The muchness of the Duchess
Or, the communal power of kind wit
This literary genre began with straight-up tweet collections on paper, like 2009’s Twitter Wit: Brilliance in 140 Characters or Less and 2012’s The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten: The Tweets of Steve Martin. They’re clever in parts and certainly amusing to browse at this late date in human history — how gentle life was! — but it remains unclear why they needed to print the internet. Later variations on the theme wrapped the quips of people who became famous on Twitter around memoir, serving as launching pads for talented comedians like Rob Delaney.
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt is an end in itself. Its author is anonymous, known only by the drag queen name she borrowed from a friend (“his first dog was a black Lab named Duchess, and his mother’s maiden name was Goldblatt”) and the above 1633 painting Portrait of an Elderly Lady by Frans Hals. The book details how this divorced, unemployed, and grief-stricken woman built a new life as a fictional 81-year-old author turned minor social media sensation. The Duchess and her book succeed by doing the opposite of what social media does best: Instead of enraging, she soothes.
The Duchess cultivates that rarest and most valuable flavour of surprising creativity: a kind wit. And in the process, she finds a community of people, mostly literary folk, who deeply connect with what she’s doing.
In 138 issues of this newsletter, I’ve only found kind wit twice, in the forms of Robert Benchley and Ted Lasso. The Duchess succinctly explains why it’s so rare. “The mean joke is always right there at my fingertips,” she writes. “It’s effortless. Any asshole can make a mean joke. It’s harder work to reach out further for the joke that’s funny and can’t hurt anybody.”
Benchley’s example was clouded by drink and didn’t end well, but Ted Lasso may be a distant cousin of the Duchess. Both are fictional characters who connect with real people. As her creator writes, she’s made up but the love is real.
Goldblatt’s creator chose kind wit in homage to her late father, who pushed her toward unconditional love. “He liked good-natured humor, kind humor that didn’t hurt anyone; a clever play on words or the surprise punch line he couldn’t see coming. Like many lovers of the written word, he delighted in wit, and he was an appreciative connoisseur of careful cursing; he understood its power.” She stuck with it because it worked.
In practice, that means her quips lean toward the absurd. That’s the useful how in her work: if you’re going to say something sharp and kind, you need to aim the blade skyward. “It hurts my heart when I can’t say the very funniest thing I think of,” she writes, “because I’m vain enough to want to show off, but one of DG’s principles is that she doesn’t poke fun ‘at’ anyone.”
She answers every comment — a cardinal rule of online audience building — and uses every reply as “a chance to create an inevitable surprise for the reader: ‘inevitable’ in the sense that once you saw it, there was no other response that would have been superior, and a ‘surprise’ in that people couldn’t guess what she would say next.”
Duchess Goldblatt has fans around the world who send her letters, artwork, and delicious blackberry custard pies. She keeps her identity secret in the book and in real life, which is a perhaps unnecessary but clever way to prolong the magic, though she does identify one of her fondest admirers as Lyle Lovett. The country singer plays the part of the mentor on Goldblatt’s heroine’s journey. It’s his counsel she credits with showing her that “if I cast my inner light out into the universe, more light would bounce back toward me.” That’s not how Twitter usually works but it certainly should be.
Is kind wit possible outside of art, though? Duchess Goldblatt and her creator show it can be practiced in reality and made perfect in fiction. “The more I’ve become Duchess and myself at once, both of us together with one voice, the more that my real tribe has been able to find me,” they write. “Fancy that.”
Quick quips; lightning
“If you can’t be kind, at least be vague.”
— Judith Martin
“Do not ask me to be kind; just ask me to act as though I were.”
— Jules Renard
“Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet ’em on the way down.”
— Wilson Mizner
GWQ No. 139 has if not all the feels then at least many of them. Most of the book Twitter Wit was oddly mean, which was probably foreshadowing, though it did include “Giraffes are kinda like periscopes for themselves.” Steve Martin’s tweets are pretty solid, such as “Advice for writers: If you're a writer, a real writer, a really, really real writer, like, REALLY a writer, you should not write a sentence like this one,” but really, just read Born Standing Up. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting has a whole chapter on Twitter that has aged like a fine wine left uncorked. Kind wit, everybody! Spread the ❤️ !