Was This the Start of Snark?

Jack Hanson on the lasting legacy of Vidal vs. Buckley

HERE'S THE STORY, pick your tone: Movies killed the music hall, TV killed the movies, the radio hobbled along beside them both. The internet has now smashed them all, while books are the perennial victim of media progress. How many times have you heard that one? 

William F. Buckley Jr. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

William F. Buckley Jr. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

But once the upheaval of novelty subsides, these forms can coexist (with the exception of music halls, although in cities and ‘cultural centers’ they get their occasional resurgences). What does seem hard to argue with is the prevailing impression that the discourse these media once carried has suffered an extraordinary decline. Golden age thinking is always to be avoided, but the excesses of Fox News, et al. on the right and the P.C. police on the left do begin to elicit thoughts (not to say whimpers) of “Was it always like this?”   

The recent documentary The Best of Enemies answers that question with a hearty, “No.” What’s more, the firing of the starting-gun was caught on camera, with the fiery on-screen relationship between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. That story (the origin story, you might say) has a struggling network, ABC, eschewing the traditional airing of bell-to-bell political convention coverage for the more stimulating, engaging fare of dialogue between two eminent critics. What ABC did not factor into the equation was that sincere personal animosity between the two would drive the conversation. A well-armed Vidal would eventually goad his opponent into providing an obscene insult, a very bad moment which the usually restrained Buckley carried with him, the film shows, for the rest of his life. 

And though it probably hurt him to see, the culture has carried it with him, often with less guilt than glee. Buckley himself returned to his manners (well...) and for several decades hosted Firing Line, the best—and most polite—political talk show in television history. Vidal, on the other hand, continued his career via a long chain of spats, from Truman Capote, to Norman Mailer, to a near-finale (granted, not one started by him) with Christopher Hitchens. He managed to write a couple dozen books and hundreds of essays in the meantime, some of which are extraordinary. But his snark is largely what continues to fascinate and, for many, inspire imitation. 

Gore Vidal. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Gore Vidal. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

And imitate many continue to do, with greater convenience and often much greater spite. A frequent target is Jonathan Franzen, American novelist and bête-noire of the Twittersphere. He’s often referred to as controversial, but this is only because he has not yet learned that internet gossipers desperate for a feud anxiously await the slightest excuse to strike (that, or he’s comfortable taking the heat in exchange for book sales). Most recently, Franzen made the mistake of thinking out loud in an interview (it could have even been that extinct linguistic practice, a joke). A good example of the manufactured outrage that followed is writer Jennifer Weiner’s series of tweets. How any of her “points” are elevated to the status of a refutation is beyond me. They seem rather like a straight-forward attempt to make a splash (perhaps with a hope to cash in on the Franzenfreude, a term she coined—fair enough, I suppose). But this is only a single example, cited for convenience. In trashing a fellow writer for what is at worst a faux-pas, Weiner has done nothing out of the norm.

Look, it’s not all bad. The literary world continues on as it always has, with pissing matches interrupted by serious reviews and, occasionally, a landmark work of art. Sometimes the two even mix, in no less a work than Aristophanes’ The Clouds, in which the playwright lambasts Socrates as a charlatan and a purveyor of cheap tricks. But that was a comedy, which employed vulgarity for the exchange of ideas. The trouble now is that the snark and the spite are no longer traded exclusively at parties or over the dinner table, but often become the main fodder for even the higher-brow of journals. It’s easy to understand: who could deny the clicks or, in days past, the ratings? And with every advance of technology, it gets easier and easier. All that’s lost is thought.


JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.

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