Why Famous Writers Should Never Self-Google

 or: adventures in the compulsively mediated, PC prison of totalitarian decorum

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/jan/26/sebald-hughes-and-smith-three-modern-greats?showallcomments=true&commentpage=2&commentposted=1

 

Unlike Zadie Smith¹, I really was just “passing through the book pages” (of the Guardian’s blog section) yesterday. What I found was a blog article, by Robert McCrum, titled Sebald, Hughes and Smith: three modern greats.  I sneered, of course, but it was a sneer devoid of passion. Not that the picture posted under the blog heading, of Zadie Smith, looking measurably less ugly than J.L. Borges, wasn’t nice. It was nice. Not (for me) write-a-hyperbolic-headline-about-her nice, but nice enough.

I scanned the comment thread and came to something by the writer Oscar MacSweeny. His comment (now deleted) was something to the effect that McCrum’s calling Zadie Smith a “modern great” was beyond the pale unless McCrum was “screwing her”, in which case the hyperbole would be understandable. To which I chipped in with the fatal qualifier (now semi-deleted), “…or would like to,” along with a sarcastic bit about some other commenter’s notion that Sebald is “boring” and Hughes is unread “outside the English language” (and therefore of no consequence), though Zadie is tops.

One incisive participant, a thing called “Greenball”, who then got the coveted pat-on-the-head from a tetchy Guardian Unlimited functionary who wields her modicum of power firmly, wrote:

“And shame on Steven Augustine for writing such offensive things. And shame on Oscar. You small pathetic men. I think it’s outrageous that the Guardian allow this kind of personal abuse in the name of journalism.”

Is a personal opinion “journalism”? Are comment threads comprised of “journalism” or personal opinion? Are all personal opinions, by decree, to be for the  “good” things and against the “bad” things consensus decides?

Was Oscar’s comment, accusing McCrum of positive sexism (or Luvism), a form of negative sexism? Only if said comment could only have been used “against” a particular gender. Was my addition, a comment on the possible spot where Robert McCrum’s possible libido intersects with his possible literary judgment, negative sexism? Again: only if I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have quipped exactly the same way about some blogger’s hyperbolic estimation of the value of Jonathan Franzen’s oeuvre.

I mention Franzen because of the controversy I remember about the glamour photo his publisher used for the jacket of early printings of The Corrections. The photo was a sexed-up (photoshopped?) confection that made Franzen look not just better than he had ever appeared to in real life (presumably), but better than most actors depicting crusading hot lawyers on primetime American television. The complaint (but why complain?) being that the book’s rapturous reception was, in large part, extra-literary. Imputations of wave upon wave of fainting Franzenmaniacs at book-signings and so forth.

Clearly, a subtle sub-theme of this longish comment of mine is the Faustian pact that younger, cuter writers enter into with the Beelzebuboid PR wings of their publishers, though the logical conclusions of that implied essay (about petards and elevation) are too obvious to belabor here. So, back to my plea to famous writers (who, surely, are compensated in advance for the pain) to either, A) resist the self-Google demon or B) respond not snippily to what they subsequently find…

Mr. Franzen has taken quite  a “beating”, in the years since that photo flap faded, from “print” and “blog” critics alike. The criticisms are sometimes expressed with immoderate diction, as private opinions often are and public opinions sometimes are and political and/or corporate speech is very, very rarely. An important question emerges: is there a place for immoderate diction in this world?

Sarah Crown, some kind of higher functionary of the GU’s online business (the business of generating web traffic, no matter the content), claims not. She writes (emphasis mine):

“I’ll certainly be asking the moderators to remove the remarks from MrStevenAugustine and iamoscarmacsweeny. Absolutely no place for them on here (or anywhere, for that matter). Sorry they weren’t spotted sooner.”

So, now we know: there’s no place on Earth, and no possible situation, in which it’s proper to imply (or opine outright) that X commenter adores Y writer for any other than literary reasons. Especially if the extra-literary reasons are romantic/sexual and the adored writer is a woman. Because placing a woman’s name in a sentence or paragraph that also contains a reference to sex, no matter the gist of the sentence, is “sexist”, by default? One supposes. Here’s an experiment:

“Robert McCrum, ranking Jonathan Franzen’s work on a level with Rod McKuen’s and Robert Ludlum’s is only forgivable if you’re screwing him (or them)!”

Is that better? It feels less “sexist”.  But it’s still immoderate diction. The question remains: is banning immoderate diction a triumph of PC culture (that high-strung web of proscription and taboo, thickened and thriving during an arguably illiberal, anti-intellectual, crypto-fascist convulsion of the “West”)? Immoderate diction is banned unless the “good” are using it, of course: I’m quite sure it’s okay to refer to Oscar and me as “louts” and “idiots” and “bedwetters” and  “small pathetic  men”. I’ve just checked the etiquette book and it says, on page one, that it is².

