Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Irony of It All

I'm sorry to have been neglecting you all; at work we've been doing performance evaluations (everybody passed), which always involve a flurry of concomitant schedule and workflow and management plans, all of which put my head into a different space, man. But two items therein of interest to you: we've hired Elissa Gershowitz as the new managing editor of the Horn Book Guide, and Kitty Flynn, formerly Guide Executive Editor, is now Horn Book Web Editor (that's the provisional title; we're also considering Webatrix) so I guess in some ways she will now be The Boss of Me. Kitty will be responsible for overseeing all of our electronic avenues of publication--website, blog, digital reviews--and she's going to be great at it.

I have taken some time out to enjoy another birthday present (more exactly, a present I picked out for myself because the intended present--the Die Hard trilogy--was so perfect I already owned it), Spy: The Funny Years, a history of my third most-favorite magazine, which includes the best piece of cultural theory from the 1980s, "The Irony Epidemic," by Paul Rudnick and Kurt Andersen.

There was recently a discussion on childlit about the definition of irony as presented in Karen Cushman's recent novel The Loud Silence of Francine Green, and novels such as M. E. Kerr's Gentlehands, Brock Cole's The Facts Speak for Themselves, and Chris Lynch's Inexcusable depend upon young readers being able to detect an ironic stance, a narrative strategy not all teen readers are ready for. (I've always maintained that Catcher in the Rye is popular with teens and deadly celebrity stalkers because they don't Get It.) But forget innocence as an excuse to misuse irony, "The Irony Epidemic" looks at what such a powerful weapon becomes in the hands of heterosexuals:

Victims of the Irony Epidemic do not dread commitment--they fear uncoolness. When Bob wears his garish shirts or his black-rimmed nerd glasses, he implicitly announces, I am aware enough to appreciate the squareness of this shirt and these glasses; I don't like them--I get them.

And history--and Elvis Costello's glasses--has proven Rudnick and Andersen's thesis that such easy irony has neither sting nor staying power: "As this decade began, Bob and Betty thought kidney-shaped coffee tables were amusing monstrosities; as the decade ends, Bob and Betty consider them merely stylish." The article is sidebarred by some of the hilarious compare-and-contrast boxes that Spy pioneered. "Camp Lite: Watching a videocassette of One Million Years B.C., starring Raquel Welch as a cavewoman. True Camp: Working out to Raquel's exercise video and wondering if Tahnee, Raquel's daughter, is a happy girl."

I need to tear myself away from Spy and you to go proof Guide reviews for a while. But, for discussion, I'll leave you with Paul Rudnick's puckish thoughts, printed elsewhere in Spy, on poetry: "Poems are Laura Ashley prints for the mind, unicorn dung. . . . Emily Dickinson never left her cottage in Amherst, and with just cause: no one asked her to. Don't invite Emily, she might recite one of her things."


Andy Laties said...

Hey Roger,

Speaking as a merchant of culture: there's big money in Irony. Check out Daniel Harris's title "Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism". And consider the novelty sideline company Accoutrements (I dare say readers have seen THESE products around):

There's some relationship between your Ironic-Today/Stylish-Tomorrow sequence and the gentrification cycle that has abandoned industrial buildings recycled as grungy artists' lofts, soon to become tony lawyers' urban pads.

rindawriter said...

Dangerous people, the poets, the dreamers, the mystics, the vision-seekers, the singers...and those who pray.

Laura Salas said...

Poems are lenses/glasses that reveal the world in a different way. Maybe they have to be square and black-rimmed for Rudnick to appreciate them:>)

KT Horning said...

Thanks for calling our attention to this book, Roger. I miss Spy so much and will savor this history. For years I kept the back issues but threw them out when I moved two years ago, something I regret today. I'd very much like to refer back to the article they did on the American obsession with inside stories. Do they include that one? Or the famous celebrity chain letter gag?

It's amazing to see how many contemporary magazines imitate Spy's style, if not its substance.

Jane said...

Perhaps I am irony impaired, but Emily D never forced her poetry on anyone. If you want real poetry forcers, who stopped people in the streets to speak their poems aloud, you must look to Hans Christian Andersen and the Scottish William McGonagall.


Melinda said...

Personally, I prefer to tackle people and sit on them before I start reading my poems.

My husband learned to dig Sibelius's Finlandia because of Die Hard. So I guess there's some redeeming value there.