Critic at Large: The New Sarcasm by Nick Carroll (the first part in a series of exchanges)
In the new issue of Kurungabaa, volume 3 issue 1, Nick Carroll has a provocative article about the changing surf media landscape and the new voices and genres emerging. It’s a challenging piece that opens up a can of worms. As Nick writes, “Surf journalism has a new tone and fibre thanks to the Interweb. But is it rising to its subject?”
Nick’s article provoked a passionate response by another author in the latest issue, Mike Mantalos, who was a regular commenter at sites such as Postsurf and Nugable when they were up and running (these sites are a couple that come under scrutiny in Nick’s article).
So we post here Nick’s piece and follow it with Mike’s response. Nick has said he will then respond to Mike, and Tim Baker would like to weigh in on the debate. Please join in too. It’s an interesting time in the surf media and there are lots of new players and opinions to be heard. We’d love to hear what people think.
nb. please remember our comments policy. We realise people have strong opinions but we would like any discussion to remain civil so that everyone feels comfortable taking part.
The New Sarcasm
In the past decade, as the mighty World Wide Web has turned pretty much everybody with a computer into a published commentator on Life, the Cutback and Everything, it’s become a habit – almost a reflex – among surfers of a certain bent to mercilessly condemn surf magazines and their written content.
Their thesis is that it’s pretty much all bullshit; that the surf industry machine’s supposed iron-clad control over its press-gang slaves has resulted in a hopeless degeneration of surf media, to the point where the mags have become meaningless, ineffectual gibberish fit only for poisoning the minds of primary school students and advancing the careers of overpaid surf stars.
I can’t quite cotton to this thesis … seems to me that most Australian surf mags today aren’t so much the idiot spawn of Satan as they are just a bit too nice; that in the wearisome process of earning a crust from both their readers and advertisers, they’ve largely given up the power to offend.
But as someone with a near-lifetime affection for the craft, I’ve been quietly amused, not to say thrilled, to note the emergence via the Web of a fascinating trend in surf journalism – a trend it has to be said, you could never have imagined emerging from the surf mags.
For want of some smart-arse beating me to the punch with a name for this trend: welcome, dear reader, to the New Sarcasm.
New media forms, despite the hype attending their birth, always take their sweet time establishing themselves. Was it really only 1999 when half the world’s venture capital was being thrown at the Internet, amid the predicted death of everything without a domain name?
Surfing was scarcely immune to the fever of the times … and such were the insane quantities of money being thrown into play, even some of us surf journos got hold of a bit. (Hey, Swell.com! Thanks for the kitchen renovation!)
Yet predictably enough it all unravelled, and as the Net tearfully shed its initial enthusiasm for itself, surfing’s share of New Media broke down into a few equally predictable forms. The mag publishers, fuelled more by duty than by any particular online passion, scrabbled together a few eponymous sites in support of their print products. A couple of “aggregator” sites emerged, chief among them Surfersvillage, a sort of clearing-house for surf industry press releases and obscure promo material from the fringes of the surfing empire.
The Killer App, it seemed, was surf checking and forecasting, a market so thoroughly cornered by California’s Sean Collins and his company Surfline as to rapidly send Surfline.com to the top of the online surf media hit parade, where it remains to this day along with various regional imitators (Coastalwatch and Swellnet fill the bill in our own sunburnt land).
It all seemed oddly depressing for a medium so recently alight with promise. Especially the aggregators. In would come the afternoon Surfersvillage email heads-up, on it you’d click, and be whisked into a flat-lining, atonal sort of world, into which a surf shop opening in Portugal carried about the same weight as the latest Eddie winner, and read in the same awkward promo-bro lingo. The implicit message: Everything matters! Or maybe nothing does.
But lame or not, none of it worked in favour of the surf mags…and as time passed and the real value of the online medium began to surface, a couple of emergent Webisodes threatened to sideline the mags even further. One has been the spectacularly successful webcasting of major professional surfing events – a Killer App almost on the scale of surf forecasting, limited only by the number of big time events per annum.
The other has been a seemingly quite sudden realisation on the part of a small yet feisty collection of surfers, writers, and sundry surf culture addicts that surf media wasn’t the closed shop they’d imagined it to be. Making surf mags costs money, but in effect, publishing online was free – and if you didn’t need the ad money, you could say whatever the hell you liked.
New Sarcasm takes a stance almost vertically opposed to the overwhelming stream of corporate PR that’s been such a thunderous if thin feature of surf media both New and Old in recent years. Its whole mission is to burn down the spin, deride it, or just waltz on by as if it doesn’t exist.
