Around this time six years ago, I left a comment on the blog of the writer Emily Gould that, as I’m looking at it now, is pretty grotesque in its self-importance. It read: “Um, not to put too fine a point on it — and believe me, I know this is going to sound ‘mean,’ but there’s just no way around it — but could you do the rest of humanity the favor of, like, throwing yourself in front of a bus or something? Thanks.” The self-important part is critical, because what I wrote, I sincerely thought at the time, was a protest against that writer’s self importance—my perception of that writer’s self-importance. By responding to Gould in a cruel way, I was convinced that I was doing a favor for writing, for literature, for humanity in general. This was not true. I was just being a colossal prick.
For quite some time I thought that being a colossal prick on the Internet was great sport. I thought that everybody else was doing it, and that I could do it better than most. I also had some idea that it was my duty to call bullshit on everyone who I thought was propagating bullshit. I thought this was a form of criticism that was just as valid as anything I would do in long form. It was perhaps even more valid, because blog posts and Internet comments and Tweets are How We Communicate Now, and if I could expose the frauds and mediocrities surrounding me, and all of us (by “us” I meant “other people I deigned to approve of”), then I was performing a valuable truth-telling service.
None of this was true, of course. All of it was nonsense, in fact. What I took to be my honey-badger calling was in fact a manifestation of mental illness, an alcoholic grandiosity that only exacerbated the frustrations and deep-seated anger that I now struggle to cope with (not always successfully) in a more sane and sober way. I bring this up now not to proclaim to the world (such as it is) that I’m all better now, or that I’ve given up sarcasm once and for all. I can still be fairly intemperate, online, in person, wherever. Every day I try to be better about it, to use my wits, such as they are, for constructive purposes. But I’m in no position to pat myself on the back. I am in a position to state that my past behavior, of which my nasty baiting of Emily Gould was only a small part, cost me, and it cost me across the board, in terms of reputation, professional and personal, and other things that you can probably guess. And I earned the cost.
When you’re a drunk, and have some facility for words, and things aren’t going so great for you, you can read something and infer that the writer’s situation is better than your own, and it can throw you into a frothing bloody rage. You think, “Why is the world paying attention to this NOBODY?” or “why is this NOBODY making more money than I am?” and “why isn’t this NOBODY beset with paralyzing depression and fear like he or she deserves to be instead of me?” and so on, and then because you fancy yourself a critic or a perspicacious observer of the cultural scene, you mold these resentments into a theory that there is something VERY WRONG with the culture and that the person you hate is the one responsible for that thing being very wrong. When I was at Premiere I used to enjoy cocking a snoot at other critics in my reviews, something that my last boss there, Peter Herbst, gently insisted on forbidding. Without naming your target, one runs the risk of constructing a straw man argument. But within the confines of a magazine with an individual identity, “calling out” other writers becomes something more than the individual writer’s choice; it reflects on the entirety of the enterprise. Peter made it clear that Premiere wasn’t going to be a forum in which I could engage in any pissing matches. I understood this, but having come up as a professional writer in the early ‘80s manifestation of the Village Voice, I felt rather constrained by it. Once I was out of a job and into the web, all bets were off. But what I thought was a revival of the old-school type Voice pissing-match tradition on my part was just in fact a demented acting out of my own resentments and disappointments. Everything wrong in the culture was Emily Gould’s fault. Or David Poland’s fault. Or Jeffrey Wells’ fault. Or Karina Longworth’s fault. Or Dan Kois’s fault.It was a form of insanity. And in my blackest moods, it starts elbowing its way back into the forefront of my consciousness. It's very unpleasant.
I am not going to link to the long attack on Emily Gould by Ed Champion, a self-styled literary arts gadfly who swats here and there (sometimes in the film realm as well) to varied effect, but here is a somewhat representative passage, in which Champion recounts an unpleasant personal encounter with Gould:
I told her that I was Publius, figuring that Gould would suss out my reference to the anonymous authors of The Federalist Papers and be on her merry way.
“Publius?” she asked.
“Jack Publius,” I replied.
Gould still didn’t get the hint. My girlfriend picked up the reference immediately.
“It’s Italian,” said my girlfriend.
“Roman origins,” I said.
“Can you spell that?” replied Gould.
I was utterly stunned that someone who wrote for a major media site, someone who had an undergraduate education in the liberal arts, could be this ignorant. I spelled out “Publius” for Gould, pointing out that I was especially concerned whenever people mispronounced and misspelled it.
Various commentators on the Internet, bristling at this long piece, have complained of its sexism, its misogyny, its attempted validation of the hegemony of the patriarchy, and all that is in there, as they say in the Prego ads of old. But the above passage, I think, tells you all you need to know: the smug shittiness of the flaunting of his oh-so-clever “Publius” reference, the commendation of the girlfriend, and then, on a dime, the “who is this NOBODY?” outrage…Champion is not so much against ignorance of Federalist Papers pen names on principle so much as he is against his perceived reality, a reality in which, yes, someone who doesn’t get his surly joke is more of a success in life than he. WHAT IS HAPPENING TO OUR WORLD when Emily Gould gets profiled in the New York Times, is flatteringly photographed by professionals for said profiles, and a bold truth-teller like Ed Champion has to relegate his trenchant insights to his own blog.
So be mad at Ed Champion all you want; he’s entitled to it. But if you can, spare a little compassion for the guy. I’ve been in his shoes, and for all his bluff and bluster, it’s pretty plain that he’s in an awful lot of pain. That’s usually one reason certain folks take to trying to inflict pain on others.