‘Why would they publish that!?’ is a common refrain encountered by almost any editor nowadays. We see them all too, by the way – your tweets are not invisible – and I tend to have a stock response: angry/disappointed social media user, aren’t you curious about what this person thinks?
Perhaps not: a lot of seasoned Australian columnists tend to fall into recitation and many readers aren’t really looking for a new line from their favourite writers. And that’s okay! So much of why we read is to have our half-formed opinions articulated for us by others, or to have those opinions broadened and deepened.
Nevertheless, when ‘Why did they publish that?’ is said today, it doesn’t seem to be yet another exhausted verdict on an ossified legacy media columnist. With the exception of publications that have to hang on to their stalwart columnists (and their ideas), the tone seems to have changed to ‘Why bother?’ or ‘Are you serious?’
This has largely been prompted by the emergence of publications accused of trafficking in ‘Hot Takes’ on the Australian media scene, such as Junkee, Buzzfeed and, yes, the Guardian.
As a purveyor of Hot Takes, I have some affection for the form, which sits somewhere on the spectrum between a Tweet/Facebook rant and an essay. It’s not quite a newspaper column either, in the sense that the Hot Take often comes out of nowhere, hitting the reader – and social media – unprepared.
An example. Earlier this year I published Nationals MP George Christensen on why he would see ‘hell freeze over’ before pulling out of the Reclaim Australia rally in his electorate. It was a ‘pollie piece’ but also, I thought, showed his willingness to actually defend his position in the way he saw it.
The rehearsed rubrics were close to hand for a lot of critics: giving Christensen a platform perpetuated his ideas; he didn’t need the platform because of his already-existing power as an MP; he wouldn’t give an honest opinion anyway, and so on.
Underneath all of it was a kind of sunk argument: that Christensen wasn’t a fit person to be published. Some readers went further, and seemed to take offence at the idea that anyone could defend a Coalition government in a mainstream publication.
Ironically, I encountered the same ‘he’s unfit’ reaction when I published Uthman Badar from Hizb ut-Tahrir earlier this year (before it was fashionable).
Neither of their pieces were really ‘opinion columns’ in the traditional sense, but quick takes responding to a specific set of circumstances or utterances. Both pieces generated a lot of discussion – something that, unfortunately, more finely wrought essays increasingly struggle to do these days.
Much of the reaction to both Christensen and Badar seemed to me to be an attempt to articulate an argument that we don’t like any more, one that is largely about virtue: that this writing is intentionally careless, unserious or reckless, which makes it dishonest – and therefore so is the editing, and, by extension, the editor.
Of course it’s possible to reply to such an argument on the standard journalistic grounds of newsworthiness and reader interest (which raise further ethical questions of their own). And despite having my own problems with the liberal notion of a marketplace of ideas, I think it’s worthwhile to have public figures say their bit in the moment for the sake of others and for posterity.
This argument about unseriousness leads into the most disposable end of the Hot Take economy: pure content creation – ‘snackable’ posts, listicles, ‘shitposting’, clickbait and the like. Stuff that is made to be read in the moment and discarded. A lot of this stuff is published not because the writer or editor necessarily wants to commission it, or because it comes naturally, but because it’s what works online.
But to hold it up against the essay and find it wanting is also a mistake. We could go down the vulgar path and say the essay, which hits its stride in the nineteenth century as a polemical form for bourgeois men, was the Hot Take of its age. It reached its early peak in the writing of the likes of William Hazlitt, whose essay ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’ has a great line about having an ‘excess of bile on the stomach’ that seems apropos for many who think the Hot Take is beneath contempt.
But I don’t think we should look down on the Hot Take for its lack of literary pretension – because that’s not its purpose. In Jacques Ranciere’s essay on the 1889 Exposition, for instance, he notes that the guilds invited to go and marvel at labour-saving machines and other technical niceties returned home and dropped genuine Hot Takes in their own publications. There was no aspiration to literary merit to much of this writing – they were just straight-up, often counterintuitive, appraisals of how the whole thing was fucked, and that they were about to have their traditional and professional ways of life (the last gasps of pre-modern ways of living) completely destroyed. They were right, and they weren’t writing with a view to posterity, but to articulate quick and dirty ideas in the moment. It was Hot Takes all the way down, baby.
I’m taking the piss on some level, but the Hot Take, an online form existing in an irony-drenched millenial world, is also a form that requires a lot of skill and discipline to pull off. Yet it’s also something anyone should be able to do, a basic skill like using a word processor.
The pseudo-irony of a lot of Hot Takes is, in my opinion, a kind of play; Osman Faruqi’s piece on Twitter Nationalisation is a good example. At the same time, there’s also this sense that Hot Takes exist in an economy that is fundamentally out there: the ideas don’t matter, the economics don’t make sense, there are no audiences and so on. There’s a further gendered element to it: the ubiquity of Hot Takes accompanies the upsurge in public, confessional women and queer writers, as Van Badham wrote in the Guardian last year.
In another sense, the Hot Take exists to report on and for the consumption of ‘virtual persons’. This, I think, speaks to Mark di Stefano’s success doing very weird journalism concerned largely with the manipulation of signs. Uncovering Mark Latham’s ‘real’ secret twitter account, Snapchat interviews with Phillip Ruddock and so on are definitely in the domain of the Hot Take. Yet when we see Julie Bishop’s emojis bleed through into ‘mainstream’ journalism, we instinctively feel something weird is going on – and it is.
How do we integrate the Hot Take with the anarchic world of social media in a way that makes everyone happy? Perhaps it’s impossible. In any case, I think Comment is Free was ahead of its time in setting up a form that was simultaneously free to be used for Takes – in that traditional columnists can be intermingled with new and fresh voices that speak from their own position of authority and authenticity – and also disciplined. Even when, for instance, Charlie Brooker is writing about David Cameron being a lizard, there’s a nod to the essay as a literary form.
At the end of it all, the real skill is in turning out a great short Hot Take on this or that – male feminists, mature age students or, yes, avocados, or why Crossfit is like late capitalism or why my puppy will rule the world, or on the end of imperial honours or anything else. It’s not an age thing either: I’ve found young and old writers alike able to do it.
I struggle with it myself, to be honest: I’ve written 1300 words for this piece that was meant to be 600 words long. I wish I could be a Hot Take writer but I just can’t scale those heights. Anyway, that’s just my take.