Saturday, February 07, 2009

Snark Attack


I normally save my book reviews for the first post of the month (hence the catchy label BooksFirst), but the book I just read has me so incensed that I have to rant at a longer length than I normally allow myself. I first heard of David Denby, the second string movie reviewer at the New Yorker, and his book Snark a few weeks ago and since I love snark, I wanted to know what it was about. The subtitle is “It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation” which should be the first clue that I might disagree with his premise. Then I heard that it said very vicious things about Maureen Dowd. And that could not stand. Rather than allow any money to wend its way to Denby’s hands, I put myself on the wait list at the library and I finally got my hands on it.

As any reader of this blog would notice immediately, I love snark, as over-used and abused as that word is. Indeed, it is a tough concept to define but like Potter Stewart (and I stole this from somebody) I know it when I see it. For me snark, is a rapier-sharp sarcastic observation or description. Denby offers no single coherent definition, but the properties he attributes to it are maliciousness, absence of value, and an insidery snideness. Clearly it is something that is rather subjective. And Denby is nothing if not arbitrary and capricious in the application of his scorn.

At every page, I found myself disagreeing with his examples and wondering how clueless one person could be. Here’s a list of some people that he finds irredeemably snarky.

Penn Jilette

This master magician and host of myth debunking show Bullshit has been one of my favorite writers from when he wrote a column in the back of PC/Computing magazine. He is an amazing satirist and got some press last year for telling a tasteless joke about Hillary and Obama.



The above video has Penn’s explanation of the context where he says the joke even offended him. Here is Denby completely missing the point:
When the comic Penn Jillette said on MSNBC in May 2008, that “Obama did great in February because that was Black History Month. And now Hillary is doing much better ‘cause it’s White Bitch Month, right?” he was not, putting it mildly, practicing irony or satire. The remark was a boneheaded insult, but insult of a special sort. It spoke to a knowing audience – to white people irritated by black history as a celebration, and to men who assume an ambitious woman can be called a bitch. The layer of knowingness, in this case, was an appeal to cranky ill will and prejudice. Jillette’s joke was snark.
Denby then goes on and compares the joke to blatantly racist insults made on right-wing weblogs. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Jillette was ridiculing prejudice and used the joke to emphasize an undercurrent of popular opinion against Senator Clinton. Throughout the book, Denby accuses anybody saying anything bad about Hillary with all sorts of sinister motives. He must be a closet PUMA.

Tom Wolfe

One of my favorite writers is Tom Wolfe, the inventor (with Hunter S. Thompson and others) of New Journalism, a stylistic approach to non-fiction that incorporates elements of fictional narrative and stream of consciousness first person perspective. Denby sees it as snark.

In particular, he singles out a very famous essay of Wolfe’s from 1970 called “These Radical Chic Evenings” where Wolfe smugly observed the irony of New York socialites behaving excessively politically correct by having benefits for the militant Black Panther movement. For the crime of pointing out the hilarious hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, Denby accuses Wolfe of having “contempt for absolutely everybody” and cites him for being indifferent if not hostile to the entire civil rights movement. He sees Tom Wolfe’s signature white suit as a more sinister symbol from an earlier age. He all but accuses Wolfe of wearing a white hood.
Famously, Wolfe invariably wore a white suit, cultivating the mask of the dandy and the grandee, a conscious anachronism of the Old South or perhaps the hedonistic, moneyed side of the twenties.
Denby than makes an even bolder observation.
In the end, the white suit may have been less an ironic joke than the heraldic uniform of a man born in Richmond, Virginia, who entertained fancies of a distinguished Old South in which blacks kept their mouths shut, a conservative who had never accustomed himself to the new money of the Northeast.
Wow! Just, wow! In Denby’s mind, white clothes equal white supremacist. Denby later accuses Maureen Dowd of being obsessed with appearances to the detriment of substance. I don’t think even she could get that level of symbolism out of a sartorial sensibility. Pot meet kettle. You're both black.

Spy Magazine

My love for the late lamented Spy has been noted in this blog before. For several years during its heyday I hung on every word published in it. And I was not alone. Spy became the official reading material of our office library. We kept all the back issues around for constant reference to the running gags and themes.

