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Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits (It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation)

Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits (It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation) - David Denby “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.”

That’s a quote from Ecclesiastes. That means people have been going on and on about the good old days for thousands of years. They’ve been doing it for so long that God had to tell them to cut it out, already. (It didn’t work, but I appreciate Him trying.)

Snark is a decent book, but in my eyes it’s marred by frequent laments about how much nicer people used to be. Laments written by a solidly middle class American white man of a certain age. Hmm.

Also – okay, let me preface this complaint by pointing out that because I’m weird, I grew up reading Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark. We had an illustrated copy around, and as a kid I read it incessantly. I have whole stretches of it memorized, and let me tell you, that’s exactly the kind of thing that will get you not invited to the really good birthday parties.

I’m a fan, is what I’m saying. So when I also say that David Denby’s references to this strange poem are strained and disruptive, he’d best listen. I’m his potential fan base, and he’s alienating me.

This book sets out to explain why snark is dangerous and destructive. To do that, Denby has to define what snark is.

“Snark,” he explains early on, “is a teasing, rug-pulling form of insult that attempts to steal someone’s mojo, erase her cool, annihilate her effectiveness, and it appeals to a knowing audience that shares the contempt of the snarker and therefore understands whatever references he makes.”

Fair enough, and nicely put. Snark also, Denby says, has a certain “whatever” quality. It “attacks without reason,” because the snarker doesn’t care about anything and has no larger point to make. Snarking is kneejerk sneering.

Good point. Definitely something to think about.

But that doesn’t take a whole book to say. And this is a short book that still feels longer than it needs to be, because this should have been an essay. I found myself growing restless long before the end, and this book is only 128 pages including acknowledgements and a reference list.

Also, Denby includes a paragraph of his own New Yorker writing that he was surprised to hear accused of snarkiness, and it’s the snarkiest damn thing you ever read. It’s too long to include here, but here’s a bit of it:

“Ben Stiller’s face seems constructed by someone playing with the separate eyes, noses, and mouths of a children’s mix-and-match book. There’s nothing wrong with the features, but they don’t quite go together.”

He goes on some more about Stiller’s physical features. On and on and on. He admits that this passage might be “nasty. But is it snark? I leave it to the reader to decide.”

Well, Denby defines snark as “hazing on a page.” So far, so snarky. There’s the abovementioned “whatever principle” – snarkers “attack without reason.” What’s the reason behind going on and on about how someone looks? Denby is a movie reviewer for a magazine that prides itself on offering intellectual fare to educated readers. I quoted less than half of what he had to say about Stiller’s face. I think that adds up to “guilty as charged.” And since the Stiller paragraph was quoted early on, it colored the rest of the book for me.

So: get this book from the library. Read the first and fifth chapters. Also the one about Maureen Dowd.

If you’re a control freak, read the rest of it. (Then again, if you’re a control freak, there’s no way you were able to read the fifth chapter without reading the four preceding it, so never mind.) If you’re a more relaxed sort, trust me – you’ve now read all the good parts.