The sensation of the literary Internet last week was a long essay published on Gawker by the Web site’s features editor, Tom Scocca. It is, Scocca makes clear at the outset, nothing at all like the short, newsy posts typical of Gawker. Scocca describes himself as the kind of person who re-reads “Mencken on the Scopes Trial, Hunter Thompson on Richard Nixon, and Dorothy Parker on most things—to say nothing of Orwell on poverty and Du Bois on racism, or David Foster Wallace on the existential horror of a leisure cruise.” He writes tough, uncompromising prose. His judgments are angry and direct. “Over the past year or two, on the way to writing this essay, I’ve accumulated dozens of emails and IM conversations from friends and colleagues,” he begins. “They send links to articles, essays, Tumblr posts, online comments, tweets—the shared attitude transcending any platform or format or subject matter.” Scocca’s intention is to critique the “defining feature of our times.” He calls it smarm—a cultural reflex he says is best described by Thumper in the Walt Disney classic “Bambi”: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
According to Scocca, appeals to civility have become the newest weapon in the arsenal of the privileged. The injunction to be nice is used to deflect criticism and stifle the legitimate anger of dissent. “Smarm is a kind of performance,” Scocca writes, “an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone.”
Scocca peppers his essay with quotations from a long list of people. His focus, however, is on an e-mail interview the novelist Dave Eggers gave in 2000 to theHarvard Advocate, “the defining document of contemporary literary smarm.” Eggers, Scocca thinks, is “the most significant explicator of the niceness rule—the loudest Thumper of all, the true prophetic voice of anti-negativity.”
The offending quotation from Eggers is this:
Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.
Here is everything Scocca deplores: “the scolding, the gestures at inclusiveness, the appeal to virtue and maturity. Eggers used to be a critic, but he has grown out of childish things.” Scocca goes on:
[Eggers] is so passionate, and his passion has such rhetorical momentum, that it is almost possible to overlook the fact that the literal proposition he’s putting forward, in the name of large-heartedness and honesty, is bogus and insulting. Do not dismiss … a movie? Unless you have made one? Any movie? The Internship? The Lone Ranger? Kirk Cameron’s Unstoppable? Movie criticism, Eggers is saying, should be reserved for those wise and discerning souls who have access to a few tens of millions of dollars of entertainment-industry capital. One or two hundred million, if you wish to have an opinion about the works of Michael Bay.
Eggers, Scocca concludes, is “full of shit,” and with that he is off, for many thousand more words. It is an artful performance, with a number of fine moments. At one point, Scocca quotes me on the deliberate streak of optimism in my work—and he is not wrong in locating in that attitude a subtle self-interest. In being nice to the world, the writer obliges the world to be nice to him. But Scocca has larger ambitions: he wants to argue that the tyranny of niceness is the defining feature of our age, and he wants to make Dave Eggers the poster child for this movement. And it is here, I think, that his essay falters.
“Do not be critics.” That sentence comes at the end of a several-thousand-word “rant” written by Eggers at the end of his e-mail interview with the Advocate. The rant is personal—directed, Eggers says, “to myself, age 20, as much as it is to you, so remember that if you ever want to take much offense.”
In his youth, he continues,
I thought I had my ear to the railroad tracks of avant garde America. (Laurie Anderson, for example, had grown up only miles away!) I was always monitoring, with the most sensitive and well-calibrated apparatus, the degree of selloutitude exemplified by any given artist—musical, theatrical, whatever. I was vigilant and merciless and knew it was my job to be so.
As an adult, though, Eggers says he came to understand how empty and dangerous this impulse was. He should have been focussed on what was good and true. Instead, he spent his time applying his narrow prejudices to the works of others. The “sellout manual serves only the lazy and the small,” he says. “But you know what is easiest of all? When we dismiss. Oh how gloriously comforting to be able to write someone off.” He dismissed R.E.M. because they got popular and played on Letterman, and he no longer considered it cool to be among their fans. Later, he saw people dismiss the Flaming Lips because their song was played on the television show “90210,” “despite the fact that everyone knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that their music was superb and groundbreaking and real.”
“Do not be a critic” comes at the very end of this alternatingly comic and serious rant. It means something like “Do not be a critic in the way that I was as a teen-ager.” When Eggers says, “Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one,” he does not mean you can’t criticize a book or a movie unless you’ve made one. He means that if you must deliver the kind of sweeping critical sanctions that he passed out so freely as a teen-ager, at the very least you ought to have earned that right through real engagement and experience with the art in question.