If there’s been a leader of the movement, it’s Lewis Samuels, a 32-year-old surfer and writer originally from Bolinas, just north of San Francisco.
Samuels achieved a distinction rare in surf journalism circles: he was actually fired, from Surfline.com after writing a piece on his Postsurf.com blog in March 2009, criticising a Surfline front page article. The article featured Billabong’s US CEO, Paul Naude, talking about his 100-barrel Tavarua week; Samuels suggested Naude might have thought twice about this flagrant public boast, seeing as how many of Billabong’s retail customers were struggling in the depths of a massive global recession.
“You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see this coming,” Samuels later wryly posted of his being “let go”, in the corporate parlance of the day.
Not that Lewis didn’t have other things to fall back on. Highly intelligent and articulate, the only child of a doctor and a writer, he’s written a novel (unpublished as yet) and studied cognitive science for a degree at the University of California San Diego, setting up a career in website user research, which he pursued throughout the Surfline.com and Postsurf episodes.
His time at UCSD was his first serious encounter with modern mass surf culture. In Bolinas, by his own account, Lewis grew into surfing more or less disconnected from crowds. “There was no competitive anything,” he told me. “I might as well have been in Oregon … Most of the other surfers were much older, marginal characters, tradesmen and pot-growers, who took me under their wing. It was cold, windy, fierce … Surfing was all about challenging the conditions.” By contrast, he says, San Diego “was a wonderful place, but I hated every minute of it. I’d grown up with surfing being this special thing, but in San Diego everyone was a surfer. Every party in our college had a fucken Taylor Steele movie on in the background.”
Lewis travelled for a year, surfing around the South Pacific and Indonesia, went back home and got a job during the dot-com boom, wrote his novel, and wondered what else he could do. He asked fellow San Franciscan Matt Warshaw, a former editor of Surfer magazine, what he thought about writing for the surf media for a living. Warshaw told him: “If there’s anything you can do other than that, do it. There’s no money in surf writing.”
Nonetheless Lewis began writing for Surfline.com, where he pitched the idea of Power Rankings: a critical commentary on the ASP’s top 45 pros, after the fashion of Derek Hynd’s columns for Surfer magazine in the 1980s. It brought him a lot of attention, even from the pros themselves, not all of whom were thrilled about his judgements. “It was a total shock when these guys started responding to me, I’d never expected them to actually read it. For me it was just about writing, hoping the readers would connect with that – the writing, not just the photos.” For a New Sarcastic, Lewis can sound awfully naïve – even idealistic – about the Power of the Written Word.
He started Postsurf.com out of a similar idealism about what a writer can achieve in the surf culture. “It was defined from the start to change the landscape of the surf media. I thought I might be able to push what everyone thought could be said. I mean, the majority of surf writing – there’s this unique tone they all adopt. The writers are almost interchangeable.”
Postsurf certainly wasn’t that. Writing “one or two hours a day” in between working at his real job, Lewis tore chunks out of pretty much every aspect of commercial surf culture. Few cows were too sacred. Opening each stanza with some hilariously ferocious Samuelsism – “What fuckery is this??” was a favourite — Postsurf mocked everything from Dave Rastovich’s eco-cred to Laird Hamilton’s self-regard. “Laird’s Ego Bigger Than America!” ran one cracker of a headline.
In the process, Lewis unleashed what appeared to be a spectacularly vicious response among his readership. Each classically barbed bit of Samuels prose would be followed by a flood of reader comments, practically dripping with bile, scorning a hundredfold the objects of Lewis’s scorn. Lewis occasionally sounds a bit ambivalent about the carnage that regularly ensued: “There were a lot of very nice well-meaning people who were thrown under the bus.”
But at the same time, he couldn’t help himself: “It’s (the surf industry) such a self-congratulatory bubble – people thinking they’re doing so well, when really they’re just engaged in the spreading of mediocrity.”
Postsurf had become a new home for surfing’s rebellious soul, and needless to say, the surf corpos hated it. Heads of large surf companies are genuinely baffled at the anger and contempt regularly expressed toward them and their brands by so many long-term surfers on Australian and US surf forums. They have no idea how the industry attracts so much latent rage. But when it comes to defending their own, they have little mercy. Though he won’t or can’t cop to it, Lewis may have racked a bridge too far with Naude when suggesting Rasta’s recent Surf Industry Manufacturers’ Association Environmentalist of the Year Award was a PR stunt. On September 4, 2009, he made his last post on Postsurf. “Yeah,” he muttered, “I think I’ll just have to say I’m happy with what the project managed to do.”
