This week, Martin Amis executed a rare offline dunk. In an interview with The Guardian, the meticulous Mart was asked if he stood by his contention that J.M. Coetzee — South African writer, Nobel Laureate, two-time Booker winner — was an irredeemable hack.
Do you still think that JM Coetzee has “no talent”, as you said in 2010?
I’ve never been stimulated by anything he’s written: his prose just strikes me as incredibly inert. If you write “the chickens would come home to roost” [a phrase that appears in Coetzee’s 1990 novel Age of Iron], it’s just dead. Style isn’t something you apply later; it’s embedded in your perception, and writers without that freshness of voice make no appeal to me. What is one in quest of with such a writer? Their views? Their theories? It was Clive James who said originality is talent – what could be less original than “the chickens would come home to roost”? It’s falling at the first hurdle, as far as I’m concerned.
So he doubles down on his ten-year-old slam, which relies entirely on a 31-year-old cliché so appalling that it apparently negates everything else Coetzee has ever written.
That, in the parlance of our times, is a dunk. It is performed in three fluid steps:
Select a particularly infelicitous phrase of your opponent’s.
Prune away the context.
Hold the phrase up for ridicule in the largest available forum.
Martin Amis is a master of the form, possessing both the elephant memory and the killer instinct required for the real-life dunk. Online, though, all you need is a Twitter account.
Chris Best, the CEO of Substack, recently singled out the Twitter dunk in an interview with Ryan Broderick of the always gem-packed Garbage Day newsletter. The incentives to dunk are built into Twitter — specifically in the fact that your reply becomes the headline:
“The fact that when I retweet something with a quote, I'm promoting my reply to that thing to be a top-level item. I'm, by default, doing it performatively. ... Twitter didn’t invent the urge to dunk. They did build like a giant dunking amplifier.”
And so I dunk, you dunk, they dunk, we all dunk, all the time. There are great dunks, to be sure:
Guardian US @GuardianUSGwyneth Paltrow broke down and ate bread during quarantine. What was your lowest point? https://t.co/ZoEBq6IsXG
So what happens when everything’s a dunk? Consider the source of the metaphor: In a typical NBA season, there are 82 regular games but only one Slam Dunk Contest. That ratio seems to work.
But as Heather Schwedel observed when she first identified the format on Slate in 2017, it’s like Twitter “created a pair of magic high-tops dispensed to every user on the service”. In 2019, the company said they had “big ambitions” to fix dunk culture. And in 2021, nothing’s changed.
And now discourse online is like a Harlem Globetrotters game, a rigged match that may be entertaining but is rarely fulfilling.
The fix might just be the Martin Amis Rule of Dunking: Would you do it in real life? Could you, really? Are you prepared to hold onto a bad sentence for three decades? If so, take flight and smash that backboard into a million likes. If not, maybe resist the urge.
Quick quips; lightning
“He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh.”
— H.L. Mencken on Warren G. Harding
“It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays saying things against one, behind one’s back, that are perfectly true.”
— Oscar Wilde
“He not only overflowed with learning but stood in the slop.”
— Sydney Smith
Get Wit Quick No. 110 will always take the rhetorical three-pointer. To aggressively dunk on someone in basketball was once known as posterizing them, because their agony would be immortalized on the bedroom walls of teenagers around the world. The midlife crisis dunk quest is a thing, I recently learned. My 2014 book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting contains nothing but net. See if you can sink the❤️ below from where you’re standing! Amazing!