Snark Hardcover – Jan 13 2009
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About the Author
David Denby has been film critic and staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998; prior to that he was film critic of New York magazine. His reviews and essays have also appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. He lives in New York City.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I love how Denby differentiates angry, necessary Jonathan Swift-type "snark" from empty-headed bad snark, which has taken over a lot of the media and is trivial, small-minded, and nasty.
Well worth reading, and perhaps more of a self-evaluation book than I'd imagined. Thank you, Mr. Denby!
The subject is something that you should have at least a vague knowledge or sense of because one day it will blindside you or your company. A nice example is to monitor the writing of any Gawker writer - see how often one day's post will contradict the one that came before it. That's because they write considering only the immediate post at hand (partly because of the economics of it) and it prevents them from developing a coherent editorial voice. Since everything has to be controversial or critical, what they write ultimately is never about what they have to say but the way in which they have to say it. It's more sad than anything else.
Still, the book is nowhere near as bad as some of the (snarky) reviewers are trying to make it sound. Rather, the author got in over his head and the work suffers for it.
(1) Define snark
(2) Argue that snark is, by and large, intellectually and morally degenerate, and
(3) Substantiate his claim that snark is practiced with unparalleled zeal and ubiquity, to the detriment of our society and culture.
Unfortunately, the title of my review is a rather apt analogy. Unfortunate because Denby has not chosen a topic that is without both topical and intrinsic resonance; we all know and experience snark, and popular literature on the topic that is nevertheless discerning or somewhat scholarly feels long overdue. The problem is that Denby shoots himself in the foot repeatedly with his own "poisoned arrows".
Most notably, Denby fails to provide a substantive definition for snark, or provides one only to contradict, retract, or hedge his own argument mere sentences later. The reader is left with little more than a double standard, which is surely worse than his own intuition and personal experience on the matter. Even were one to accept the hypocrisy that comedians and other favored notables do not sink so low as to engage in snark while others do, the author still leaves to the reader the job of differentiating snark from sarcasm, satire, parody, hyperbole, etc, despite the occasionally illuminating etyomological, historical, or esoteric detours that appear throughout.
Because Denby nevers settles on a particular definition or methodology, he ultimately fails at (2) and (3), even those times in which his portraits of the jaded, self-righteous, excessively self-aware know-it-alls accurately sum our collective annoyance or pair our pet peeves with the egregious twitter-post du jour or with our shrill and lazy social/political discourse. Denby may have bitten off more than he can chew, as a study of smug derision can diverge to many a fruitful subtopic. We certainly can't really argue the merits of something we cannot pin down. And considering that showing unprecedented levels of such a phenomenon is actually rather difficult, he may prove nothing more than the bravado of his own claim.
On the other hand, Snark succeeds on the second-order as Morissette has; while individual examples of non-irony are obviously not ironic, providing such incongruences is itself ironic (intention thereof being fodder for another hackneyed discussion), and the same is true for Denby. Snark is indeed just that. It is shoddy meta-analysis (Snark) of shoddy meta-analysis (snark), and in that respect actually quite clever, knowingly or otherwise (but isn't that just the point!). Either way, there is something satisfying about something being an example of itself, and I'd like to think the acerbic yellow dust cover was not happenstance. It also results in another great joke; the cover reads: "David Denby, author of Great Books". You should laugh regardless of your opinion on this book's greatness.
Whatever else, this book does start a conversation. It is mean, it is personal, and it may very well be ruining our conversation. Where it fails, it does so that perhaps we may succeed. It is a very quick read, ideal for the summer. For those holding out one hand under a salt shaker, I recommend it.
Denby, (a critic at the New Yorker and the author of `Great Books' and `American Sucker') tackles the problem head on; first by defining 'snark' and then by also attempting to clarify that which is not snark. Denby points out that while not exactly a new phenomenon (citing references back to Cicero's ancient Rome, Greek poets and even H.L. Mencken) the practice certainly gained mass acceptance in the modern world by virtue of the incendiary confluence of internet freedom and our dark slide into celebrity culture.
In defining snark, Denby is careful to draw distinctions between the qualities that qualify something thusly, while being decernibly different than mere humor or satire. While humor is meant to be funny and satire exists partially to illuminate irony or juxtapositional differences, snark's sole purpose is to cut down, decimate or destroy it's victim; to fell a public giant whilst either hiding behind anonymity or simply without an accurate connection to the facts; or as Denby calls it, "trivial kneecapping.'
Denby does an admirable job of explaining his positions and uses more than enough examples to demonstrate what is (Private Eye, Spy Magazine, Perez Hilton) and what is not (Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, even Keith Olbermann - though they use snark at times) snark. Like an S.I. Hayakawa semantics lecture from the 70's, Denby examines the deeper meaning of the oft-times casual words and phrases we toss around today, but at the same time offers no easy way out of the abyss. Perhaps, fore-warned is fore-armed for now.
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