What did it do? A longer look at the now-comatose site shows that Postsurf wasn’t as nuclear as it seemed. For instance, a breakdown of its thousands of pseudonymic reader comments soon shows a far less potent response than you’d have guessed at first glance. Most of the comments were made by a total of less than 25 nicknames, and many of those had suspicious similarities in style and tone, which might lead a sceptical observer to doubt their complete veracity. A coupla dozen out of a global surf population in the millions? Hardly a cultural revolution.
Nonetheless, Lewis has spawned a broad pool of imitators: sites like nugable.com and likebitchin.com (run until recently by the surf media’s clown prince, Derek Rielly), and an emerging cadre of journalists like Charlie “Chas” Smith, who writes extremely funny shit from major pro surfing contests, often focusing almost solely on what he and the pro surfers are wearing — so far off-topic, in fact, that it drives the hardcore readers mad, unless they happen to twig the underlying irony. After all, the whole show is funded by fashion companies.
In turn this is spawning some wacky rivalries. At 23 years of age, Jed Smith (no relation) is probably the sharpest of Australia’s young surf journalists. He’s hilariously insouciant when describing his encounter with longtime surf writer Tim Baker in early 2009. Baker was advertising a paid workshop at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, themed on writing about the ocean, and Jed decided to make public fun of it – an approach that ended with Tim screaming at him down the phone. “I saw an opportunity for a gag. I wouldn’t really know much about the dude at all, to be honest,” Jed told me. “I just thought it was a little bit lame what he was doing and it just … metastasised. I’ve only had a couple of meetings with the dude … he seems to take himself really seriously. But I s’pose if I was his age and some grom had rung me up and started taking the piss out of something I was doing, I’d have slapped the shit out of him.”
Jed works at Stab, a surf fashion publication based in Bondi and run by the good-guy-bad-guy team of Sam McIntosh and Derek Rielly. When I visited to talk with Jed, Sam greeted me with his usual smooth smiling charm; not for nothing is he nicknamed “Wheels”. But it’s Rielly’s enfant-terrible wickedness that drives the magazine, and it’s no surprise that Stab is where Lewis and Chas, along with Jed, have found their current print home. For pretty much alone in the print surf media, Stab has been engaged in a valiant effort to turn the New Sarcasm into a style, a point of difference – in effect, a marketing tool.
This is called “reverse spin” in media marketing, and it’s a bloody tricky stunt. Despisers of surf mags aren’t quite right about the mags’ status as slaves of the Man. It’s more a matter of practicalities: no consumer magazine’s advertising staff will tolerate continual attacks on their clients, and those clients’ money is what keeps people employed.
But perhaps the spin wouldn’t be impossible in this case … especially seeing as how New Sarcasm, for all its affected rebellion, is as enamoured of the same stuff as most of the regulation surf media, the same stuff big surf companies want their media buddies focused on: ie, mega pro contests and their celebrity super-athlete starpower.
Sarcastic or not, a true journo just can’t keep away from the bright lights for long.
Those bright lights provided Stab with a publicity bombshell after Charlie Smith reported that the re-crowned world men’s surfing champion, Mick Fanning, had called him a “fucking Jew” at Fanning’s post-title party.
Stab has a genius for getting itself noticed in the broader media, and sure enough, a couple of months after the story was published (and amazingly, right in the middle of the Australian leg of the 2010 world tour – coincidence!), the mag found its way on to the desks of the Sydney Jewish Board of Deputies and thence into the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, wherein all hell broke loose.
Publicity like that you can’t buy; though perhaps McIntosh was sorta wishing he could sell it, after he’d made a couple of painful trips down to the Torquay head office of Rip Curl, Mick’s primary endorsement, trying to persuade them to continue Stab’s advertising support. Rip Curl, along with Fanning, remains unamused.
This scoop aside, for all its hilarious sound and fury, the New Sarcasm hasn’t yet featured much actual reporting. The major surfing news story of the past year, Kelly Slater’s management’s pitch for a world tour in opposition to the ASP, was broken by none other than the hopelessly ancient Phil Jarratt in a local Noosa rag; Jarratt had been tipped off by one of his Quiksilver buddies, which perhaps might be a lesson in the value of sources.
