How to Turn Trolling Into a Fine Art

Illustration of Edgar Allan Poe sending an angry face emoji on a laptop computer.
Illustration by Javier Olivares

Today’s post is excerpted from Catherine Baab-Muguira’s Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, published by Running Press.

From his earliest days on the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe reviewed books the way Jack Torrance swung an axe.

Take Norman Leslie, a novel written by Theodore Sedgewick Fay, a popular associate editor at the New York Mirror, which was then one of the most respected publications in the country. Poe didn’t give a damn. In his 1835 review, he screamed that Fay’s style was “unworthy of a school-boy,” the larger novel “full to the brim of absurdities,” “gross errors in Grammar,” and “egregious sins against common-sense.” In a subsequent article, Poe struck again, labeling Norman Leslie “the silliest book in the world.”

These attacks did not go unanswered. The staff of the Mirror swung back, gleefully informing their far-reaching audience that Poe’s own work had been turned down by Fay’s publisher and sneering at the Messenger for “striving to gain notoriety by the loudness of its abuse.” Other magazines joined in, too, calling Poe a quack, a jumped-up faux expert who couldn’t, were there a gun to his head, produce one good page himself.

This was the exact fight Poe had been seeking, and—more or less—for the reasons his enemies identified. He didn’t care how his nasty reviews unnerved his Messenger boss, T. W. White. Instead of backing off, he doubled down.

Over the next fifteen years of his career, Poe’s criticism remained so caustic and hostile that one victim would characterize it as “generally a tissue of coarse personal abuse.” Poe leaped between professional and personal grievances, then back again, not only inveighing against bad writing, but heaping scorn on people whom he disliked. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, another of Poe’s victims, observed: “The harshness of his criticisms, I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong.”

He would know. Poe initiated his “Longfellow War” in 1845, first in the pages of the Mirror, and later in the Broadway Journal. To hear Poe tell it, Longfellow was a dastardly plagiarist: a plagiarist so devious and prolific that his plagiarisms could hardly be detected, so rife was the plagiarism, so deep did the plagiarism lie. Equally as bad, Longfellow also had a rich wife, and what appeared to be a serene family life, and a professorship at Harvard. What a jerk!

And Poe still wasn’t done.

In 1846, as a freelancer once again after the Broadway Journal collapsed, he began publishing his critical coup de grâce: a series of articles for a ladies’ magazine that amounted to a literary-world burn book à la Mean Girls.

In “The Literati of New York City,” he profiled several dozen of the writers he’d known and or just brushed wings with during his high-flying, “Raven”-fame days in Manhattan, not limiting himself to throwing shade on their work, but also repeating gossip and inserting lengthy comments about these writers’ height and weight, posture, facial features (the size of their noses, the shapes of their mouths, etc.), education (or, as he said, their appalling lack thereof), family backgrounds, intimate relationships, even his best guess at the current balance of their bank accounts.

Incredibly, some of those Poe covered so ruthlessly were friends, former colleagues—in other words, people who might still have done him favors, and this at a time when he was as about as poor as he’d ever been. When he was unemployed, unwell himself, and when his beloved wife, Virginia, was desperately sick. In fact, dying.

Such behavior may seem out of bounds, even morally revolting. And it is.

Frankly speaking, from this vantage point in history, it’s hard to see how Poe’s unfiltered criticism was a great use of his time, except to the extent that it brought him notoriety, attracting the nineteenth-century equivalent of clicks and eyeballs. I hate that it’s true, and I expect you do, too, yet trolling—the practice of deliberately provoking others in order to elicit an outsized reaction, whether through an 1840s magazine profile or the modern-day internet—is a powerful method of personal PR. A veritable dark art.

Just like us, Poe lived in a chaotic, explosive information age, and he faced the same set of problems about how to stand out amidst a constant torrent of content. To use an oversimplified example: Say you want to create a thriving YouTube channel. Helpfully, the means of video production and distribution have now been democratized, making such a path accessible at all.

