who fly airplanes, or who did it during the war . . . oh, I can’t compare what I do to what they do, never mind [laughs]. But I would say, policemen, or some of them, are probably nervous much of the time. No, I’m nervous all the time [laughs], and sometimes I take yoga classes and sometimes I take pills. But you talked about the business of range. I wanted it, it’s what I wanted. I wanted more excitement, and I wanted more fun. So, yes, it is true that I have reviewed books about the Black Plague and about Muslim Spain and a number of other things that, in truth, I didn’t know very much about until I read a lot of background material. Fortunately, The New Yorker will give you enough time to do some homework (which you wouldn’t get when writing for a newspaper). When writing a book review, I may spend a month or more studying up on the subject. With a profile, it’s roughly the same.  I don’t know that this is typical of New Yorker writers. It’s possible that I take more time; I’m a slow reader. When I am writing a dance review, I ordinarily turn in the review about three days after I see the last show that I discuss. Before then, I can do research for any amount of time I want, but I don’t do that much, because I know the field pretty well.

But I wanted to do a lot of different things. The dance world is in tough times right now, and I don’t want to do what the daily writers have to do, which is go to things that they don’t particularly care about and then go home and write about them. Sometimes I do, depending on the circumstances. An artist who is old, and very honored, I would have a tendency to review anyway, regardless of how I felt, and I would try to write a balanced review. Such considerations are always there. That’s why I became, to some extent, a generalist. And there are things that I thought would be fun to do. I wrote a long piece on hangover cures.

Construction: You’ve said that you like your subjects dead—that you prefer to write about people who are no longer with us. Can you elaborate on that?

Joan Acocella: It’s very hard for me to write bad reviews of people I know. I can see their faces in front of me. I can see their bewildered and unhappy faces, and that’s when I think to myself about how, basically, everyone is doing the best work that they can. I don’t want to think that way. I’m not on the side of the artist, I am on the side of the audience. Once you start thinking that you are there to promote people’s work and to plead with the audience to take an interest in this work, then you’re in trouble. This might happen if the artist does very experimental work, or very controversial, which was the case with Mark Morris when I began writing about him. I’ve also written a fair amount, and I intend to write more, about puppets, which is a matter that a lot of people don’t take seriously. In a situation like that, you do end up trying to win the audience, or at least their interest. But, you know, some critics’ careers have been based on that, making a plea for the artist. That’s not what I want to do. The artists don’t pay me [laughs], the magazine pays me, and readers pay the magazine, so I’m on the side of the readers. I’m trying to tell them, to some extent, what kind of experience I had in the audience with them.

Also, it has to do with the position of the artist, whether he or she has been around for a long time, whether the artist is very old, like Merce Cunningham, or Paul Taylor. Whether the artist has been embattled in any way, whether he or she is privileged in terms of the theaters that they can go into, that is to say, whether they are being presented by P.S.122 or Lincoln Center. The amount that the tickets cost. All of these things end up affecting your review. And, as I said, the worst thing is if you know the artist personally.

Construction: I read that you avoid going backstage, into greenrooms, parties.

Joan Acocella: I avoid them like the plague. But if you’ve written a book about the artist, or even a long profile—I’ve written long profiles of Baryshnikov and of Alexei Ratmansky, and I’ve written a book on Mark Morris—when you finish a project like that, you are either the person’s friend or his enemy.

And there are other circumstances too. For example, grant panels—if you are on a grant panel, you meet artists. And if the grant panel lasts for six days, which they sometimes did at NEA, you’ll get to know those people. And then it’s very hard for me to write about them.

Construction: Some years ago, during a National Arts Journalism Program panel chaired by Wendy Lesser, you mentioned that every magazine is so different in terms of style and readership, that you can’t submit to one magazine a piece you wrote for another—you have to try to change the style—and that there are some journals that you’re just not going to be able to write for no matter how much you want the money. I love what you said about it:“It’s like, a kiss for one man cannot be planted on a different cheek.” What are some magazines that cover your subject areas but you feel like you could never write for and why?

