Monday, November 16, 2009

"Snark" by David Denby

Last year, I reviewed the book "Snark" by David Denby. In the book, Denby analyzes what he considers the emerging art of snark, or negative, nonconstructive and unusable comments. Although the book does not limit itself to discussing snark online, it does touch on the idea that snark is much easier to say in online, anonymous settings. How does Internet communication enable snarky comments? Another review for the book found on New York Magazine's website can be found here. I've posted the review I wrote below.

"Snark" Review:

What do New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and popular Web site Juicy Campus have in common? According to author of "Great Books" and film critic for The New Yorker David Denby, they all use a particular kind of graceless humor called snark.

Denby recently published an essay about "a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation." His 2009 book, "Snark" outlines the history, style and mindset behind the malicious, personal humor that has infiltrated our lives through certain TV personalities, celebrity blogging, humor print columns, social networking Web sites and other media arenas.

In 128 short pages, Denby examines the modern media world. He compares the traditional, fact-checking journalists of yesterday to modern-day bloggers and their anonymous readers who leave snarky comments. Denby not only explains how snark affects reputations using ill-humored wit, but also suggests that snark perpetuates old racist and sexist stereotypes by repackaging them as unfunny jokes.

Denby's book is insightful and conscious. He examines the recent changes in media due to technology shifts and questions the motives and actions of snarks, showing his grief for the witty, thoughtful writing of yesteryear. He writes clearly, concisely, but creatively and makes each paragraph something the reader can relate to and understand.

One of the greatest aspects of Denby's writing is his knack for research. He uses countless examples of snark to illustrate to readers the fine line between snark and true comedy, placing each example in historical context. Each of his ideas is well supported with current and specific examples, especially from the 2008 presidential election.

One of Denby's examples of snark is a headline running during a discussion of Michelle Obama on Fox News and reads, "OUTRAGED LIBERALS: STOP PICKING ON OBAMA’S BABY MAMA!" Less obvious examples include a McCaine campaign ad attacking Barack Obama. "It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him…The One," were the opening lines from the ad, which according to Denby, targeted Southern voters who see the phrase as a put-down for an "uppity’ black."

Denby uses many examples from the Web sites and TV stations a majority of us visit everyday and paints them with the scarlet letter of snark. But that doesn't mean Denby is without a sense of humor. He praises Stephen Colbert and John Stewart for their witty sarcasm and snark-free commentary. But for Denby, the fact that these comedians take ownership of their insults and generally avoid making distasteful and gut-wrenching comments without having a more serious, or at least funny, point to make leaves Colbert and Stewart snark-free geniuses.

Denby also praises Jonathan Swift, who he suggests is a "practitioner of snark-free momentous irony." However, Denby considers great poets like Alexander Pope as a lower breed. For Denby the distinction is "between harshly funny satirical writing and trivial kneecapping."

Surprisingly, Denby admits to having been accused of snark himself. Once as a movie critic, he made such sinister comments about the ridiculousness of Ben Stiller’s face that Owen Wilson threatened to "punch me out."

Denby damages his compelling argument by failing to mention his personal political bias that runs rampant throughout most of his book. Although he at one point mentions that liberals are not innocent of snark and gives one example, Denby's examples of political snark are overwhelmingly conservative. However, this may be attributed to the fact that the Obamas ran a miraculously clean campaign and republicans have tended to be more guilty of reinforcing gender and racial stereotypes.

Denby also defends the one source of snark he finds acceptable: the attack of expensive, under-performing restaurants. He praises for ripping apart upscale restaurants that aren't up to par—but how is this different from the other types of snark Denby loathes? Scathing, heartless blogging about restaurateurs can easily shut down a restaurant as quickly as an unfair critic's theater review can kill a Broadway production. If Denby had left out this one exception, his argument would have seemed stronger.

Denby's book is certainly worthwhile, but ends weakly without a call to arms. He leaves readers without suggestions of how to not participate in snarky media and where to go to find genuine wit in an age where speed and shock value outweigh integrity.

"Scratch a writer of snark, and you find a media-age conformist and an aesthetic nonentity. Recognizing no standard but celebrity, indifferent to originality or to quality, snark may be out-of-date or fading almost as soon as it’s filed (or posted)." "Snark" examines the harsh reality of the modern ruthless media we fail to question. Denby delivers a thoughtful media critique everyone can relate to, but doesn’t offer the glimmer of hope that's needed to address this serious issue.

1 comment:

  1. I admit it! I'm frequently snarky. The funny is, I think I'm more likely to be snarky offline than online - possibly because I'm not sure how well snark will translate online, kind of like sarcasm. I submit the following site for consideration: Is it wit, sarcasm, or snark? The Internet provides a means for this type of communication that I think is unique; it would not be as effective as a piece of humor offline.