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BOOKS: Of seethe, snarl and glinting malice
By David Denby
Simon & Schuster, $15.95, 144 pages
In “Snark,” David Denby takes on what he calls “a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation - a tone of snarking insult provoked and encouraged by the new hybrid world of print, television, radio and the Internet.” His cause is just, his delivery engaging and literate. Moreover, lest anyone worry that from his scolding perch the author lacks humor or perspective, take him at his word when he writes that he’s in favor of many kinds of comedy, “any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective. It’s the bad kind of invective - low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing; in brief, snark - that I hate.” And take heart from the way he calls offenders to account. Judicious examples from left and right and across a broad cultural spectrum abound. Among the practitioners of snark Mr. Denby skewers here: Tom Wolfe and Maureen Dowd. And among the (gallantly) rescued from the claws of snark: Shelly Winters and Ivan Boesky.
Mr. Denby, the noted film critic for the New Yorker magazine, calls his book “a polemic in seven fits” and places his observations of contemporary culture against a history of satire and invective. After introducing the current state of snark and its practitioners, he returns to the earliest dabblers in snark, first citing the origin of the word. For that, he credits the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, who first used the word in a mock epic called “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits.”
While Carroll hunted the snark (a creature that, among other things, “has no sense of humor and can’t stand puns”) he was no writer of snark himself. To uncover culture’s earliest snarkmeisters, Mr. Denby takes a jaunt backward to visit “the origins of snark in the noisy drinking clubs of ancient Greece; the poets and orators who practiced invective as a formal mode in classical Athens and Rome”
By his accounting, it is Juvenal who was a snarker of the first order. “The history of classical-era abuse comes to a climax of sorts not in the speeches of a warrior-politician, but in the work of Juvenal, a sore-headed and much-aggrieved Roman poet who published sixteen ‘satires’ in the first century A.D. Satire was a recognized genre in Rome, yet when reading Juvenal - which is quite an experience, rather like getting drunk during an obscene night in a comedy club - I wondered if satire was the right word for what he does. I wondered if the nature of his abuse, and everything in his life that produced it, didn’t put him in the line of Archilochus and Hipponax as a writer of snark. Can’t we claim Juvenal as snark’s greatest talent, the peak from which every later version of the style seems a falling away.”
Mr. Denby’s evidence includes pungent bits of snark from Juvenal’s “Satires,” passages unfortunately not appropriate to cite in a family newspaper. His broader point, however, is that Juvenal’s work was not really satire. “The satirist is enraged by what others accept. At its greatest, most powerful, and most dangerous, satire makes use of a double-edged sword - the devious aggressive weapon of irony. The satirist practicing irony appears to praise the very thing he loathes. He exaggerates its features, and the terms of his praise give the show away. He tells truths in the form of lies.” Juvenal was up to something different, “less a satirist than a genius of snark, the absolute master of teasing, filthy, misogynist, undermining insult.”
Mr. Denby suggests that we might see Juvenal more clearly by moving forward from the ancients to Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. He writes, “In everyone’s favorite example of high satire, Swift, reduced to despair by Ireland’s poverty and feebleness, suggested, in ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1729) that the poor address their economic difficulties by selling their children as food to the rich.” While Pope is credited with having written “The Dunciad” a “dazzling satirical composition,” Mr. Denby notes that Pope “attacked poets and dramatists … who were merely poor - that is, writers who were not gentlemen with inherited wealth, and who wrote plays or verse to make a living. He settles scores with rival poets and attacks men in literary London who have received praise… In the end the mighty Dunciad structure seems too grand by half - a flame-breathing dragon stomping on a toad - and as you read it, you feel slightly unclean for having been caught in the toils of Pope’s malevolence. So even the greatest satirist can descend, in part of his work, to snark.” Lining up Juvenal, Swift and Pope in what he calls a “hierarchy of wit, Swift the practitioner of snark-free momentous irony … is at the top; Pope the malignant genius is down from the summit a bit; and Juvenal, though still a great writer, down still further.”
One could argue that in many ways, the book’s historical launch pad is its greatest strength. Beyond it, the well chosen examples from contemporary print culture, Hollywood and the Internet pale beside the work of ancient literary giants who, at a minimum, followed rules of meter and rhyme. Even the snarkiest of tracts from England’s Private Eye and the short-lived (five years) Spy magazine are not as discomfiting as the examples from today’s snarkfests Mr. Denby parades here: James Wolcott calling Joyce Carol Oates’ work “Rorschach pigeon spatter,” or Joe Queenan calling Arnold Schwarzenegger “stupid” or announcing that “the blind are lucky because they ‘get to go through life without ever seeing Shelly Winters.’” It doesn’t help that Mr. Queenan has said that “‘I have never deviated from my chosen career as a sneering churl.’”
In the end, this book is a witty, informed, impassioned call for anyone with a column or blog to step back and just be a little nicer. However, Mr. Denby is too smart and too witty to make the book a spanking. He writes:
“No one should take this essay as a request that all the angry people curl up in someone’s lap and purr. Savage insult, especially insult directed at the powerful, is a necessary part of democratic culture, and in some ways we live in a great age of comedy and popular satire.”
So here’s to what we do best and a hearty goodbye to the rest. Or, as Mr. Denby sums it up: “vituperation that is insulting, nasty, but, well, clean, may live forever. Go and commit some. You’ll feel better. You’ll make other people feel better.”
About the Author
Carol Herman, a member of The Washington Times staff since 1999, has been Books Editor for the last seven years. An award-winning OnBooks columnist, she has been a guest on WTOP and has been a guest panelist on C-Span’s BookTV. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Tulane University and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Chicago....
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