In Defense of David Denby

In an effort to liven things up, New York Magazine has assigned Adam Sternbergh, the snark practitioner who cut his teeth with Fametracker, to review David Denby’s Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. I don’t believe the subtitle is fair to the arguments contained within the book, but I can understand why some marketing type at Simon & Schuster included it: controversy drums up sales. And controversy, particularly the unthinking and tendentious variety that is on display in Sternbergh’s review, drums up attention.

As someone who has actually read Denby’s book, and as someone who has indulged in snark from time to time, I find myself in the strange position of defending Denby. Sternbergh’s “appropriate response” completely misses the point of Denby’s thesis and Sternbergh, in his efforts to persuade us of snark’s great glory, unintentionally reenforces Denby’s argument.

Denby does not, contrary to Sternbergh’s claims, argue that snark is “humor as a vehicle for cruelty.” Denby states at the beginning that he’s “all in favor of nasty comedy, incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective.” And he concludes his book on the same note, urging readers and writers to commit “vituperation that is insulting, nasty, but, well, clean.” If one must be vituperative, Denby hopes for writing along the lines of Gore Vidal’s evisceration of Truman Capote in his 1976 essay, “Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self,” in which Vidal’s carefully worded insult (labeled here as “high snark”) takes into account specific biographical details about Capote. In Denby’s view, this follows quite naturally in Juvenal’s tradition. And even he cannot resist this.

Nor is Denby “rehashing the arguments mounted against irony.” It is indeed irony that Denby is championing. Denby brings up Stephen Colbert’s infamous 2006 appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, writing:

I don’t think the jokes are Colbert’s best, yet the event is still a classic of comedy and of citizenly virtue. Why? Because it’s not snark. It’s irony, an apparent act of kinship with the president that is actually a violent unseating of the president. (121)

But irony alone isn’t what Denby’s after here. He believes that good satire involves praising “some corresponding set of virtues, even if only by implication.” And in Sternbergh’s view, it is the “acid-tongued readers” who constantly complain that present “the best fans a culture could hope to produce.” While sarcasm and vituperation certainly have their place, and can be exceptionally potent qualities when a writer wishes to pursue a larger truth, I must again side with Denby here. Is it really “passion” that drives a writer or a commentator who is always sour? Or is there really nothing more than bitter resentment? What is the point of nothing more than nimble flayings if you are not fighting for something better?

Sternbergh also takes umbrage about Denby’s observation that snark “has too modest a rooting interest in artists actually succeeding at anything,” and insists that the contributions to Television Without Pity were “never, ever, disengaged.” But “disengagement” is not what Denby is identifying here. One can be sourly “engaged” when one is merely an “acid-tongued reader” too terrified to express anything joyful or marvelous about the universe. Denby’s wondering why some writers refuse to offer so much as a positive word. And Sternbergh, in his defense of TWoP, never cites a single example from the website in which its writers wrote something along the lines of, “That episode of Lost was fantastic. And the filmmakers should be commended for an intelligent script and taut direction.”

I agree with Sternbergh that Denby doesn’t quite identify where snark originated (but he does make a half-decent effort to pinpoint its contemporary roots at Spy Magazine), but the very irony that Sternbergh identifies as “a defense against inheriting a two-faced world” isn’t the issue here. Because the best defense in these cases is hardly an effective offense. As Denby observes of Spy‘s infiltration of Bohemian Grove, “The malicious rug-pulling was fun to watch, but there was also something creepy, parasitic, and fully meaningless about such minor invasions. Spy never did find out how power worked in New York or what deals between political and corporate honchos were struck in Bohemian Grove; it discovered only where power hung out and what its vulgar habits were.” While I disagree with Denby’s suggestion that pranksterism and tomfoolery fail to loosen minor realities which lead others towards a better understanding of how the world operates (computer hackers, driven by curiosity and mischief, force administrators to enact better security; Sarah Palin is revealed to be woefully unqualified by a Quebec comedy duo), he is right to point to a certain vacuity in many snarky experiments. You can read a website like Television Without Pity and realize that the people who write for it are wasting their talents drinking in nothing but the poisonous tonic of sarcasm. These writers have no desire to understand or properly rebel against the “two-faced world” that’s apparently so evil. Indeed, in TWoP’s case, NBC Universal snatched it up and this caused others to take umbrage at the distilled results.