Eggers is not Wittgenstein: his philosophy is not so opaque that it permits many varied interpretations. He says pretty much what he means. I find it very hard to believe that a critic of Scocca’s gifts is unaware of how eccentric his reading of Eggers’s position is. And does it bother him at all that he is hanging his manifesto on e-mails written more than a decade ago? Apparently not. So Scocca soldiers on:
And now here is Dave Eggers 13 years later, talking to the New York Timesabout his new novel, The Circle, a dystopian warning about the toxic effects of social media and the sinister companies that produce it:
I’ve never visited any tech campus, and I don’t know anything in particular about how any given company is run. I really didn’t want to.
Someone has come a long way from “do not dismiss a book until you have written one.” But Eggers was never laying down rules for himself. He was laying down rules for other people.
“The Circle,” it should be pointed out, is a work of fiction about an imaginary company, based in the future. And as for laying down rules for other people, Eggers has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books and worked on three screenplays. He has started three magazines. When he was unhappy with the publishing world, he went out and started his own publishing company. When he thought that disadvantaged children needed better educational opportunities, he founded two nonprofits. When he tells students that they ought to aspire to a primary relationship to art—to put more energy into making art than into denigrating the art of others—he is speaking from the heart. You have to be running pretty low on ammunition to look at someone like that and call him full of shit.
Earlier this year, in the London Review of Books, the English novelist Jonathan Coe published an essay titled “Sinking Giggling into the Sea.” It is a review of a book about the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. And in the course of evaluating Johnson’s career, Coe observes that the tradition of satire in English cultural life has turned out to be profoundly conservative. What began in an anti-establishment spirit, he writes, ends up dissipating into a “culture of facetious cynicism.” Coe quotes the comedian Peter Cook—“Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea”—and continues:
The key word here is ‘giggling’ (or in some versions of the quotation, ‘sniggering’). Of the four Beyond the Fringe members, it’s always Peter Cook who is described as the comic genius, and like any genius he fully (if not always consciously) understood the limitations of his own medium. He understood laughter, in other words – and certainly understood that it is anything but a force for change. Famously, when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modelling it on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War’.
“Laughter,” Coe concludes, “is not just ineffectual as a form of protest … it actually replaces protest.”
Coe and Scocca are both interested in the same phenomenon: how modern cultural forms turn out to have unanticipated—and paradoxical—consequences. But they reach widely divergent conclusions. Scocca thinks that the conventions of civility and seriousness serve the interests of the privileged. Coe says the opposite. Privilege is supported by those who claim to subvert civility and seriousness. It’s not the respectful voice that props up the status quo; it is the mocking one. “[Boris] Johnson seems to know this,” Coe writes of London’s charmingly droll and self-deprecating mayor. “He seems to know that the laughter that surrounds him is a substitute for thought rather than its conduit, and that puts him at a wonderful advantage. If we are chuckling at him, we are not likely to be thinking too hard about his doggedly neoliberal and pro-City agenda, let alone doing anything to counter it.”
Now that is an argument worthy of a manifesto. What defines our era, after all, is not really the insistence of those in authority that we all behave properly and politely. It is defined, instead, by the institutionalization of satire. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and “Saturday Night Live” and, yes, Gawker have emerged, all proceeding on the assumption that the sardonic, comic tone permits a kind of honesty in public discourse that would not be possible otherwise. This is the orthodoxy Scocca is so anxious to defend. He needn’t worry. For the moment, we are all quite happy to sink giggling into the sea.
Peter Cook’s revue, “Beyond the Fringe,” had a famous sketch called “The Sadder and Wiser Beaver,” Coe tells us, about a “bunch of young, would-be radical journalists who won’t admit they have sold their soul to a rapacious newspaper proprietor.” It is a sketch that works as well today as it did fifty years ago, right down to the beavers, trapped inside their illusions of subversion:
COOK: Whenever the old man has a cocktail party, there’s about ten of us – young, progressive people – we all gather up the far end of the room and … quite openly, behind our hands, we snigger at him.
BENNETT: Well, I don’t know, that doesn’t seem very much to me.
COOK: A snigger here, a snigger there – it all adds up.