The followup reporting – you know, the actual digging up of information, calling and talking to interested parties, presenting information and quotes in context, etc, etc – fell exclusively to the staff of, you guessed it, boring old surf magazines, though now they did it on magazine-linked sites made a hell of a lot livelier by the need to compete for readers’ attention.
Ironically, the New Sarcasm’s biggest impact may eventually be to make surf mags better.
Though I’m not sure where that will leave the couple of dozen avid readers who responded to Postsurf.com with such fervour. “We’re hungry for a big, steaming soft serve of real,” writes a poster nicknamed Tanner Darkly in response to a Postsurf piece. But are they? Or are they just craving a bunch of cleverly phrased cheap shots as an antidote to all the PR?
Lewis had told me he didn’t think much of his imitators, and after several weeks of reading the blogs and comment sections, I had to agree. I began feeling as bored with them as they claimed to be bored with the surfing world. None of the bloggers ever seemed to go surfing, or to be interested in describing it … they just went on and on about how every manifestation of surf culture sucked, even the one in which they’d chosen to enmesh themselves.
It was like reading endless bilious movie reviews; in the end, wouldn’t you’d really rather just watch the movie?
I guess the answer to that goes something like, Yeah, as long as it’s a GOOD movie.
Which brings us to the thorniest issue for the New Sarcastics, or indeed for all surf journalists in the coming years: In a world where the population is steadily aging, where in 20 years one in four of us once-were-kiddie-warriors will be over 65 years of age, where the lack of any approaching Boomer-type youth wave may mean the very idea of “cool” or progression will become gently irrelevant, will surfing ever again look quite as incredible as it’s already been? Will, indeed, the New Sarcasm turn out to be the final snappy gasp of an ebbing pastime?
There ya go, boys. Try writing about that.
SURF JOURNALISM: A PRIMER
The Counter-Culturist School (1960s/70s)
(examples: John Witzig, John Severson, Drew Kampion)
They were at Woodstock, or they woulda been if they hadn’t been surfing. Instead they were on Maui, or up at Byron before the yuppies, or setting up camp in the South Ozzie desert, dreaming of Utopia. Baby Boomers to a bloke, they were idealistic, intelligent mythmakers to whom surfing was a magical mystery, an exception, a new way of forging a life, and they spent reams of typewriter paper trying to make it and its practitioners even more magical. Strengths: revelling in new styles and original, intelligent means of expression. Low points: refusing to face facts about their magical world, ie the corruption of surf culture by hard drugs.
The Babbling Enthusiast School (1980-late 90s)
(examples: me, Matt Warshaw, Sam George, Tim Baker, Evan Slater; founding fathers Phil Jarratt, Dave Gilovich)
Marked mostly by a more or less uncritical, slightly overwhelming passion for the subject. The Enthusiasts pretty much bought the Counter-Culturists’ mythmaking but modified it to fit the changing times; they were happy to see pro surfing arise and the surf industry prove its point against worldly opposition, willing to take both seriously, and only later wondering if it was all such a terrific idea. High points are that perhaps the best writing about the actual act of surfing has come from these guys. Low points: way too much bullshitting and not nearly enough editing.
The “I’m-part-of-the-Industry-and-I-love-it!” School (mid-1990s to recently)
(examples: Gary Dunne, Chris Cote, Jon Jenkins, now Luke Kennedy at Tracks, Nugget at Waves; founding father Neil Ridgway)
Forget the idealism: in the age of an emerging billion-dollar industry, these guys were realists. They wanted a job and they got one. A telling sign of their intention is that pretty much all of ‘em have moved, or are likely to move, on to better paid jobs in the surf industry majors. High points were their ability to keep the gossip mill rolling and to write about a range of surfing subjects in a way most readers could actually understand. Low points include relentless sycophancy and awkward, deeply unskilled prose. The best of the school sorta rose above it… like Sean Doherty. But they are the exact opposite of…
The New Sarcasm
(examples: Lewis Samuels, Jed Smith, Charlie Smith, Steve Shearer, Stuart Cornuelle; founding fathers Dave Parmenter, Derek Rielly)
The Sarcastic adopts the stance of the Outsider, frequently evoking surfing’s apparently rebellious soul, and poking endlessly wicked fun at almost anything within the by now hopelessly humanised – or corrupted, depending on how you choose to look at it – surf culture.
High point: their willingness to stick it up anyone, regardless of rep or track record. Weakness: aside from Shearer, their unwillingness to engage with surfing itself. Like all sarcasm, the surfing version suffers from a lack of fellow feeling; if all you can be is nasty, well, that’s as much of a dead end as always being nice.