This is the precise cycle that Denby identifies in Gawker (citing Vanessa Grigoriadis’s “Everybody Sucks”). The real motivations of these young snarky writers are to take the jobs of those within the mainstream. And just as Jessica Coen and Choire Sicha have moved within the gates, so too has TWoP. The “revolters” become the establishment. The founders flee their garret and get good jobs. And then they have friends, such as Adam Sternbergh, defending them at their new vantage point in the parapets. (See an archive of Tara Ariano’s articles for New York and an archive of Sarah D. Bunting’s articles for New York. Both were founders of TWoP.)

Sternbergh quotes Denby’s “lazy generalization” about people in the thirties and the forties being “in the same boat,” but he conveniently elides the sentences that follow:

But at the moment, the attitude is that there is no common boat, and that, if there were one, other people should be thrown out of it. Income inequalities and Rovian tactics that exacerbate ethnic and class differences have made for sandpapery relations or blank indifference, and snark serves not to break down the walls of loneliness and fear but to solidify them by servicing communities held together by resentment. This isn’t the place for economic and sociological analysis, but everyone knows there’s an infinite amount of anger out there.

Now, you could calmly point out Sternbergh’s almost total inability to grok historical context or his failure to challenge Denby on how snark “breaks down the walls of loneliness.” Or you could respond, “Sternbergh, you dumbass, have you ever read any fucking books about the economic and social conditions during the Great Depression or World War II?” Witness Sternbergh’s total disregard for (a) trying to figure out where Denby is coming from and (b) deliberately cutting off his quote so that Denby’s larger point about isolation is curtailed.

Denby is certainly not disputing how Peggy Noonan’s slip clips away at pores in the wall. His argument rests on how snark fails to puncture it. When Maureen Dowd, who Denby devotes a full chapter to, consistently shifts her messages or fixates on Al Gore’s mannerisms (which has nothing to do with political realities), he is pointing out quite clearly that the snarky response is not always the best response and that, without any corresponding set of virtues, it’s utterly meaningless to public discourse.

While there may be some truth to Sternbergh’s theory that snark may turn its volume down if people say what they actually believe, one is likewise struck by Sternbergh’s unwillingness to give Tom Cruise the benefit of the doubt. I’m certainly no Tom Cruise fan, but I’m not such a jaded bastard to view Cruise as a total enemy incarnate (particularly with true scum like Bernard Madoff swindling good people). Cruise has certainly made an ass of himself jumping on Oprah’s couch and the like. But like Denby, I’ve never met the guy. And I probably never will. For all I know, we might get along.

What I can address is Tom Cruise’s strengths and failings as an actor. That is within the legitimate realm of public discourse, because that is my relationship with Tom Cruise. I can likewise address, as Sternbergh suggests, the “draconian information control” that prevents Cruise from answering tough questions about his craft and perhaps growing as an actor. But what contribution does describing Cruise as “a smaller, yappy version of Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator” make to public discourse? How does it help us to understand Tom Cruise? It would be just as ignoble if I described Adam Sternbergh as a “third-rate David Caruso with a silly chin” (based on this photo) or Sternbergh describing Denby as “an Internet-age Andy Rooney” in his review. But what merit or thought do such descriptions have when we are considering thoughts and ideas? None whatsoever.

Denby isn’t asking us to keep our voices down. He’s asking us to reconsider how we use our voices. And unlike previous books that have railed against the Internet (recent volumes from Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen come to mind; Denby, for what its worth, dismisses the former), Denby is not entirely against the Internet’s possibilities for expression. And this is what makes his book more nuanced and more interesting.

