2/22/09

A Snarky Walter Kirn Does Not Like David Danby's new little book "Snark"

Writing in the Times, Walter Kirn lets us know that he does not like David Danby's new little book "Snark."

For the uninitiated, the word "snark" is a combination of the words "snide" and "remark". It ususally denotes a form of sarcasm in a blog post or online comment thread.

Two points. First, are we snarky in our blog posts and comments? Sure, sometimes, that's what a blog is for. But we try to be nicely snarky. And we try to mix our limited snarkiness with clever, witty, insightful, Talmudically analytical, and yes, even thoughtful observations.

Second, and ironic to note, I actually think that Kirn is intentionally snarky in his review of Denby's "Snark."

You can read a chapter here. And below is the second part of the review, "Insult as Injury," from the Times Book Section, with gratuitous references to Ivan Boesky and Bernie Madoff thrown in by Kirn for reasons only he can fathom,
...No, what really bugs Denby’s mandarin side is a much subtler species of expression: humor that celebrates “the power to ridicule” and is indulged in by semi-sophisticates who seek to sound clued-in and hip so as to soothe their feelings of “dispossession” and elevate their wounded self-esteem by sneering at folks like — get ready to be outraged! — the convicted insider trader Ivan Boesky, whose notorious taste in gaudy baubles was once satirized in the late Spy magazine.

And that, sir, is snark, society’s arch­enemy — making light fun of vulgar criminal robber barons who steal more in a month than Capone stole in a decade. This manner, this “snark,” and the motives he imputes to it, are treated by Denby as more ominous for our future prospects as a people than the invective of K.K.K. grand wizards. What he views as outbreaks of unacknowledged envy for the extremely wealthy and conspicuous by the comparatively poor and plain (masquerading as people of taste and virtue when, in fact, they’re merely climbers) is positively intolerable to him. And just as complicit in this grave offense (grave to Denby, but natural to the masses; see The National Enquirer and its routine photos of stars without their makeup) are the readers who laugh at such upstart snottiness. They should be bigger than that, somehow. Less petty.

A portion of Denby’s diatribe against the leveling impulse behind much humor now (a now when the high and mighty aren’t leveled enough, but stroll around freely on Manhattan streets wearing widows’ lost pension money as jewelry) consists of a series of chapters about the past whose cutesy archaic Dickensian titles display all too clearly what Denby has to fear from the off-the-cuff jokers of the Face­book age. Exhibit A: “A Brief, Highly Intermittent History of Snark, Part 2, in which the author brings his search almost to the present era, celebrating and deploring certain publications and exposing the snarky tendencies of a famous author.” When he finally reaches the present era, Denby pronounces Tom Wolfe and Maureen Dowd masters of “snarky mimesis” and settles on two epicenters of snark located on opposite sides of the Atlantic: Private Eye, a British publication that he deems an outpost of postcolonial Anglo bitterness, and Spy, the aforementioned American magazine whose golden age was the late ’80s and whose editors, Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, are sniffed at as new-to-New York City provincials stuffed with dreams of metropolitan glamour and disgust for the “wicked” city they ended up in. As someone who worked at Spy and knows a bit about what went on there while Denby wasn’t present, I find his portrayal of the place inaccurate — and his charges against it frail and dim. “The editors wanted to find out where the power was, though their fascination was severely limited in range. Finance and the media . . . obsessed them.” To take on New York’s two most conspicuous, intimidating and seemingly invincible industries wasn’t limited at all, of course, but, if anything rather predictable and obvious. Denby then engineers an accusation that’s even more moronic and meaningless. “Spy . . . did not want its victims to disappear. It wanted them to hang around so they could be attacked again and again. The magazine and its subjects were mutually dependent on each other.”

How very true. As The New Republic is dependent on the government and Motor Trend on General Motors, Spy indeed relied upon its subjects. So as to have subjects, like any magazine. One, the main one perhaps, was Donald Trump, who consistently outpaced the efforts of even his most fanciful critics to lampoon his own persona, climaxing in the series “The Apprentice,” whose explosive, ill-mannered, grotesque main character raised and doubled every snarky charge that Spy ever hit him with, and seemed proud to do so. Would Denby have rather had the magazine pick targets less maniacally vain and clawingly ubiquitous? If Spy on Trump was quintessential snark, then snark is mandatory in certain cases.

In others, it’s woefully absent or understated, which can breed disaster. Bernard Madoff, where were you in 1987? If Spy could have gotten its ink-stained paws on him, there might be a few more liquid Jewish charities now. Snickering at power has it uses, whatever Denby imagines drives the snickerers, and however he belittles their spitting prose. Playing polite, though, exacts a higher price — and one that Denby seems strangely willing to pay for the sake of . . . what? It’s hard to know. One almost wonders if what he so deplores about what he calls “the hunting of the snark” is that, invariably — given his obtuseness about the necessity of irreverent laughter, even if it’s rude, unfair or lamebrained, in revealing or merely helping to abide perceived arrogance and fraudulence — someday the snark would come for books like his.

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