Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart: Style, Irony, and the Individual

Our first contribution to the MagMods Bookclub comes from Daniel Worden, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.  He works on twentieth-century American literature and culture and has published on Willa Cather, Charles Chesnutt, dime novels, HBO’s Deadwood, and Chris Ware.

Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture demonstrates how periodical studies can revise and offer new models of modernism. The links that Keyser establishes between Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anita Loos, Dorothy Parker, Jessie Fauset, Dawn Powell, and Mary McCarthy feel at one and the same time entirely intuitive yet counter to the traditional distinctions one might make between poetry and prose, mass culture and experimental form, pre-1945 and post-1945 literature, style and substance. Keyser’s book is an important analysis of modernist style, and one that foregrounds how style functions as a way of projecting celebrity persona yet also maintaining an ironic distance from the norms that style is so often made to serve.

As Keyser notes in the book’s introduction, “the humor writers of smart middlebrow culture maintained their popular personae and witty tone by skating across the dangerous surface of snobbery, materialism, emphasis on feminine bodiliness, and celebration of consumerism” (19). “Smart” style is both a marketable commodity and an artistic refuge. It participates in the dual movement that Theodor Adorno describes in the opening sentences of “The Schema of Mass Culture”: “The commercial character of culture causes the difference between culture and practical life to disappear. Aesthetic semblance turns into the sheen which commercial advertising lends to the commodities which absorb it in turn. But that moment of independence which philosophy specifically grasped under the idea of aesthetic semblance is lost in the process.” Adorno’s sentiment, familiar as it might seem as cultural critique, is closely related to the tensions that Keyser finds in middlebrow humor writers. In magazine culture, style is put in the service of largely commercial interests, but a commercial context that also requires—especially with magazines like The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books—the aura of the aesthetic to produce the distinction upon which the commodity defines itself. While, for Adorno, the aesthetic is destroyed in the dialectical movement between commerce, culture, and everyday life, Keyser points out how style persists beyond the absence of an autonomous aesthetic that was, of course, always a fiction to begin with. The style of a writer like Dorothy Parker produces a sense of autonomy through irony, a detachment from the marketplace for which she writes. Keyser’s book made me question the relationship between style and the aesthetic. Do both carve out a space of autonomy, however ultimately compromised or complicit? Is there a similar style in even more popular writers, such as Emily Post or Miss Manners?

Related to this question of style is the question of irony. In the chapter on Mary McCarthy, Keyser remarks that “the very individualism and pragmatism of an ironic point of view represent its greatest potential for political practice” (165). This link between individualizing irony and politics positions McCarthy in a moment of transition, as modernism gives way to postmodernism, predicting the ways in which neoliberal governmentality produces a world where subjects are defined as individual entrepreneurs. In the contemporary moment, we inhabit a position of irony not through choice but by necessity.  Irony is now an established advertising strategy, and individuals are increasingly responsible for their own well-being in a world of crumbling state infrastructures and dwindling social support systems. Does the ironic style that offers such complexity and rich texture in modernism produce a type of jaded individualism, one whose spectral presence can be found in the global consumerism dramatized in a film like Sex and the City 2? Always striking a fine balance between consumerism and critique, “smart” irony does seem to be bound up in entrepreneurial individualism, and as I finished Keyser’s book, I immediately began to think of The September Issue, the documentary film about Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Her large sunglasses, at once a stylization of self and an assertion of impersonal discrimination, are analogous to the smart styles analyzed by Keyser. If irony thrives in modernism as a way of producing a stylized persona, could it be that irony now consists of impersonality, the refusal of smartness, the unwillingness to even hazard a persona?

Daniel Worden

One response to “Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart: Style, Irony, and the Individual

  1. Interesting post, Daniel! I have to respond to the thoughts on Emily Post and style since she’s my lady. In Post’s case, there is a relationship between social style in terms of manners and her writing style. Her New York Times obituary states that “she believed that what was socially right was what was socially simple and unaffected,” and this simple and unaffected quality was what she was known for in terms of her writing and etiquette advice. This is, of course, very different from what her critics, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, would say about Post since they saw her as handing down a tablet of trivial and unnecessary laws.

    In terms of the aesthetic, Post wrote fiction but I’ll refrain from commenting on her novels out of politeness. However, her Etiquette (1922) was in fact quite novelistic. Edmund Wilson has an essay on Post where he writes, “Mrs. Post is not merely the author of a comprehensive textbook on manners: she is a considerable imaginative writer, and her book has some of the excitement of a novel.” Post’s innovation — and what made her so readable — is that she used characters, like Mrs. Worldly, the Gildings, and Mrs. Toplofty, to illustrate her points about manners. In playing with the aesthetic in her Etiquette, it seems that Post made herself even more marketable.

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