He rails against anonymous trolls, but his complaints extend more to the anonymity behind the comment. Why go to the trouble to slander someone when you can put your name to it? (Easy. You divest yourself of responsibility.) He bemoans websites and blogs that don’t bother to check or corroborate information, but that insist that they’re doing a better job than mainstream journalism while they simultaneously declare that they lack the time and the resources to fact-check. (And to demonstrate that Denby is not an enemy of the Internet, he commends Talking Points Memo for its fact-checking.)

He also bravely reveals an excerpt of his own snark, to show that he is not above taking snarky potshots. Indeed, we’re all capable of it. That’s part of the problem. Do we lob Sternberghian spitballs at those whose arguments we cannot intelligently address? Or do we do so with a corresponding set of virtues in mind? Do we say something positive or constructive every now and then? If we work in media, do we close the gates to those who are just starting out? Or do we give these struggling voices opportunities and include them into the framework? Most importantly, do we siphon our rage into something that involves unexpected revelations about the world we live in? Just about anybody can fire off a cheap shot, but it takes a thoughtful individual with real guts to reveal the full scope of terrible truths. And to give Sternbergh the benefit of the doubt, I hope he reconsiders what pursuing these truths really entails.


David Perel: Fuckhead of the Month

Among the many media casualties on this Black Friday was Radar going down. I’ve been told that Radar staffers were asked to clear their desks by 3:00 PM and likewise asked to sign off on a voluntary layoff form. And as if these developments weren’t disgusting enough, editor David Perel announced on the same day just how happy he was to be on board. Perel, moving to Radar from the National Enquirer, had this to say to Mark Paretsky’s Cover Awards this afternoon: “I have already been contacted today by some top entertainment and news journalists who want to be part of this new venture. I am looking forward to putting together a new team that is the best of the best. We are hiring now!”

It’s possible that Perel is just too much of a fucktard to understand that writers and editors were being unmoored while he spoke these words. But surely even the biggest dunderhead in the media world could understand that any makeover into a TMZ competitor would likely involve laying a few people off. Perel’s total insensitivity to the Radar staffers who were let go earns him the rare honor of Fuckhead of the Month — never awarded to anyone in this site’s history!

(via Gawker)

The Early Films of Jim Henson

Before the days of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Jim Henson was an independent filmmaker in New York, making experimental films between commercial gigs. It was the mid-sixties. According to John Bell’s Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History, Henson was sharing a workshop space for a few months in the basement of a New York City library with a German sculptor and choreographer named Peter Schumann. Schumann specialized in avant-garde performances, entertaining crowds with masks, puppets, and postmodern dance, often employing these for political demonstrations.

In watching 1965’s “Time Piece,” seen above and recently unearthed by Metafilter, it’s difficult to consider it without Schumann in mind. The film played in New York theaters on a double bill with Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman and concerns itself with a man (played by Henson) being examined in a hospital. As the clock ticks away, a grand surrealistic array of experiential memories overtakes his existence. Gorillas bounce on pogo sticks. There is the quiet Kermit-like plea of “Help!” Chickens emerge in strip clubs. And all this is intercut with optically printed pixellated squares.

The film is set to a intermittent drum rhythm that echoes the heartbeat of time. What’s particularly intriguing is that, according to David P. Campbell’s The Complete Inklings, “Time Piece” so captured Campbell’s imagination that the film was shown at an a seminar at the Minnesota Statewide Testing Program annual conference, with Henson’s film projected on one screen and the test results of a random individual projected on another. The idea was to show Henson’s film, with Campbell announcing to the students, “We should always remember that there is a person behind each of these test scores; to make that point dramatically, here is one person’s test scores and here is a product of his considerable imagination.”This permissive cultural climate permitted Henson to make “The Cube” in 1969, a teleplay that independent filmmaker Vincenzo Natali appears to have handily pilfered from.

A protagonist, known only as “The Man in the Cube,” is trapped inside a cube of white rectangular panels, with strange individuals who enter and exit through other doors. This premise gave Henson the opportunity to explore a wide variety of topics: racism, sexism, the realm between reality and fantasy. There is even reference to the fourth wall. At one point, a professor addresses the man, pointing out that he is in a television play.

Believe it or not, “The Cube” was commissioned for a television series called Experiment in Television, a now forgotten program that aired on NBC between 1968 and 1971. This series came about because NBC needed filler material to provide late Sunday afternoon programming when the football season had ended. And they decided, quite amazingly, to provide a venue without commercials for documentaries and experimental films.

In the end, it was public television that secured Henson’s rise to fame. But today, unless you’re as squeaky-clean as Ken Burns, your prospects for national exposure are slim. Now that the first season of Sesame Street has been issued on DVD, it’s been issued with a parental advisory reading, “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” The idea of children running around an inner city, looking to learning as a way out, is apparently too threatening a concept.

Given this drastic shift in priorities — the unusual idea of commissioning an experimental film for a testing conference, the now antediluvian notion of creating a space on national television where filmmakers can pursue alternative ideas, and the censure on anything slightly offensive to “suit the needs” of children — one is forced to contemplate the current media atmosphere. Certainly, there is YouTube and the Internet. But this online landscape increasingly values views — and thereby advertising revenue — over notions that are not popular or lucrative, and one wonders just how tomorrow’s Hensons will thrive. Of course, any artist who feels compelled to create will not let any obstacle stop him. But by hindering the spectrum of expression with our priorities (what sells, what’s safe, et al.), I’m wondering if we’re closing the floodgates to those who might have new and innovative ways to get a mass audience excited about the world around us.

Kenneth Tomlinson, Another Neocon Hypocrite

Remember Kenneth Tomlinson? The guy who launched a $10,000 study to look into the purported liberal bias of Now with Bill Moyers. Well, it seems that Tomlinson himself broke federal law by bringing in more conservative voices to tilt PBS’s programming to the right, violating the ethical standards set forth by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Apparently, Tomlinson couldn’t practice what he preached.

Interestingly enough, Tomlinson resigned as a board member earlier in the month shortly after all this chicanery was unearthed by Corporation for Public Broadcasting Inspector General Kenneth Konz. While there are no criminal penalties for Tomlinson’s unethical conduct, if there is any justice in the world, I sincerely hope that Tomlinson will be found working at an Arby’s somewhere.

Agism Going Down at the Dailies

There’s two extraordinary stories from Romenensko. The first deals with political commentator Jim Witcover, who at 78, had his column at the Baltimore Sun reduced his frequency, with the sun cutting his salary down to a third of its previous rate. When the year on the contract renewed, the Baltimore Sun then sent a termination notice by overnight mail. Could it have been Witcover’s anti-Iraq stance or the fact that he was older?

The second item concerns this memo from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which offers a retirement package to those “who are 50 ages and above as of November 1, 2005.”

With both of these stories, there seems to be a clear and resounding message here. If you’re a journalist, even a syndicated columnist, getting up in years, don’t expect to be respected. Don’t even expect to be treated with any polite exit procedure. With newspapers already facing possible threats from major advertisers looking for a “younger, lowbrow” demographic, rather than an “older and elitist one,” could it be that newspapers are panicking and taking this attitude too much to heart?

[UPDATE: The Baltimore-based Live by the Foma offers his perspective on Witcover’s career and how it ties into the Baltimore Sun‘s legacy.]

Peter Jennings: The Missing Link

So Peter Jennings is dead. No doubt the paeans will be composed and filed tonight and tomorrow’s newspapers will yield the usual uncritical obits. They’ll tell you how Jennings was the last active member of the Holy Trinity of Brokaw, Jennings and Rather, about how Jennings was the final remnant of a certain time in television journalism (if one doesn’t consider that phrase an oxymoron), and about how Jennings was a decent guy (or at least appeared to be a decent guy).

But for anyone who contemplates shedding a tear or observing a moment of silence, I have to ask an important question: Did Peter Jennings ever ask a tough question in his life? And if he did, did it come during the past twenty years? Because I sure as hell don’t recall Jennings giving us much more than somnolent narration not dissimilar from a half-baked nature program.

