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Adam Gopnik’s pursuit of the perfect sentence

The New Yorker journalist’s latest book, The Real Work, sheds light on a career spent obsessively attempting to master the craft of writing.

By Lola Seaton

What is Adam Gopnik a master of? Though trained as an art historian, since being hired as a staff writer for the New Yorker in the late 1980s, Gopnik has produced pieces on a prodigious array of topics, from baseball to Montaigne, French cuisine to gun violence. If he lacks a specialism, his speciality is, of course, writing itself – the “pure craft” of “making shapely sentences that still make sense”, as he puts it in The Real Work. In this new collection of pieces (the meatiest of which were previously published in the New Yorker), Gopnik, in pursuit of the “mystery of mastery”, tries his hand at drawing, magic, driving, baking, boxing, dancing and peeing (in public toilets specifically, a feat for a sufferer of paruresis, a phobia of urinating near other people).

A few of the chapters in the new book are closer to classic New Yorker profiles: the dedicated draughtsman Jacob Collins and the intense magician Jamy Ian Swiss are artists whose démodé devotion to their own “pure crafts” gives them a slightly cranky relation to the vanguards of their respective fields (Gopnik appears to sympathise and identify). But Gopnik’s métier is the personal, “comic-sentimental” essay, often featuring his family (his wife and two children are frequent, though, perhaps protectively, not always vivid, presences in his writing). In the book Gopnik prepares for his driving test alongside his college-age son, learns to dance with his daughter and bakes with his mother; his chronicles of his halting apprenticeships are also slantwise sketches of the vicissitudes of his closest relationships.

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The choicest of Gopnik’s wandering, amusing fables of family life make up his series of memoirs, beginning with perhaps his best-loved book, Paris to the Moon (2000), drawn from his spell writing the magazine’s “Paris journals” in the late Nineties. More recently, At the Strangers’ Gate (2017) collects sparkling tales of 1980s New York City, recording Gopnik’s rather charmed ascent – from first jobs at GQ and the publisher Knopf to a gorgeous if eventually rat-threatened SoHo loft, to significant relationships with illustrious mentors (the photographer Richard Avedon, the art critic Robert Hughes), all capped by residency at the magazine he’d dreamed of writing for since he was a child enthralled by the prose of the New Yorker humourist James Thurber.

Filling the interludes between these works of memoir, Gopnik has produced “Styrofoam packing chips”, as he once humorously described his copious “third-person” “critical pieces” in an interview. These can be “a form of personal expression” too, however. Indeed, you can assemble a kind of literary self-portrait of Gopnik from his obliquely confessional criticism. The picture that emerges is of a master, and self-conscious inheritor, of what he describes as the New Yorker “tone”: pared back, modern, cosmopolitan, casually authoritative and witty, perfecting various paradoxes: a “tone of baffled, vigilant curiosity”, at once self-deprecating and self-confident. As Gopnik has observed of the sentences of the critic Randall Jarrell: “they are funny, they are true, and they sound American. They don’t just make their points lightly. They make light of the enterprise of making points.”

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Gopnik is consumed by the business of shaping sentences, and in The Real Work his dabbling in new skills, and observing those who’ve mastered them, unsurprisingly offers a way of reflecting on his own vocation. In At the Strangers’ Gate, he recalls producing his own “first true sentence”: “I am a student at the Institute of Fine Arts, and I work part-time at the Frick Art Reference Library.” What made this sentence particularly “true”? It must in part have been the forthright use of the first person, its stout assertion of autobiography, undamming the reservoir of personal experience that would later flow through even his book reviews and profiles. But the sentence was also “true” because it was baldly true: “It couldn’t have been simpler, could not have been flatter or more naïvely declarative.” It dawned on Gopnik that “in the simple accumulation of obviousness lay a path toward writing more potent than all the puns and poems I had written”.

Most importantly, perhaps, the sentence was true to life, launching Gopnik’s quest for his own voice, which for him meant, as he muses to his driving instructor in The Real Work, “making sure that your sentences on the page sounded a little like your voice in life”. As he recalls in At the Stranger’s Gate, this entailed beating the “graduate student” out of himself – the stilted pugnacity of academic prose – and nurturing the habits of “inclusive” storytelling and the “simpler, almost-faux-naïf” tone he absorbed from the New Yorker. 

