Divas, Tweets & the Phil Collins Approach to Human Relations

For lovers of the Theatre of Human Folly, vanity is a godsent. Other people's vanity-induced mistakes allows us to revel in Schadenfreude double-plus. Not only does (a) misfortune happen to others, but (b) it is completely their own fault for (c) giving in to a part their psyche everyone agrees is a weakness. (Never mind that those who laugh suffer from the same condition.)

Vanity drives men to the utmost stupidity. Here is from Nick Hornby's The Complete Pollysyllabic Spree (pp. 106-07), in which Hornby reviews Jonathan Coe's Like a Fiery Elephant, a biography of obscure British writer B.S. Johnson:
Whenever [Johnson] wrote to complain to publishers, or agents, or even printers [...] he was never backwards in coming forwards, as we say here, and he included the same self-promoting line again and again. 'In reveiweing my novel Albert Angelo, the Sunday Times described me as "one of the best writeres we've got," and the Irish Times called the book "a masterpiece" and put me in the same class as Joyce and Beckett,' he wrote to Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, demanding to know why he wasn't interested in paperback rights. 'The Sunday times called me "one of the best writers we've got," and the Irish Times called the book a masterpiece and put me in the same class as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett,' he wrote to his foreign-rights agent, demanding to know why there had been no Italian publication of his first novel. 'You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke,' he wrote to Thomas Wallace of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. after Wallace had turned him down. 'For your information, Albert Angelo was reviewed by the Sunday Times here as by "one of the best writers we've got," and the Irish Times called the book a masterpiece and put me in the same class as Joyce and Beckett.' And then, finally and gloriously:
. . . The Sunday times called me 'one of the best writers we've got,' and the Irish Times called the book a masterpiece, and compared me with Joyce and Beckett.

However, it seems that I am to be denied the opportunity of a most profound and enormous experience of being present with my wife Virginia when our first child is born at your hospital on or about July 24th . . .
This last letter was to the Chief Obstretician of St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, after Johnson had discovered that it was not the hospital's policy to allow fathers to attend a birth. It's the 'However' kicking off the second paragraph that's such a brilliant touch, drawing attention as it does to the absurdity of the contradiction. 'I can understand you keeping out the riff-raff, your Flemings and your Amises, and the rest of the what-happened-next-brigade,' it implies. 'But surely you'll make an exception for a genious?' In the end, it's just another variation on 'Don't you know who I am?' - which in Johnson's case was an even more unfortunate question than it normally is.
Perhaps writers are particulary prone to such outbursts, given that their line of work is low in alienation, to use the Marxian term. Most plumbers probably don't see it as an attack on their very personality when you tell them they didn't install your loo correctly or you don't want their services in the first place. Or perhaps it's just that writers are prone to express their anger in a medium that lends itself easily to archiving - writing.

In that respect modern times are not kind to writers who get fired up by other people's negative reactions to their work. B.S. Johnson's letters probably were saved by addressees because they wanted to show them to friends for a good chuckle from time to time. But who knows how many of such beauties were lost forever to garbage cans and fireplaces? Nowadays, however we have the internet, which allows the scorned writer to fire away instantaneously - no time to reconsider on the way to the letterbox - in public (homepages, blogs, Twitter) and in the digital format that allows an unlimited amount of copies to be made without hassle.

A while back, for example, we had cerebralebrity Alain de Botton making an ass of himself in the comments section of literary critic Caleb Crain's blog. Crain had had the audacity to write a negative review of de Botton's book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which prompted the author to inform the reviewer that "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude." (As Gary Dexter quipped at the time, "it certainly puts the 'Consolations of Philosophy' in a new light.") De Botton was later quoted as saying that he would apologize "because it costs me nothing" (heh!) and that his comment on Crain's blog had been intended as "a private communication to his website, to him as a blogger [...]. It's appalling that it seems that I'm telling the world" (huh?).

