Wry Havok

Brad DeLong uncovers this passage:

I thought we had finished with the subject of your wanting to become a writer when you passed through New York last April. You asked for what you called “an uncle’s meddling advice,” and we spent an afternoon talking about your chances of commercial or critical success (nil and next to none), about the number of readers that constitutes the American audience for literature (not enough to fill the seats at Yankee Stadium), and about the Q ratings awarded to authors by the celebrity market (equivalent to those assigned to trick dogs and retired generals). You didn’t disagree with the drift of the conversation, and I thought it was understood that you would apply to business school.

To which Brad remarks:

The graders of the PSAT/NMSQT say that the tone of the parenthetical comments is best characterized as “wry.” We in this house agree–unanimously–that “surly” is a better characterization. They are not dryly humorous with a touch of irony. They are, rather, sullenly ill-humored.

I think this is exactly right. First, as one of Brad’s commenters clarifies for us, “Wry involves an attempt at weak humor, surly is a brooding, passive-aggressive, sullen low-level frustrated anger expressed as reluctance and sloth.” I think this fits the uncle’s tone to a T.

Second, there’s the particular issue the uncle is whining about, which on the scale of “things that are tapped out” falls just behind “complaining about how kids these days are so disrespectful to their elders.” The uncle is surrounded by illiterates, and only he, the nephew, and possibly fifteen thousand like-minded readers in the Upper West Side are daring to keep the flame of culture alive. As we cretinous Internet kids like to say these days, “Oh noes!” It’s hard to appreciate someone’s allegedly wry humor when you’re rolling your eyes at them instead.

5 thoughts on “Wry Havok

  1. I’m not sure but I think there’s something that I’m not getting about this discussion. Isn’t that paragraph from one of John Hodgman’s “Dear Josh” letters that used to run on McSweeney’s? Are we meant to interpret the tone as if the whole thing wasn’t humor?

  2. We can interpret the tone any way we like. Clearly the writer was shooting for wry humor, but in my opinion he landed somewhere far afield.

    I didn’t know this was a McSweeney’s piece, but if so, it does a good job encapsulating why McSweeney’s is so hit and miss. By coincidence, I’m going to see Dave Eggers interviewed at the Herbst tonight, maybe I’ll bring this up. :)

  3. I went looking to turn up the original article and couldn’t find it on mcsweeneys.net, but the tone seems just like a bunch of other entries. But I can’t find that actual post. A search for “through New York last April” turns up this page which claims that the quote is a snippet from a Harper’s article by editor emeritus Lewis Lapham, but there’s no sign of the original on harpers.org. I’d check the highbeam page, but I’m too chicken to give them my email address.

    So maybe I’m confused.

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