Joan Acocella: I would be hesitant to write for a journal that is politically conservative. Even though you might think that wouldn’t weigh on a dance review, it does. Also, I rarely written for women’s fashion magazines, because they are going to be more likely to be interested in what the artist wore when you interviewed him, and because the piece will usually have to be shorter, at least a dance piece. Also, the glossy women’s magazines,“the slicks,” will often pay you well but cut your work any way they want. Some people say that your text is captions for the art. That is a little bit unfair, but not completely unfair.

Let me see . . . I would tend not to write for journals that want too small a piece. It was very hard for me to write for the Daily News. I was happy to write for them because I had an idea at that time—and it’s still a little bit in my mind—that I wanted to write for a very general audience. The New Yorker doesn’t really have a general audience. The New Yorker’s readers have more money and more years of college than the country at large. Than New York, actually. So I wanted to see if I could write for an audience that would be more working class or plain middle class. All right, so if the word count were like 500, I would tend to choose something else.

That’s it . . . Oh! I’ll tell you who I wouldn’t write for! Academic journals. They edit you sparingly . . . well, they’re very respectful [laughs] . . . But also, an academic journal would have a tendency to find my work too colloquial and too simple. In my work, if I spoke of Gerard Mortier, who was the director of the Belgian Royal Opera House when Mark Morris was there, I would have to identify Mortier. I would have say what his position is, I would certainly say what his first name is, and I would try in a sentence or two, or maybe a half a sentence, to say what he’s known for, which is very experimental productions. But if I were writing for Performing Arts Journal or any specialized theater journal, I might even omit his first name. Well, no, I would identify him as “Gerard Mortier,” I would call him that on the first mention, but I can expect that their readers already know him.

Construction: And you like explaining these things?

Joan Acocella: I like reaching the general reader. I read academic books where they will quote French, sometimes they’ll even quote Latin, without translating. They are making an assumption that the reader knows Latin. Not a safe assumption anymore.

Construction: You mentioned that academic journals tend not to edit you. Does The New Yorker edit heavily?

Joan Acocella: Yes, very, very heavily.

Construction: In terms of structure or just line edits?

Joan Acocella: No, no—structure, no. Sometimes my editor will say if she thinks there is something wrong with the structure. She might say, I think this paragraph belongs at the end. But no, normally it’s line editing, where the editor will make suggestions about your wording if she thinks it’s awkward, if she thinks it’s pretentious, or if she thinks it’s inexact or unclear. So there’s that. I always turn in pieces that are too long, so my editor does spend a lot of her energy showing me where she thinks I should cut.

Construction: Do you like being edited?

Joan Acocella: Yes and no. Yes, because I think she helps me. But sometimes I don’t like it, because I want more freedom. I don’t want to be told that my writing is too colloquial, and The New Yorker has a tendency to be, or had—no, still has!—a tendency to be more dignified and more conservative in the use of language.

I think it’s just very recently that the word “fuck” wasn’t allowed in the magazine, other than in quotation marks. For instance, you might say, “He’s very free with his language, he will say ‘fuck.’” So that’s in quotation marks, you could do that. But when I was reviewing an adaptation of Chaucer, a modern English adaptation of Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd, I said that the translation was too colloquial—that it was unfaithful to Chaucer, it was too dirty. I said, “Everything is fuck this and fuck that,” without quotation marks. And there was a struggle over that.

Construction: Did they let you keep it in the end?

Joan Acocella: Yes, because one editor was on my side, and she was a powerful person.

Construction: Are there often fights about edits? Do some writers take it very personally?

Joan Acocella: My editor and I don’t fight much, but we disagree, and we may disagree strongly. I think with my work that we split the difference. It looks like she gets about 50 percent of what she wants in terms of corrections, and I object, I go my way, about 50 percent of the time.

I’m sure that there are some very antagonistic relationships between editors and writers. There have to be! Editors have tastes. And of course some writers—you know, all writers—this is their thing, they’ve been doing this for years, this is what they love, it’s how they show themselves to the world! It isn’t just a job. Between you and me, a lot of critics regard themselves as artists. So if somebody comes along and says, “The diction is too low, too colloquial,” then the writer may say, “Well that’s me, that’s who I am.” And depending on what the magazine is and who the editor is, that remark may be taken as a sign that you don’t respect the magazine’s style, its character. And there may be consequences.

Read the interview in Construction.


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