”You do realize that Graydon Carter is one of my oldest friends?“
Now it was my turn to hesitate. What did that have to do with anything?
”What’s that got to do with anything?“
”Right, that‘s it,“ she replied. ”I’m calling him right now.“
As that passage suggests, Young has an unerring ability to commit gaffes and disinter carefully concealed taboos, as he does most memorably when he hires a stripogram for his office mate, only to discover after the stripper‘s arrival that it’s Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. He also enjoys ruffling P.C. feathers, ordering Chinese food from the ultrachic clothing store Shanghai Tang. (The Asian-Americans on staff are not amused.) But although much of the book is taken up by set pieces and anecdotes (crashing the VF Oscar party, dates with gold diggers who make him feel as if he‘s at a job interview, a humiliating encounter with Martin Amis, etc.), there’s a more serious side to it as well. Having arrived in Manhattan as a wide-eyed, celebrity-besotted ingenue -- or so he asks us to believe -- Young gradually becomes disillusioned with the scene. Well, to place events in their proper order, first he‘s fired, then he’s disillusioned, but the disenchantment feels convincing nonetheless. How, he wonders, did his co-workers preserve their sanity ”while thinking up cover lines like ‘Jemima and Imran: The High-Stakes Marriage of Pakistan’s Camelot Couple‘? Were they all on Prozac?“ The answer, he adds in a footnote, is ”probably yes.“
It may not be news that America’s media elite is obsessed with fashion and status, but Young at least has a theory as to why. The all-consuming fascination with novelty for its own sake is a kind of degraded form of religion, he argues. From this viewpoint, the Zeitgeist becomes ”a mysterious, intangible entity that has many of the same properties as a divine being,“ and being in tune with it is akin to living in a Christian state of grace. Ultimately, this belief in the power of the new was one Young couldn‘t share, and his skepticism marked him as an infidel in the eyes of the Conde Nasties.
As for the obsession with status, American meritocracy is worse than the British class system because the latter allows for factors other than talent to explain people’s position. Despite its obvious demerits, class at least encourages the rich to be self-effacing and provides the poor with an explanation for their position. But in America the elite regards its wealth as ”completely legitimate,“ because self-earned, and can therefore condemn those who fail as losers. Whether or not Young is correct about this, it does help explain the American fixation with career. In the absence of all other influences, what you do translates to who you are. But the ”meritocracy,“ Young writes, is false anyway. ”To use a baseball analogy, America‘s most successful citizens were born on third and think they’ve hit a triple.“ The only personal assistants to be promoted while he was at Vanity Fair, he points out, both had famous parents.
Ultimately, this book is about the clash of two kinds of snobbery. There‘s the overt kind practiced by the fashionistas at Conde Nast, and the inverse snobbery of Brits like Toby Young. Coming from a much grander literary tradition, he instinctively looks down on reporters as ”hacks,“ despite being one himself. James Wolcott and Christopher Hitchens aside, he thinks of Conde Nast’s ad-packed flagship as little more than an upmarket tabloid. For Young, the joy of America‘s celebrity culture was that you didn’t have to take it seriously. It was frivolous, so why not enjoy it? But he soon discovered that New York‘s magazine world took celebrity culture very seriously indeed. So now he has returned to London, and, ironically, claims to have become more serious himself. Let’s hope not too much so. If there‘s one thing Young is good at, it’s being funny.
HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE | By TOBY YOUNG | Da Capo Press | $24 hardcover | 340 pages