At the same time, you’re competing with millions of other people with the same goal. You can’t possibly keep track of all the other content being created, while cultural trends and even whole platforms emerge and disappear with terrifying speed. Producing your videos may take days or weeks. Monetizing those videos and building your audience, however, may take years.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a YouTuber, a writer, a singer-songwriter, a comedian, or trying to establish yourself in any other field. Standing out is a near-impossible task, and you could be forgiven for trying to find ways of gaming the system—of hacking other people’s attention spans so you come to public attention, fast.

Two roads diverge before you. On the left is the Tom Hanks High Road, the virtuous route. You can be polite, even-handed, self-effacing, supportive of others, and here to make friends along the journey. Good luck.

On the right, there is the iconoclast’s path, which you will walk alone.

You can, like Poe, pose like a fearless truth-teller while letting your aggrieved psychology, your envy of those more successful, and your profound unhappiness with yourself and the world hold sway. You can seek the kind of world-leveling vengeance that Poe sought, at the same time taking advantage of the way human brains are wired to home in on threats and negative statements. Even toddlers understand that “bad” attention is still attention.

You can mine this primitive vein by being pissy, antagonistic, combative, impossible to please or placate, always operating in bad faith. If you choose this path, other people may hate you, and they may be right to.

What’s more, in strictly practical terms, this route is arguably far more crowded today than it was in Poe’s era, and even then, Poe’s peers could readily recognize and name his method. Exceptional harshness is now just as likely to work against you as for you: Users of YouTube, Twitter, and so on have necessarily learned to tune it out, given how overused and over-applied trolling has become.

What if you were to carve out a middle path?

Poe’s best criticism was more than mere trolling, and Poe himself, despite some terrible tendencies, more than a mere troll. He was also a literary expert, versed in verse, classic literature, and popular forms, and his command of his field was damn near second to none, even if he occasionally cribbed or exaggerated his knowledge.

Your task is to become an expert, too. To really stand out—all the more so now as a negative presence—your criticism needs to be on point, your blows must land. You don’t want to be a one-trick show pony, sh*t-posting only, with no original insights to contribute.

What would you think of an aspiring filmmaker who’s ignorant of film history? An artist who can’t discuss her own discipline, who by choice never visits a museum? A writer who thinks reading books is a waste of his precious time?

Such attitudes are for hobbyists and posers—not pros. It’s crucial to grasp the history of your field as well as the current landscape of what you’re trying to do—a badge of honor amounting to an urgent personal responsibility.

That does not mean you must be a slave to fashion, conventional wisdom, and elitist favor-trading, or that you should automatically accept what is popular as what is good. There’s nothing wrong with having an oppositional sensibility if you also develop mastery of the material and your own models for judging new work. In this happy case, your iconoclasm is no longer a pose, and your tendency to iconoclastic overstatement may be fun for everyone involved.

Think of Kanye West or Nassim Taleb, endlessly beefing and complaining as though their careers depend on it, yet still being wildly entertaining while they’re at it, and at the same time advancing the standards by which they want their own work to be judged. [To be clear, I’m not speaking of West’s politics or his comments on vaccines.]

This is elevated trolling, trolling as a fine art. Well educated, well executed. Canny. Worthy. Frequently very funny, too.

We might call this middle way The Path of the Pain in the Ass. Trolling for its own sake, when you have no original thoughts or contributions yourself, is just a way of being mean. Aim to be more of an articulate pain, someone for whom others can feel at least a grudging respect. The game’s no fun for anyone without worthy combatants—and you will have more fun when you know what you’re talking about, too.

So, what’s the Poe tip, the takeaway?

Develop a grasp of your field’s history and cultivate your own keen critical sensibility. In other words, become a giant pain in the ass.

Another benefit: by becoming an expert, you’ll know whom to suck up to, which is every bit as crucial as being able to call out your chosen discipline’s sacred cows. You want the people you admire to admire you, don’t you?

Poe did, too. Just as he insulted his overly successful, under-talented peers, he craftily cultivated his literary heroes—particularly Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning—sucking up to them privately as well as writing public paeans to their work.

In the process, he turned them into advocates for his own work. This strategy can work just as well today, for you. It costs you nothing to send a flattering, even fawning, email, while the upside of doing so may be virtually unlimited. And my email address is on my website for whenever you’re ready.

Excerpted from POE FOR YOUR PROBLEMS: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru by Catherine Baab-MuguiraCopyright © 2021. Available from Running Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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