Few things were better for American political discourse than the professional implosion and forced irrelevancy of Milo Yiannopoulos, the once-wildly popular gay troll provocateur who went down in a blaze of earnestly well-deserved shame and ignominy after it came to light that he’s okay with man-boy love. Milo had made a career for himself in the swamps of Internet nominal conservatism and in the dredges of the university speaking circuit by shouting things like “Feminism is cancer” and courting the racist cuck-brigade of the burgeoning neo-white supremacist movement. Yet it turned out, thankfully, that his looking the other way on grown men banging young boys was a bridge too far for the people who were calling his shots, so now he’s—well, what’s he even up to now? That’s right, nobody knows or cares all that much.
What he’s up to is duking it out with Simon & Schuster, the latter of who first agreed to publish his book and then dropped it after his wink-wink take on child sex came to light. Good for them. Last week, however, the publisher caused a bit of a stir when it was discovered that, as part of their defense, they presented Yiannopoulos’s entire manuscript as part of their court filings, alleging that the reason they dropped Milo was because they “did not receive a publishable book from the author.”
I don’t doubt it. And as bad a writer as Milo is, it is worth reviewing his work, only insofar as you can learn precisely how not to write a reflective memoir. Of less concerned is the stupid, uninteresting shock-jock garbage in which Milo trucks; more pressing, I think, is his stupid, uninteresting, garbage style of writing. The former not many people are that interested in emulating; the latter is sadly more popular.
It is beyond the scope of this blog to critique the entire manuscript; if you want a good lesson in passable writing, feel free to read it yourself and then do precisely the opposite of everything it does. A single excerpt, however, should suffice:
No prizes, then, for guessing why the left hates me so much. As I mentioned at the start of this chapter—I’m gay, I’m metropolitan, and I’ve had more black men in me than a college basketball team. Yet I’m not one of them…I am who I am, to quote a musical. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” to quote Walt Whitman. I grew up listening to Wagner operas and shooting my dad’s guns. I’m not aware of a specific term for the type of modern-day scab I am, although I get the “self-hating gay” and “gay Uncle Tom” variants on a daily basis.
Do you feel that—that creaky, dreary, utterly useless juvenility, the mind-numbing and banal and obsessive-compulsive inward focus? Writing about oneself—a whole book about oneself, in particular—is never an easy task. But the quickest way to make yourself look like an insufferable chump is to declare “I am large, I contain multitudes,” particularly when you’re basing such a ridiculous claim on the fact that you dress well and you like to be penetrated by black men but that you’re also “conservative.” It’s the kind of duality an unpleasant 8th-grader would find clever. As far as personal chronicles go, it’s just a dead weight, neither usefully shocking nor insightful in any real way; even more grating and unreadable is the absolute fixation on the first person: so much “me,” “I,” “I’m.” Even personal memoirs shouldn’t contain this much self-reference.
It’s an easy trap to fall into when writing a memoir: assuming that your own inner monologue, and your own silly and uninteresting rationalizations and observations, are good material. They are usually not. The best writing in which the author’s exploits form a principal part of the narrative—Mark Twain’s autobiography, say, or Michael Pollan’s food writings, or some of David Sedaris’s earlier collections, or even essays like George Orewell’s “Shooting an Elephant”—function as experiential filters, not megaphones; they say, “This is the way the world is, as I understand it,” not, “Look at how neat and clever all my private observations and opinions really are!”
The latter style is depressingly prevalent these days, and there is money in it: people like Milo, and Tucker Max, and Lena Dunham, and the myriad other celebrities who adopt it, have discovered that this approach to writing is both easy and profitable. And that is a shame, for the quality of our literary market and the quality of our discourse, both of which suffer. It seems entirely appropriate that the most comprehensive review of Milo’s dreadful book has come in the form of humiliating editor’s notes published as part of a lawsuit. That, at least, seems to fit the bill, and with any luck it will discourage him from writing a second doorstop.