And according to Denby, what was Spy’s major crime? Perfoming one-half of journalism’s purpose: afflicting the comfortable.
Like Wolfe, the writers and editors and writers despised the greedy new rich, though, again like Wolfe, apart from a few faded copies of the old Vanity Fair, they had no golden age of nostalgia and achievement to appeal to.
I have no idea what a sense of nostalgia has to do with anything, but so much of Denby's book is completely nonsensical.

Denby then uses as an example of how they “go low and stay low” the time Spy calling Ivan Boesky, the most reviled pre-Bernie Maddoff Wall Streeter ever, a “ferret-eyed snitch.” Way to defend the little guy there, Denby.

Wonkette

Some of my readers know of my Pop Socket incarnation as a Wonkette and Gawker Media commenter. Well, I can’t hold a candle to many of my fellow Wonketteers Gawkerites like Mister Hippity who created the masterful Denby book cover parody that is going viral.

Denby truly is a cranky old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. He sees Wonkette as a seething breeding ground of young turkettes in need of some respect for their elders. He completely misses the sarcasm in a Miracle Worker parody making the point that Chelsea Clinton is, in fact, capable of presenting herself well in public. But Denby’s blind rage causes him to make the following claim which, as noted by Wonkette, is inaccurate on the most basic fact-checking level.
Wonkette is written by young women who may have hated Chelsea’s bland [Denby’s adjective, not Wonkette’s] words as she went around the country supporting her mother’s candidacy. When a piece of snark doesn’t make sense, some hidden fury may be messing up the writing.
And when a piece of snark goes completely over your head, you might not be as good a film critic as you think you are.

Camille Paglia

Denby ridicules a belabored circus sideshow metaphor of Paglia’s and gives it much more psycho-sexual content than it merited by quoting her praise for Deep Throat. I have no affinity for the uber-feminist, but Paglia's sin is stepping on Denby’s most sacred cow, Hillary Clinton.
And is Paglia actually opposed to an aggressive woman who goes after what she wants? Her strenuous metaphors can’t hide the fatigue and incoherence of the old taunts.
So saying that Hillary shouldn't be vice president entitles Denby to lecture Paglia about feminist ideals. That isn't snark, it's unmitigated gall.

Gawker and other bloggers.

Indeed, the cardinal sin of snarkers in Denby’s diatribe is making fun of the rich and powerful. He chides Gawker for being used by tipsters with axes to grind when they report on insider abuses of power. Perez Hilton is a bad influence because celebrities have to moderate their public behavior to avoid his ridicule. If only Perez actually had as much power to make celebutards behave civilly as Denby thinks he does. He sees exposing the folly of starlets that Botox their faces into immobility as ageist. In fact, one of his Principles of Stark is “Attack the old.” Whistling past the graveyard, are we, Denby?

Restaurant Critics

Inexplicably, trendy restaurants, like carpet-bagging Senators, are too important to be scorned.

Maureen Dowd

For a full list of Denby’s sins against the most e-mailed of the New York Times’ columnists, see this excellent post (in my unbiased opinion) by my compatriot at the Dowd Report, but let me add this, Denby accuses Dowd of naïveté. From his book:
When both Hillary and Bill Clinton performed well at the convention, selling Obama as best as they could, Dowd never acknowledged the performance, never admitted her misjudgment. Again, she came off as naive: In the end, Bill and Hillary Clinton were not quite the self-absorbed narcissists that Dowd made them out to be but professional politicians, doing their best to sustain their currency in the Democratic Party.
Maureen Dowd saw a different set of speeches than Denby did. Here is Dowd's take on Hillary’s sales job:
At a press conference with New York reporters on Monday, Hillary looked as if she were straining at the bit to announce her 2012 exploratory committee.
{snip}
She added insult to injury by coming out Tuesday night looking great in a blazing orange pantsuit and teaching the precocious pup Obama something about intensity and message. She thanked her “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits,” and slyly noted that Obama would enact her health care plan rather than his.
That sound pretty narcissistic and self-serving to me. And from Maureen Dowd, it counts as praise. As for Bill Clinton, he wasn’t exactly a team player either.
Bill’s pals said he was still gnawing at his many grievances against the younger version of himself he has to praise Wednesday night; the latest one being that the Obama folks, like all winners, wanted control over Bill’s speech, so that he did not give a paean to himself and his economic record, which is what he wanted to do, because he was incensed that Obama said a couple critical things about his administration during a heated campaign.

