John Simon, R.I.P.

John Simon was a critic I read voraciously for many years, mainly in my 20s when I reviewed movies and theater as a reporter for a small-town newspaper. Simon’s breadth of material was astonishing; his movie and theater criticism were expert, though as my friend Scott observed, he seemed to have no feel for American artforms like the cartoon or slapstick.

I found Simon’s opera and poetry criticism more interesting because those topics were more unfamiliar to me; I could feel his love for those artforms shine through. I think he loved them more than theater.

Simon was a relic of a different, lost world of print and publishing, the way George Jean Nathan represented the sort of Broadway reviewer represented by George Sanders in All About Eve. I subscribed to New York magazine solely for his theater reviews and Peter Davis’s music reviews. And yes, I subscribed because Simon’s takedowns and insults were so entertaining. But when Simon loved a work – and his collected reviews tended to finish with an unalloyed positive appraisal of a book, movie, or play – his writing would soar and it made me want to see or read the work that elicited such praise.

But as Michael Feingold writes in his excellent remembrance – and cautionary example – of Simon for American Theatre, his publishing platforms and public stature waned. Simon’s desire for public attention locked him into his “brand” of the “acerbic Serb.” It became a carapace he did not outgrow.

From Feingold’s essay:

That is a tragedy. It is not simply the story of a gifted writer with a notoriously poisoned pen; criticism has held many such stories in the past three centuries. But this is the story of a man who allowed himself to care less about what he loved than about the faults he could find with it, and so played into the hands of a society that preferred being amused by fault-finders to the civilized practice of caring for the world and for other humans. That is not a happy story, and it is one of which the world John Simon has now left behind gives increasing evidence every day. Rather than drape his memory in platitudes, let us construe his life as a warning of how unwise even the smartest man may be.