Even Zadie Smith, having stumbled upon Oscar MacSweeny’s personal (if indirect) opinion of her work’s merit (and my quip appended to Oscar’s opinion), did not like it. She wrote, among other things (emphasis mine):

¹Hello. This is zadie smith. I know this is pointless, but I was just passing through the book pages, and found this thread and wanted to add two things…

(etc., etc., until)

3. Oscar and Steve Augustine: everyone is free to dislike whichever book they dislike. But read what you’ve written, below, again. Is this what women novelists are to expect? Would any male writer, no matter how poor a writer, be spoken of like this?

“MrStevenAugustine
26 Jan 09, 9:03pm (about 7 hours ago)

Oscar:

“…unless you’re screwing her.”

Or would like to?”

This question prefacing Oscar MacSweeny’s/Steven Augustine’s evil work (Would any male writer, no matter how poor a writer, be spoken of like this?) is rhetorical. But what if the answer is “yes”?

As it turns out, that’s exactly what the answer is.

Which would mean that Zadie Smith’s wounded sanctimony, while still humanly reasonable, is rhetorically invalidated. The only fair thing from Zadie Smith, Sarah Crown and the hysterical bluenoses who enliven the thread with their dimwittish celebrity arse-kissing, at this point, is an apology to Oscar MacSweeny and Steven Augustine… and a generously inscribed copy of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty to both of us.

Actually, forget the book.

*

 

*

²What’s it like being lambasted savagely by a near-idiot not even known to exist before the onslaught? A little like having one’s leg humped by a muddy Spaniel growling fiercely as it humps. Here are my favorite rude comments from the irony-proof  decorum-enforcers on that thread:

 

1. Greenball

27 Jan 09, 1:58pm

Steven Augustine, your behaviour is truly shocking. You talk about people “screwing”, or wanting to, Miss Smith, and when she rightly expresses offence, you tell her that’s just like Franzen being compared to Svevo. That is so ignorant and aggressive I can scarcely believe it.

Though I just had the misfortune to look at your blog [http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ ] and I can see why you’d hate Smith. She has talent and success. You have nothing.

Sarah Crown, I see you said 4 hours ago you’d remove the offending posts. I suggest that you do before Miss Smith is sensible enough to contact her lawyers.

McCrumb, let’s indeed get some things straight. You wrote a stupid, ignorant piece in which you dangled Miss Smith over a moat and then pretended to be surprised when the crocodiles began taking pieces out of her. You haven’t the grace to then apologise, but instead grudgingly (even sardonically?) write that obviously, it’s all your fault. Well, yes, it is. It is an exceptionally stupid posting.

2. Naid

27 Jan 09, 2:11pm

McCrum – talk about hanging someone out to dry. Where’s your spine, man?

I like your choice of sebald and hughes. not read smith.

stevenaugustine, you’re a bed wetter of the highest order. if you don’t like something, have the balls to say so. “Gender assymetrical jape” aside (are you a writer? i’d give up. you’re cringeworthy), please spare us all your weasling words, they’re beneath you.

so many nasty snivellers on these pages. guardian readers make me despair..

to be fair, you are doubtless mostly a bunch of sub-editors and blog writers [http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/]  suffering rejected articles and novels.. still, no excuse.

3. Bruno62

27 Jan 09, 6:49pm

To MrStevenAugustine

I told you before to stop writing because everything you write is boring and now I see you did not hear my advice [http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/]. How can you be so low to insult the The Most Talented and Gifted Writer Zadie Smith? How many books did you publish and how much money did you earn with them? Zadie Smith, 3 books and literary star, this is too much to your liver, n’est pas? Today, Mr..(you dont deserve too much) Steve, our world became miserable with internet, because when you have no talent at all, you write a blog [http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/] because it seems to ease your resentment and frustation. If you are gentleman, if you are really a british gentleman, you should apologise to Miss Smith. But if you are a member of the Muridae Family, stay in hole. Bruno da Silva, Switzerland

 

*

BONUS TRACK (a favorite, astonishingly rational comment of mine, deleted from the thread):

Sarah:

“@StevenAugustine

On the contrary – I’ve reported that comment too. Tut.”

I counted at least five (not the least of which being “bedwetter”… you’d think my wife or 3 year old daughter would’ve told me!). All quips (as dangerous as quips can be) aside: suggestion…leave them *all* as they are because they are merely *opinions* and a comment thread is supposedly comprised of things like that. Even the odd ranklers.

Also:

Alarming, old chum, I disagree with your characterization of Oscar’s original remark (and my quipped addition) as “schoolboy childish”. Anything but, I’d have thought: it’s wee children who think everything is all about white smiles, yellow duckies and chocolate bunnies. Oscar’s (clearly frustrated) remark struck me as that of a cynical adult’s disgust with the world. What’s “childish” about that? I’m hoping there’s room left, in the compulsively mediated, PC prison of totalitarian decorum, for grownups to be frank now and then… even if it makes the bunnies cry.

Advertisements
Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
%d bloggers like this: