Why modern-day muckraker Ana Marie Cox couldn't care less about her critics or even, at times, her audience
The New York Times is famous for transforming the hip into the obsolete merely by doing a feature about it. So, deciding blogging was the zeitgeist (two years after it had become last year's zeitgeist), the Times sent a naïf down to check out the bloggers at the Republican convention last August. He returned with an article that reads like a geek mash note to one Ana Marie Cox, aka the "Wonkette," with her "peachy cream skin and eyes of a very bright blue," who he was able to take to "a very expensive dinner at a really nice restaurant in Soho," etc., etc. Naturally, that peachy cream skin was pictured on the magazine's front cover.
Chalk another one up for a woman who seems to either fascinate or infuriate. When her weblog (www.wonkette.com), which mixes a jaded sex-joke schtick worthy of a Catskill's comic, circa 1940, with D.C. gossip, debuted in January of 2003, Slate's media critic, Jack Shafer, bashed it in an article incoherently titled "The Heaving Pukes Who Write Gawker [a New York gossip blog whose media umbrella publishes Wonkette] and Wonkette." "I had Jack over to dinner a week before that article came out," Cox says, "and he didn't even hint to me then that he thought I was a menace to his children."
Cox's Wonkette has become a stable D.C. read, at least for the political-media set. She quickly established herself by outing Jessica Cutler, an intern to Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who was writing a sex diary of her encounters with various political adjuncts. Cutler's five minutes of fame led to the inevitable Playboy offer of a centerfold ... but Playboy wanted Cutler to pose with Cox. The old line D.C. humorists Art Buchwald and Mark Russell had never in their entire careers been approached to do nude layouts. Cox had clearly arrived.
Now her site lists an intern and several helpers. She has just sold a novel for a reported $275,000. Even Cutler has reportedly written a memoir. Clearly, blogging has been very, very good to Cox.
Alas, the Chronicle wasn't about to spring for taking Cox to a very expensive dinner at a really nice restaurant in Soho, so we had to catch up with her by phone.
Austin Chronicle: Since this is the week after Hunter Thompson killed himself, the first question is obviously a compare and contrast between the new, or gonzo, journalists, and the blogging journalists.
Ana Marie Cox: Obviously, they did it better. The worst thing that can happen to a first-year journalism student is to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Or, for a music journalist, to read Lester Bangs. Because they get the idea that, as somebody said, to write you just "open a vein." Well, there's an art to bleeding. People need editors. Thousands of people write diaries, but very few people read diaries, because very few diaries are very interesting.
AC: Yeah, Joan Didion was vaguely part of that group, and she made sure we knew every pill she was taking
AMC: Ah, but did she? Didion always stands on the sidelines, she always lets us know exactly what she wants us to know. Her essays, if you go back, are perfectly structured. I have learned a lot from Joan Didion. Also Harold Ross, the original editor of The New Yorker. You know, it started out as a comic magazine. I love Ross.
AC: So, what blogs do you think need editors? Instapundit?
AMC: All of them. Not just Instapundit besides, he doesn't really write, does he?
AC: I suppose the ethos of blog spontaneity is especially difficult if you want to be funny.
AMC: Funny isn't raw. Funny is very processed. I spend hours agonizing about synonyms for "penis."
AC: What do you think about the way in which blogs and their audiences interact? Your blog doesn't have a comments section. Why?
AMC: I get lots of letters. I read them. But I am very possessive my blog is my blog. This might sound incredibly snobbish, but I don't read comments on blogs. I think writing is a one-way medium.
AC: So, you don't care about an audience?
AMC: I have a virtual comedy room. I try things out on people I know with instant messaging. Having your audience be part of the evolution of your thought, the way [Andrew] Sullivan does, that isn't my thing.
AC: I know you've been around on the Web for a long time before Wonkette. You worked for Suck back in, what, 1995? How did you start?
AMC: I was at Berkeley, in the graduate history department. And I was on the Berkeley radio, I had a show dedicated to zines, because I had a zine. And the editor of Suck heard me and contacted me.
AC: So, you were part of the garage punk ethos back in the early Nineties?
AMC: No. I don't have anything against mainstream. I'd love to write for mainstream media, I just never got on that gravy train.
AC: Your blog is bravely trying to maintain the sex scandal quotient in D.C., but really, there's been an appalling lack of juiciness in the capital lately. Why?
AMC: People really don't have sex here. They replicate mechanically. Maybe it is the fallout from Clinton, or maybe it is that Republicans are better at repressing these things.
AC: How about the recent scandal of Jeff Gannon, the supposed gay prostitute-cum-fake journalist. Do you think something good will come of that? A prostitution ring in the White House?
AMC: Right, Karl Rove, political genius of the century, is going to be caught running a prostitution ring. I don't think so. Actually, I'm for Jeff Gannon. I think bloggers should be for having bloggers ask questions of the president. Isn't that what we are for? More legitimacy for weblogging?
AC: You've gotten a lot of criticism. For instance, Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler has taken shots at you. How do you respond to it? How do you deal with it?
AMC: I haven't read a piece of criticism of me that wasn't already in my head. Bob has said that I am invited into mainstream media forums to represent the liberals, and I'm not a good liberal. You know, he's right. And he has said that I'm not a serious analyst. And he's right again.
Texas Monthly Editor Evan Smith will conduct SXSW Interactive's keynote interview with Ana Marie Cox at 2pm, Monday, March 14, room 17AB of the Austin Convention Center. For more information, see www.sxsw.com.