The Lost Art of the Rant

All about fiction.
Oct. 30 2007 4:25 PM

The Lost Art of the Rant

How the Web revived a storied tradition of expletive-laced tirades.

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Such powerlessness can explode into violent language, but the rant also tends to possess a playful element as well. Take another craigslist posting set on the subway, "to the girl on the metro with the cleavage." In this case, the author is trying to explain to a woman why he was looking at her cleavage. He points out that she shouldn't have worn that revealing top if she didn't want him staring at her chest. It eventually concludes: "So anyway, I just thought you should know my point of view on what happened. I am not a pervert. I was just a man on a metro, a man who saw something that pulled his mind out of the daily routine, and I held onto it dearly."

This protest of innocence—"I am not a pervert"—challenges one of the stereotypes of the cyber-addict whose perversions have finally found free rein on the anarchic Web. Indeed, it's not so much specialized perversions but rather quirky and unlikely subjects that people tend to rant about online. At rant.com, you can search the archives of Rant magazine and read some high-octane thoughts on dental hygienists and skunks. In a slightly more rarefied and ironic vein, the McSweeney's Web site publishes "Open Letters" to, among other things: "American Express"; "the intestinal parasites I managed to pick up in West Africa this summer"; "my sister's psychotic dogs"; "my lost bikini bra"; "the Amazon parrot I have been supporting for over 15 years who still tries to bite me for no apparent reason"; and "the birds nesting in my air conditioner."

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Despite their evident passion, most of these letters have not simply been dashed off in the heat of the moment but have been crafted to harmonize outrage with decorum, anger with artfulness: "I think you may have noticed my affection for other animals—including my own dog—and wrongly assumed that it extended to your snarling demented selves." Or: "While I am pleased that you have decided the air conditioner in my bedroom is the perfect place for you to reside, I feel obligated to voice a few concerns on behalf of the other inhabitants of our apartment. Please do not take this letter as a sign of ill will." These softer-edged letters may not seem to be rants at all, but they are merely embracing a frequently overlooked sense of the word—"a boisterous, riotous frolic or merry-making."

But wherever a rant may fall on this wide spectrum, there is neither the expectation of nor the desire for a response. The rant is an end in itself, an adrenaline-fueled literary catharsis. That's the paradox at the heart of ranting—its theatricality usually overwhelms all else, including the desire to change whatever outrage has elicited the rant in the first place.

It would be simplistic to think of blogging as a kind of sublimated ranting, since many blogs are earnestly committed to their subjects, and still more could not be accused of sublimating anything. But blogs do form a part of our cacophonous culture, one in which high-flown and bombastic speech flourishes. Far from deploring these noisy tirades indiscriminately, we should embrace their more skillful and playful practitioners, who are developing an entertaining variation on an old form and helping to put dental hygienists, skunks, and American Express in their places.

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