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As those intriguing contradictions suggest (urbane and innocent, baffled and vigilant), producing such airy, warm, clear prose is, he notes in At the Strangers’ Gate, a “fiendishly hard-acquired skill”, a struggle “not just to get the right words but to get the words I wrote in the one right order they desired”. As the absolutism of this definition indicates, making “true” sentences is not a matter of free-wheeling transcription but the preposterously exacting pursuit of the word-perfect.

Gopnik’s sentences “are designed to give the appearance of complete candour to what is in fact an act of elaborate guile”, much as “true” prose isn’t simply honest but true in that secondary sense of being meticulously apt and in tune. Gopnik regards writing as a kind of performance that relies not simply on techniques but charm and dissembling. Like Gopnik the aspiring writer, “magicians learn that the most obvious tricks impress people the most” he notes in his memoir. Among the refrains of the new book is that mastery of all kinds is conjured through the “slow carpentering of fragments”: “Separate, discrete actions learned by effort and then put together give not just the illusion of unity but the fact of mastery.”

Gopnik’s ideal of prose is not all affable plainness, however: it involves the “unexpected turns and curlicues for their own sake that make for beautiful sentences”, as he writes in At the Strangers’ Gate. We love artists, he argues in The Real Work, for “their unique way of entangling their learned virtuosity within their unique vulnerability”. In his memoir, Gopnik often appears somewhere between a virtuoso and a resourceful blagger, blessed with both learning and chutzpah. He is forever lighting on the mot juste – striking up a lasting friendship with Avedon by wowing the photographer with an intelligent observation, or drawing crowds with lunchtime lectures at MoMA full of “mixed metaphors, rhetorical turns, laboured analogies, the whole riff made remotely decent by the passion with which it was offered, which was real enough”.

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Just as Gopnik aspires to “true” sentences that resemble his real voice, so his personal essays must be “unprovoked”, otherwise, as he once said in an interview, the reader spots it “instantly as shtick”. The opening of his piece on driving is about as “true” – as ragingly self-evident – as they come: “I decided to learn to drive because I wanted to learn to drive.” The sentence perhaps expresses an impatience with psychologising, but it can also be heard as a defence against the idea that he was “flogging his experience” for comic material. I decided to learn to drive because I wanted to learn to drive – not so that I could write about learning to drive (let alone: I decided to write about learning to drive so I learned to drive). All the episodes in the book, Gopnik explains, “arose out of emotional moment more than the purposeful plan: I needed at last to learn to drive to relieve my wife, and I wanted to re-cement a relationship with my daughter by dancing.”

Why is this important to insist upon? Just as his riffing at MoMA was redeemed by the passion behind it, so these forays into other crafts must be authentically motivated, not indulged for the sake of copy. A disciple of the light-footed urbanity of the New Yorker tone, Gopnik’s showiness is not expressed in ornate syntax or flashy vocabulary but in prose that is ingeniously aphoristic – its “neat epigrams, placed on the page like shiny ribbons on a present”.

But “the magic that you have consciously mastered is the least interesting magic you have,” Gopnik observes (sounding not unlike the British essayist Adam Phillips, also a beguiling aphorist). Just as bona fide magic can atrophy into routine gimmickry, the occupational hazard of a gifted, charming writer who “has something clever to say about everything under the sun”, as Ross Douthat once wrote of Gopnik, is that the clever phrase can sound better than it means: shiny ribbons adorning a box filled with Styrofoam. In his cameo role in Todd Field’s film Tár, in which he plays himself hosting an event at the New Yorker festival (in a suave illustration of the magazine’s nimbly cultured tone), Gopnik asks the film’s protagonist Lydia Tár whether she feels any “slight self-consciousness about the incredibly varied things that you’ve accomplished”. Perhaps the real Gopnik is alert to the risk that one’s versatile wit can eclipse one’s real, more circumscribed interests.

Gopnik observed of John Updike, another star New Yorker writer who “took, and kept” the tone, that “One has a sense of someone who… has spent a good deal of his life liking things”. Among the uplifting pleasures of Gopnik’s writing is the range and ardour of his enthusiasms. If his only truly fanatical pursuit is making sentences, he seems to intuit that his best ones – his truest – are those that are unselfconsciously committed to their subject, and vitalised by the passionate curiosity that also reins them in.

The Real Work : On the Mystery of Mastery
Adam Gopnik
Riverrun, 256pp, £20

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid