David Denby’s book about snark

Recently David Denby wrote a book called Snark, and got raked over the coals for it. I’m puzzled about snark as a phenomenon, and I wanted to think that Denby was excoriated because he hit too close to home for the many people who have incorporated snark into their rhetorical toolkit; when you go up against such a frivolous thing, you can’t help but sound like a pious fuddy-duddy.

Well, here’s an extended article by Denby on snark that I assume summarizes the main thesis of the book, and I have to say that he has made himself an easy target. The whole account is a mess. Part of the problem is that Denby seems to have a tin ear for flippant speech in general. Many of the examples he uses to support a point are just plain misinterpreted—not that they in fact justifiable, but that to make a point Denby gives them almost wooden readings, so that he can claim they are literally incoherent and thus said only for effect. Here’s an example:

“Even if you never met [Obama], you know this guy. He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” (Words spoken by Karl Rove to Republican insiders at a Washington political club, 23 June 2008.)

[…] The third example, Karl Rove’s debonair moment could be interpreted as a coded put-down of uppity blacks (it turns out that when a black man gets a college education, he’s an "elitist"). At the literal level, it’s nonsense. Obama, whatever his faults, isn’t snide, and his beautiful date could only be his wife. The most generous interpretation of the remark is that Rove has been snarking for so long that he simply slipped into stupidity.

Contra Denby, at the literal level this isn’t nonsense at all. Just because Denby thinks that Obama is clearly not snide, that doesn’t mean that Rove thinks so. In fact, I think Rove could probably point to various celebrated comments by Obama such as this:

So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

This probably wasn’t said snidely at the event (pityingly would be more like it), but it is condescending enough that I can easily imagine the country club guy saying it to his date as some fat-tie guy walked by, and getting a knowing chuckle in return. I read Rove’s entire remark quite easily as trying to stir up a bit of class resentment, without a tinge of racism; he could have easily said the same thing about some young and dashing member of the Kennedy clan, and conveyed the same image.

So what does it mean when Denby says that “at the literal level, it’s nonsense”—because Obama isn’t snide, and he’s married? I can only figure that the image isn’t resonating for him, and he isn’t capable of acknowledging that Rove is trying to evoke a personality type, not give a literal description of Obama. As close as he can come is to figure that Rove is either trying to tag Obama as uppity, or that Rove is just stupid. This is what I mean by a tin ear.

The worse problem, I think, is that Denby begins with snark, which I think is a real but specific and limited kind of rhetoric, and tried to use it as an all-encompassing description of what is wrong with modern public discourse. Well, there are a lot of things wrong with modern public discourse, many of them incorporating a sort of flippancy, but they are different things that ought to be thought through each for their own sake, and Denby ends up seriously undermining his case by twisting everything he doesn’t like so that it can fit into his description of snark, however uncomfortably. The Rove quote, for example, is worth dissecting, but it isn’t snarky and by acting like it is Denby not only makes himself look like an unreliable critic, he is unable to talk about the things that are objectionable about the quote.

(For a stellar example of where something like snark is subjected to criticism that is generous, loving, and above all accurate, take a look at John Frame’s review of Doug Wilson’s book on satire, A Serrated Edge. This is clear thinking at its finest.)

Despite my disappointment, I have ordered a copy of Denby’s book (for $1), and plan to use it not for the arguments it makes but for the material it surveys; Denby seems to be irritated by the same range of things that worry me. And the more I think about when humor has positive value, where it begins to edge into unacceptable flippancy and sarcasm, how much further it can descend, and the different kinds of damage it can do—the more confused I become. My own writing is fairly humor-free, not because I don’t like humor and not because I’m incapable of wielding the blade, but because I don’t know where the boundaries lie, and my concern about unintentionally inflicting harm outweighs what value I think my jokes would bring to the party. So I’d like to straighten out my thinking a bit in this area.

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