Perhaps I’m fired up right now because I’ve just read this week’s New Yorker and I found myself horrified by Ken Auletta’s article on morning TV talk shows, “The Dawn Patrol” (unavailable online). Aside from that ol’ time sophistication, Auletta’s article is no different from a People Magazine profile in the way that it fawns over its subjects without blinking even a quasi-skeptical eye. Or maybe it might be my outrage after reading Norman Solomon’s new book, War Made Easy, which offers countless examples of how the media has, over the past forty years, repeated the boiler plate of official government memos without deviating, never really daring to doubt or question actions for fear of retaliation, along the lines of what happened to Ray Bonner when he dared to uncover the truth about the El Mozote massacre and found himself pushed out of the New York Times newsroom or when Elizabeth Becker faced resistance when uncovering the truth about Khmer Rouge for the Washington Post and the New York Times (as chronicled in part in Samantha Power’s excellent book, A Problem from Hell).

I recall that my mother liked Peter Jennings a great deal. He was, I suppose, a source of comfort — ironically enough, it took a Canadian to lull Middle America. For her and for many other Americans, Jennings’ soothing voice conveyed an illusory world that was far less problematic than the real one. And it was all because he was an affable, well-liked man who threw softball questions at his subjects more effectively than a batting cage machine.

But I would argue that one can remain reasonably well-liked and maintain a certain credibility. Let’s compare Jennings with, say, Walter Cronkite (incidentally, still quite alive), once considered “the most trusted man in America.” Cronkite had the cojones to declare, “There is no way this war can be justified any longer” after touring Vietnam in 1968. In fact, it was Lyndon B. Johnson who once opined, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Jennings was far from a Cronkite. Or even a Walter Winchell. If anchormen can be likened to a recidivist evolutionary chain extending from Walter Cronkite to Matt Lauer, then Jennings was the missing link that took whatever edge that remained in television-based journalism, suffusing it into a safe and inoffensive approach.

He was a calm, telegenic man who read his words from the TelePrompTer with all the care and duty of a dependable savant being asked to play a recital piece in front of a easily assuaged crowd. He was likable. And in being well-liked, who knows how many viewers he led down the rabbit hole?

I don’t blame Jennings entirely for this. Ultimately, this problem is endemic of the current system. And I’m sorry that he died of cancer. But at a time when only Karl Rove can get the White House press pool to rake Press Secretary Scott McClellan over the coals, at a time in which Americans are so desperate to find someone to trust that they turn to a comedian like Jon Stewart to get their news, and at a time when an anchor’s credentials are judged not by journalistic chops, but by how well-liked, coiffed and curvy they are, it seems to me a disgrace that we prefer to take solace in those who are well-liked rather than the journalists who dare to provoke or tell the truth. In short, celebrating Jennings is, in a strange way, ignoring those who dare to do the work of a journalist, television ratings and focus groups be damned.

Reading Habits, Technology and the Hypothetical Rise of the Short

It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.
— Philip Larkin, “A Study of Reading Habits

Each person has a different approach to reading. Some folks read in ten minute chunks. Others read in three hour clusters. Some read daily. Others read every week. Some read only nonfiction. Others read only fiction. Some read only on the toilet. Others need to be sitting nude on a mat, preferably in a yoga position for maximum meditation. Make up your own dichotomy and throw it into the pile like a pair of used cufflinks.

The very real question I have, inspired by this anecdotal post at the Shifted Librarian on how game culture has shifted productivity patterns, is whether any approach to reading is wrong, or whether the act of reading itself should even be concerned with something that smacks of schoolmarm etiquette. (These guidelines, for example, suggest that vocalizing or moving lips while one reads is bad. I must therefore conclude that every so often, particularly when I am perusing something that begs to be vocalized, I am a very bad reader indeed.) After all, since we’re talking about an act that is largely solitary, my gut feeling is that the only person who should be concerned with the question of the right way to read and the wrong way to read is the reader herself.

