Why Can’t Gawker Do Nastiness the Right Way?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Oct. 27 2011 7:26 AM

Gawker Is Big Immature Baby

Why can’t Gawker do nastiness the right way?

111026_ROIPHE_GawkerLogo_EX

One bright day a book came across my desk with a letter from its editor saying that the writer was a “big fan” of my work and would like a blurb. As the writer was from Gawker it seemed a tiny bit surprising that she would be “a big fan” of my work as Gawker itself is not a big fan of my work, and in fact a quick search turned up an item by this writer called “Katie Roiphe Is Big Immature Baby.” Admittedly I did not find this piece very wounding, but some old-fashioned part of me still found it strange that she would send me her book for a blurb. I thought if I had written “Joan Didion Is Big Immature Baby,” I would probably not send a book to her for a blurb.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

But then it occurred to me that perhaps I had misunderstood Gawker. If you are pumping out autopilot schadenfreude all day long, maybe there is nothing personal in it. The rage, the dissociated nastiness, floats through the ether and attaches itself fleetingly to a subject, but really, taking it personally is like being annoyed at the wind for messing up your hair. The attack is so generalized, so mindless, so contentless, why would the writer think I would attach any specific animus to it, or that it was in any specific way intended for or directed at me?

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Here I suppose is my main objection to Gawker: It’s all tone, no content, and the tone itself is monotonously unvaried—namely the sneer. (Of course, fans and devotees of Gawker might argue that I am exaggerating and there is a full, impressive range of tone that goes all the way from smirk to sneer.) What the Gawker ethos (i.e., the sneer) comes down to is this: Everyone is a phony, except presumably those writers at Gawker who labor tirelessly to point out this phoniness (think Holden Caulfield gone a little sour, and getting a little old).

Gawker takes the explicit stance of the outsider, specifically the fashionably slothful outsider. They once republished a piece about one of my essays: “I think she wrote the piece because she liked the idea of having a big, long, 'provocative' think piece in the NYTBR, one lots of people would argue about. I don’t blame her for that. If I had my shit more together, I’d probably aim for the same brass ring of neediness.”* In other words, they murmur to their reader: I am brilliant and talented, but too cool or sublimely untainted by anything as sordid and uninteresting as the ambition to try to do anything.

In some sense, the city runs on envy, on thwarted desire, on the fear that someone else somewhere near us is living some slightly better version of our life, on our need some mornings to see someone fall from a great, or even a sort of middling and unexciting height. (I would think you would have to be pretty bitter and disenfranchised to revel in the downfall of a semi-successful working journalist like me, but there is such a thing as a slow news day …) 

I imagine on a good day the producers of Gawker feel that they are serving a function: keeping people honest. But the highest form of keeping people honest demands more wit, more precision, more specificity, more sharpness. If you make fun of everyone in the same register, in the same tone, it begins to be a little generic. (“Jesus Christ, Bill, you’re hogging a media platform that could be used to say something, you know, interesting.”) The idea that you could almost plug in anyone to the formula is almost explicitly part of Gawker’s approach (“Frank Bruni is the new Bill Keller is the new Thomas Friedman! Which is to say, the latest New York Times columnist who can be reliably depended upon to use his priceless media real estate to write utterly vacuous and worn-out tripe.”)

It’s not that one wants one’s gossips to be nice, exactly, but one wants them nuanced, substantive. One wants to remember an amazing line, and not have a vague impression of cloudy nastiness. Think of great or colorful or stylish pieces of nastiness that stay in your head. Take for instance what other writers made of Mary McCarthy’s smile.  Susan Sontag wrote, “Mary McCarthy can do anything with her smile, even smile with it”; Dwight Macdonald said in an interview “When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open”; Randall Jarrell wrote of his McCarthy character in a novel, 'Torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile.'' Or think of Virginia Woolf describing a visit with T.S. Eliot "in his four-piece suit.” Or Nabokov observing that some of his students’ ears were “merely ornamental.”

Humor, and even name-calling, is more effective when it’s less generic, less anonymous, less generally applicable to anyone who has done anything. I can speak to this as a target: More effective than “Katie Roiphe Is Big Immature Baby” or even Gawker’s poem “Shut up Katie Roiphe” is when, in The New Yorker, someone once called me a “self proclaimed bad girl and sexual rebel.” It had an admirable understated sting, that “self proclaimed.” It was saying something specific and interpretive about the book it was skewering, about me. I don’t agree with it, of course, but I can see that it was an excellent and effective instance of name-calling.

Of course one could argue that Gawker is less the real scourge than the gawkerish habits of mind that have been internalized by certain segments of the Internet-scouring populace. To casually and sloppily take down, to ironize, to sneer comes very naturally to us, we can do it in our sleep, but to care, to try, to want, are harder. And to admit that you care or are trying or are wanting, well, forget it: Those will be impossible.

There is a great moment in Paradise Lost where Satan is trying to persuade Eve to eat the apple and he says, “These, these, and many more/ causes import your need of this fair fruit.” He turns his groping, his very inarticulateness into a style. And it is this mindless rattling of the saber, this contentless argument, this portentous throat clearing, that I think Gawker has, to their credit, perfected: These, these, and many more causes are why you should hate Miranda July or Tom Friedman or Stephenie Meyer.*

I gather there are a lot of restless assistants and bored office people who thrive on that secret, inarticulate razzing, that blind grasping at reasons to hate, that vivid stirring of resentment, that rage with nowhere to settle—Stephenie Meyer! No, Miranda July! And I don’t think it is a doomed or fruitless venture to draw on the resentment and bitterness and envy adrift in this city. But what would it be like to draw on it with more personality, more artfully? In the end, a computer program could produce Gawker, which is why it doesn’t matter which of their writers pens an item, or if an old one leaves or a new one comes, or if one of them would like to disassociate herself because she would like a blurb for a book.

I suppose what is disheartening or surprising is not that the city’s disappointed artists or thwarted hopeful or anxious young love Gawker, but that there isn’t a better Gawker for them to love.

Correction, Oct. 27, 2011: This article originally misspelled Tom Friedman's last name and Stephenie Meyer’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Nov. 2, 2011: This article originally implies that Gawker “wrote” the quoted story. Gawker reprinted the story from the Rumpus. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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