Though it's not quite in the same league as Johnson and de Botton, recent days have seen science journalist, Guardian and book author and internet celebrity Ben Goldacre taking on Leigh Caldwell. The topic is as saucy as you would imagine when a self-described nerd (Goldacre) and an economist (Caldwell) clash. It started with a tweet in which Goldacre said,
when I look at the change in price of the boring everyday stuff i buy, i just don't believe the inflation rate is 3%
which prompted Caldwell to first comment on Twitter and then write a blog post in which he said:
What's the difference between this and a homeopath who doesn't need evidence because he "just believes" that his medicines work? Not much.


[D]isagreeing with established data, which has the consensus of hundreds of professional economists, and a widely tested, peer-reviewed theory, behind it - on the basis of your feelings about personal experience - should automatically make any scientist wary.
Now, Goldacre could simply have commented that this is a misunderstanding because he was only referring to the inflation rate for the stuff he buys every day, which seems higher than 3%, which does not, in and by itself, call the official figure in question. But no. Instead he left a comment somewhat remindful of Mariah Carey when she finds the wrong kind of bottled water in the backstage lounge. Helpfully, he summarized it himself, thusly:
disparities between personal experiences of inflation and summary national figures are well-documented and to be expected; posting personal experiences is fine as long as they're clearly labelled as such (mine was); and lastly, your post was dumb and timewastey.
Unfortunately, Caldwell, a behavioural economist, brought the affair I had tentatively named Inflationgate to a screeching halt by replying in a manner which suggests that thinking about the fallibility of human decision making too much harms your bellicosity. He should have taken a page or two out of fellow econ bloggers' books! John Lott has sued people for much less, and one wouldn't have been surprised had there been a sudden flurry of negative reviews on the Amazon pages of Goldacre's book. I have been to Brad DeLong's blog perhaps three times in my life, but based on what one reads around the web, I would guess that DeLong would have made Goldacre's comment disappear without a trace and written a post in which he uses made-up assertions and faulty logic to express doubts about Goldacre's cognitive abilities, entitled "The Stupidest Science Hack Alive." Arnold Kling would simply have displayed his usual grimness, the kind of grimness that would have had a 1967 Muhammad Ali shake in his boots, had Ali been able to follow Kling's argument.

O.k., two more points.

One. Years back, when I was an angry young man, I read an interview with Phil Collins. Phil Collins might seem like an inappropriate music interest for an angry young man, and that's right, but I was also a bored young man; it seems the two often go together. Anyway, Collins said something remarkable, along the lines of, "Most people I only meet once in my life. I start on the assumption that they're not arseholes." That swept me off my feet. What a completely counterintuitive approach to human relations! It got me thinking, and should I ever write an autobiography, I'm afraid there'll have to be a chapter entitled, "My adult life began when I read an interview with Phil Collins," which is not the kind of thing blockbusters are made of. Anyway, here's a variant of the Collins Maxim: If someone criticizes you based on what appears to be a misunderstanding of what you meant, consider the possibility that theirs is a reasonable interpretation of what you actually said. Otherwise, it could be you who comes across like an arsehole.

Two. Let me mention that I totally predicted that the internet stock market bubble would burst before I admit that when I first heard about Twitter, I was sure it wouldn't take off. What an obviously stupid service this was! Given the success of this prediction, I have adopted a new heuristic which says I ought to expect success for any new medium that allows people to fart the contents of their brains into the world at low cost. Low cost (in terms not only of money, but also of effort) is an important factor, and in this respect Twitter's character limit is a brilliant idea, as it makes it almost impossible to expend a noteworthy amount of energy on a single unit of communication. But it also makes it the no-go medium for anything requiring nuance, a matter Goldacre overlooked. Reserve tweets for simple, personal observations. Kanye West shows how to do it:

Come to think of it, that statement about fur pillows? I dunno, but it seems like he is generalizing from a sample of one. Is Kanye West a closet Freudian?

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