Royal Mayhem: Team Kate Middleton vs. Team Hilary Mantel

An un-twittered view of an author's "attacks" on everyone's favorite princess.

Gather ’round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale. In the Land Before Twitter, if someone clamped a hand over your mouth after you spoke 140 letters, you’d think he was a fascist and definitely not go on a second date with him. In the Land Before Twitter, reporters who covered foreign wars had to leave their bedrooms. And in the Land Before Twitter, intelligent, impulsive people made snap judgments—ill-informed judgments, stupid judgments—largely without consequence, having shared them only with a few drunk people sitting on a couch at a party.

Everything is different now. A character count is seen as a bracingly creative restriction (though mouth-clamps on first dates are still discouraged). War reporters who correspond in pajamas get book deals. And intelligent, impulsive people continue to make snap judgments—only now they immediately share them with four drunk people on a couch plus dozens (or hundreds) more on a Twitter feed. These intelligent, impulsive people are Twitter’s victims—the well-intentioned who are now vulnerable to the inner egotist they never knew they had.

But if Twitter is a weapon of self-destruction for intelligent, impulsive people, it’s a hand grenade for the intelligent, impulsive journalists who tend a given beat. Take, for example, Hugo Schwyzer, who teaches gender studies and writes for the feministy blog Jezebel. In a recent Twitter dustup, his ill-informed snap judgment can only have come from this thought: “Something is happening among the ladies? I write for Jezebel! I must have an opinion about this, and fast!”

The dustup was this: The Twittersphere got hot and bothered over the London Review of Books [emphasis mine, to indicate a combination of words unlikely to occur again], which published the transcript of a lecture by best-selling author Hilary Mantel. The Man Booker Prize winner, who writes about royals in her fiction, spoke 5,794 words over the course of a scheduled hour at the British Museum on the subject of monarchy in England. Much of the content was about the artifice of royalty, and she spoke with particular eloquence about the constructed images of women like Marie Antoinette, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana and Kate Middleton.

Mantel has a long historical lens and a theoretical bent. Her lecture was wide-ranging: at times funny, at times dark. It was the kind of speech you’d listen to and think, “I’m probably not smart enough to get all the nuances here. Let me get the transcript and make sure I really grasped what she was saying.” At least, that’s one approach. Unfortunately, the more prevalent approaches were to misconstrue her entire point, thus making her point or issue out a hack job with hopes that intelligent, impulsive people would take the bait.

Enter Schwyzer—respected voice on gender and feminism with a large audience, a certain amount of influence and, it seems, not enough time to read the original:

His final words on the matter are most telling, not because of the content but because of the passive voice: “It’s blown up into a huge journalism story now … ” As though he’s watching a movie in which he stars and he’s still surprised by the ending.

In her lecture, Mantel said our current discourse about royals has come to this: “a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken.”

Sounds familiar. In the Land Before Twitter, all kinds of discourse fell victim to compulsions and vacuity. It’s just so much louder these days.