Finally, Obama had to give in on Monday and say he would allow the ex-president to do exactly as he likes, which is what he usually does anyhow.
I wouldn’t call that column ignoring the Clintons as Denby claims Dowd did. But research and accuracy aren't Denby's forte.

This has been an exceptionally long post, nearly as long as the 120 pages of wide margined bloviating that Denby put out, but it’s important when attacking something as painfully partisan and puerilely pathetic as this book to give plenty of examples. Which is something Denby is sadly deficient in. Much of the book is vague generalities and tortured metaphors. Many of his most pointed criticisms are against the thinnest of straw men without a clarifying quotation or an actual example anywhere in sight.

The faults of the book are legion, but they fall into two general problems. He defines snark both too broadly and too narrowly. He paints stand-up comics and journalists and columnists and bloggers and random blog commenters and petty Facebookers (who aren’t as anonymous as he would lead you to believe) with the same broad brush. These are all very different people working at different levels of literary and artistic merit for different purposes. Snark is a rhetorical device, not a political philosophy or an organized cabal. Anyone can use snark and can use it well or use it poorly. Snark in and of itself is not wrong and it is often astoundingly effective.

On the other end of the scale, snark is only humor that offends him. Stuff he likes is called satire, parody or sarcasm. The classification of snark is only reserved for the things that raise his ire. His tautology that snark is inherently bad is a definition chasing its tail. He is willing to forgive a lot if people that would normally fit under any sensible definition of snarky meet his approval for political correctness. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Pauline Kael all get a pass because he admires their grit and gumption. Intent and seriousness of purpose are important litmus tests in his scale. Mere entertainment as motive for being snarky is beneath the guy that makes his living writing about vampire flicks and Kevin Smith movies.

Please stay away from this book. Denby is a vicious, humor-deficient prig that is trying to carve out some space in the public conversation for his own petty vendettas while mocking and ridiculing those that disagree with him. And isn’t that exactly what he accuses snarkers of doing? Only they are entertaining instead of just exasperating.

Update: The review of Snark in the Wall Street Journal makes many of the same points I did.

6 comments:

2fs said...

Must be some snarky editors at Denby's publishers - who decided it'd be amusing to let him make an ass of himself, rather than trying to edit some sense into him.

I agree with most of your descriptions, and admire most of the folks Denby hates...but I make a clear exception for Camille Paglia, who is a bloviating, self-obsessed idiot.

The thing about snark is, to me, it's the equivalent in the realm of sarcasm of flirting in the realm of romance: it's quick, fun, and not too serious. The most amusing thing about Denby's book, judging from your review of it (I haven't read it), is that he seems quite tone-deaf to both the attitude of the snarker and the point of the snarking. His take on Penn Jillette's joke is the most obvious: its primary target is as you say...but what Denby totally misses is the complex rhetorical underlayment of high-end snark like Jillette's - which also cuts against the hypocrisy of those who wouldn't hesitate to criticize a male politician who acted like Hillary but forbear from doing so for fear of being called anti-feminist. I would think it would be far more anti-feminist to lay back and give Hillary a break because she's a woman than it would be to let her have it with exactly the same both barrels a male politician would get.

Mooselet said...

2fs, that is one of the best definitions of snark I have ever seen (and I now must teach my Firefox spellcheck to recognize the word 'snark'). I have not heard of this book but it seems to me that Denby has completely missed the point, so much so that it's almost pathetic.

Loved the fake cover as well! That's snark Mr. Denby - learn it, embrace it and lighten the f*ck up.

jfruh said...

Despite feeling somewhat personally wounded on his whole mystifyingly ill-informed anti-Wonkette diatribe, I have to say that I'm a liberal elitist dinosaur New Yorker subscriber, and I honestly enjoy Denby's reviews much more than Anthony Lane's because Lane's are much too snarky. I also really enjoyed Denby's American Sucker, his book about how he lost a bundle in the dot-com boom/bust, not least because it was very self-knowing. That self knowledge seems to have been completely lost since.

A Free Man said...

"Denby truly is a cranky old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn."

Sounds like it - Wonkette is fantastic - they had easily the best election commentary of the year.

yellojkt said...

josh,
I wonder if Denby's whole book isn't a hidden dig at Lane.

trusty getto said...

You, snarky? Say it ain't so . . .

Probably my favorite Dowd column was about Justice Thomas pulling the ladder up behind him once he got to the top. I just LOVE her snarkiness :D