Greogry Lamb has suggested that computers have changed the way that people read, but his article dwells more on how people are learning to increase their WPM reading rate (or using reading supplements like highlighting tools, including a site being devised by the Palo Alto Research Center to annotate Hamlet with endless scholarly commentaries). It says little about, say, the nauseating sensation of reading a 100,000 word novel on a computer screen (as opposed to a 2,000 word essay, which is more managable for the eyes and head) — a prospect that is likely to change as displays come closer to resembling paper (both in feel and resolution). (Many of these developments are being chronicled at the excellent Future of the Book blog.)

Since magazines and newspapers are seeing their subscriptions slowly plummet (with even such one-time staples as TV Guide resorting to drastic overhauls), there is the additional question of whether reading, at least as it pertains to magazines and newspapers, has adopted a time-shifting quality that we have been more willing to attribute to TiVo and podcasting, but that we aren’t willing to apply to articles. This strange stigma may have something to do with the fact that much of this reading is done on company time, whether through the reader sitting at her work desktop reading an article in its entirety or disguising this malingering through effective one-browser window aggregators such as Bloglines or printing it off using company paper to read it on the subway home. Who wants to mention this when it’s legitimate grounds for a grievance?

In other words, technology has enabled a remarkable workforce cluster to read by subterfuge (possibly for short-length articles). Perhaps they read because it’s a revolutionary act that, outside of web tracking software, can’t be completely gauged — sort of like jerking off on the clock.

Despite these clear advantages, there still remains a remarkable faith in technology which might be out of step with the tactile advantages of reading books, to the point where undergraduate university libraries have pared down their books to a mere 1,000 volumes and it is now inconceivable for today’s college students to leave home without an arsenal of technology.

But if libraries and educational institutions become based almost solely around technology, where lies the future of reading? While there are plenty of studies indicating that reading is dropping and there remains some debate over whether this is a “sky is falling” alarmism (which Kevin Smokler and Paul Collins challenge in Bookmark Now) or a problem that needs to be addressed, none of these studies seem to indicate, to me, a much more telling trend: what type of reading are people doing precisely? Do they prefer shorter content such as a 2,000 word essay or a short story? Is there a correllation between a proclivity to read things on the Internet and the drop in “reading literature” announced within NEA’s “Reading at Risk” report? Certainly, the ascent in chapbooks such as Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit to the bestsellers list cannot be entirely overlooked.

If shorter reading experiences are the future (in part or in whole), then I would suggest that the short story has a fantastic new life ahead and that The Atlantic Monthly, in dropping short fiction entirely from its pages (and in failing to allow non-subscribers to access their content), is ass-backwards. Big time. Unless of course they see a new market in chapbooks or content siphoned directly to today’s tech-savvy reading base.

About Schmidt

about schmidt So according to CNET:

Google representatives have instituted a policy of not talking with CNET reporters until July 2006 in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story.

The story in question revealed a variety of personal information about Google CEO Eric Schmidt (all findable through Google) and made a point about Google collecting detailed personal information about its users that it doesn’t make public.

It seems that Google has a double standard here.

The Reluctant Tries to Remain Impartial Too, But…

The BBC has banned its journalists from writing newspaper and magazine columns pertaining to current affairs. The m.o.? “Impartiality.” The ban extends to both staff and freelancers. There is at least some consolation: voicing vitriolic opinions on things like food is considered impartial. Whether such a restriction will trickle over the Atlantic to the “fair and balanced” networks remains to be seen.

Mayor Cleese? (via Tom)

New OED words: “fuckwit,” “non-homosexual,” “Norman Rockwellish,” “no-talent,” “cut and shut,” “fist-fucker,” “gang-bang,” “huevos rancheros,” and “super-unleaded.”

The Illustrated Complete Summary of Gravity’s Rainbow (via MeFi)

Mary Shelley’s original MS. for Frankenstein has been saved thanks to a grant. The draft, with Shelley’s handwritten corrections, can now be found at Oxford’s Bodleian library.