Monday, January 11, 2010
Snark by David Denby
Reviewers of David Denby’s book Snark, published last September, were not kind to him. The 65-year-old’s suggestion that nastiness in the garb of humour was taking over the American public sphere found few supporters in the American or British media. They criticised Denby for not defining snark clearly enough, for being biased in his criticism, for mixing his arguments, for carping, or for simply being a bore.
However, few reviewers discuss the validity or not of his initial premise.
I got attracted to the book precisely because it seemed to ask interesting questions – is the media becoming mean, personal and unconstructive in its attempt to amuse? When you have millions and millions of websites to compete with, is getting nasty the easiest and quickest way to gain attention? Does internet encourage our nasty side through its anonymity? Can nasty and cynical humour lead to anything constructive? And what does this mean for the public sphere where attitudes, tastes and policies are formed? All avid internet users must have asked themselves these questions at some point or the other.
I think they were relevant questions to raise, and courageous ones too, considering that questioning humour amounts to immediately branding yourself as the party spoiler. The problem is that Denby failed to build his case. He spent too much time separating irony and satire from its venomous variant and too little on its scale, reach and effects. He extrapolated a few examples – Maureen Dowd, gawkers, campus website – to America’s national conversation, which is hard to accept. But the case he builds against these examples are valid.
Maureen Dowd’s vicious humour seems to serve no purpose other than caricaturing her subjects without any attempts to examine their humanity or intentions. What higher purpose can a Gawker site serve other than carp, if its philosophy is “nothing was as it seemed and nothing can really change” (pg 70) – as one of its former writers explained. What can a Gawker Media piece contribute to the public debate if its owner “is not interested in think pieces, unless they are rants” (pg 71). As for Campus site, it is an example of internet anonymity at its worst. Unfortunately, Denby does not prove that these examples are symptomatic of what is happening in America as a whole.
But if Denby’s book sparks generates introspection in other forums or inspires others to examine the subject more cogently – it might be a success still.