When Kingsley Amis won the Booker prize for The Old Devils in 1986, he said that he had previously thought of the Booker as a rather trivial, showbizzy sort of caper, but now considered it a very serious, reliable indication of literary merit. It was a joke, evidently. Indeed, when he said it during his acceptance speech he grinned from ear to ear, just to make it crystal clear that he was being ironic. But it didn’t do any good. In a BBC round-up of the events of the year, the presenter said that Amis had won the distinguished literary prize in spite of having previously disparaged it. This was portrayed as a brilliant bit of sleuthing on the presenter’s part, as if his own dogged research had exposed Amis’s ghastly hypocrisy. In his memoirs, Amis concludes this anecdote by issuing a warning to writers and others: ‘Never make a joke against yourself that some little bastard can turn into a piece of shit and send your way.’
As a journalist whose stock in trade is telling stories against himself, I also experience these infuriating episodes from time to time. Perhaps the most memorable was at the Cannes film festival in 2008 when I spoke at a press conference to launch How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, the film based on my memoir of the same name. One of the assembled hacks — a friend of mine — asked how I felt about being played by Simon Pegg, who happened to be standing right next to me. I glanced at him contemptuously and said: ‘A bit disappointed, obviously. I was hoping for Brad Pitt.’
It was blindingly obvious I was joking. Indeed, everyone present burst out laughing. But in the following day’s Independent, the journalist who’d asked the question wrote up the incident in a way that portrayed me as an arrogant cock. He reported that I was ‘disappointed’ to be played by Britain’s No. 1 box-office star, as Pegg then was, and would have preferred the world’s best-looking man. To underline the point, there was a picture of Brad Pitt in all his glorious pulchritude next to a picture of me looking like Winston Churchill with a bad hangover.
I reflected on this earlier in the week when I briefly ‘trended’ on Twitter. Now, trending on Twitter is generally considered a good thing. Companies pay good money for this honour, particularly when launching a new product. But in my experience, it’s because something I’ve said or written has whipped up the left-wing Twitterati into a white fury of moral outrage — and so it proved. My sin was half-imagined, as it often is when this happens. On Sunday night, before the 89th Academy Awards got underway, I’d written a blog post for The Spectator with the headline: ‘And the Oscar goes to… anyone provided they’re not white, heterosexual or male.’ When this was retweeted the following day, it looked as though I was making a derogatory comment about the fact that Moonlight, a film about a gay black man, had won Best Picture. Cue a tsunami of abuse on Monday morning in which I was called every name under the sun, including ‘snowflake’, ‘racist’ and ‘a Poundland Piers Morgan’.
Fair enough. As a journalist, I can’t really complain about people taking a quote out of context — I’ve done it enough times myself. What was annoying, though, was the number of these indignant ninnies who linked to a ‘Status Anxiety’ column from last year about how my stag weekend had turned into a bit of a damp squib when several of my friends had failed to turn up. That was a tongue-in-cheek article in which I’d exaggerated just how disappointing the whole affair was for comic effect. It fell under the general heading of ‘miserabilist humour’, a genre I’d perfected while writing weekly dispatches from America back in the mid-1990s about my failure to take Manhattan.
But in the eyes of the Twitchfork mob, this article is conclusive proof that I am such a loathsome, despicable human being that even my so-called friends hate me. I am Norman No Mates, which is exactly what you’d expect from someone so insecure he has a conniption when a film about a gay African-American wins an Oscar. This is a classic example of a joke I’d made against myself being turned into a piece of shit and sent my way — except not just by one little bastard, but hundreds and hundreds of them. Such are the joys of trending on Twitter.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.