A couple of weeks ago, I began a column with a paragraph on my process for selecting which books, of all those that cross my desk, I will choose to review. It was a cute opening, I thought: humanize the critic with the old day-in-the-life routine. When the column ran in this space, though, I was surprised to see that My Gracious Editor had snipped the entire opening. I pulled up the original draft to see what I had done wrong (there was no question in my mind that I had done something wrong; I’m not such an egomaniac as to second-guess an editor). Was the opening too self-indulgent? Too “inside baseball,” perhaps? Was I burying the lede?
Reading the open again, I recognized my sin immediately. The tone of the paragraph boiled down to this: What a bummer it is, trying to find space for all the cool free stuff that publishers insist on sending me. I had been caught in a humblebrag.
Popdose weighs in on Philip Nels' Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss bio.
The humblebrag is a curious concoction, a sort of passive-aggressive false modesty. It was identified and named by Harris Wittels, the show-business all-arounder whose résumé includes production and writing gigs for Parks and Recreation and a column at Grantland.com. Humblebrags are calibrated to draw attention to the awesomeness of the braggart while simultaneously proclaiming that this very awesomeness ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
For instance, when someone bitches that she has to take a cab because her Bentley has a flat tire, it’s hard to muster up any sympathy—indeed, sympathy is not what she’s looking for, she really just wants to remind you that, yeah, she drives a Bentley. Or when Keith Olbermann tweets, “[T]his is breakfast in Delta 1st: Cheerios. MF’ing Cheerios (in coach they get gravel),” the point is not to arouse outrage at Delta’s unconscionably shabby treatment of its First Class passengers, but to bring home that Keith Olbermann is a famous big shot, and his crappy day flying First Class is probably still better than your best day in Coach.
Having identified the phenomenon, Wittels began collecting examples on Twitter and retweeting them @humblebrag. It soon became one of Twitter’s most popular feeds, and it’s easy to see why. In its Web incarnation, @humblebrag is a great way to kill a coffee break, a little burst of Wrong Fun, tickling the thrill of snickering at the pretension of others. Which is why it is so disappointing that Wittels’ new book of material from the feed, straightforwardly titled Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty (Grand Central Publishing), sucks all the fun out of the enterprise, leaving only the Wrong. And what spoils the transition most, cruelly enough, is the insertion of Harris Wittels’ own voice.
It’s a dicey proposition at the best of times, translating the dynamic, interactive experience of the Web to cold typeset, but publishers have seized upon Twitter as a sort of farm system, scouting it for promising talent. In Twitter’s favor, it is by its nature an excellent platform for comedy. 140 characters is ideal for a one-liner, and many old school comic talents, like Steve Martin and Albert Brooks, have thrived there. Feeds defined by a single distinctive voice (Shit My Dad Says) or a strong organizing concept (the “Fake AP Style Guide” Write More Good) are the ones that tend to translate best to print.
The content of @humblebrag, by contrast, is crowdsourced—retweets without context or comment, with Wittels in a curatorial role. For the book version, though, Wittels provides commentary for each tweet, pointing out how braggy each one is, and how hypocritical each tweeter’s attempt to paint himself or herself as a sad sack. In theory, this is added value. In practice, it rarely rises above the level of Jay Leno making fun of wacky newspaper headlines. Mostly, it is the least funny thing in the world: listening to someone explain a joke, over and over and over—and it’s the same joke every time.
When he’s not burning up pages restating his thesis, Wittels provides some context for the bits—none of which is enlightening and most of which is excruciating. At one point he deigns to explain to his readership the meaning of the Internet abbreviation “FML” (hint: the last two letters stand for “my life”), then notes, “By the time this books comes out, people won’t be saying it anymore, probably. This tweet is a time capsule of sorts.” (Like “humblebrag” is one for the ages. )
And when the tweet is by or about a celebrity, Wittels will helpfully point this out, even if he hasn’t a clue as to the person’s claim to fame. Many, many commentaries contain some variation on “I had to look this person up on Google, and...” Translation: Though I demonstrate my ignorance by having no idea who this is, I still feel qualified to judge them for their lack of self-awareness. Which isn’t a humblebrag in itself, exactly, but is still pretty obnoxious.
All this being said, this book did me one great service. Having made a conscious decision to keep my Web presence minimal, simply to decrease my distractions, I have resisted joining up for Twitter. After reading Humblebrag, I feel validated in my decision, for all kinds of reasons.
Ugh. @JackFeerick busting a deadline for @Popdose – sucks sometimes being a Critic / Large but can’t disappoint all my readers!!!LOL