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.

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16 Comments

  1. I’m looking forward to reading this book. And I’m trying not to read the above too carefully because I want to come to it fresh.

    One thing: the small and bizarre mention of me here (I was just innocently sitting at home eating tacos and reading the internet!) is unfortunately incorrect. I have been unemployed for some months and am not inside the “gates” of any particular entity or group. However I will definitely be sleeping on the ground *near* these alleged gates in about three months if I don’t start making some cash money soon.

  2. Anderson Cooper (December 28, 2008)
    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/tv/la-ca-conversation28-2008dec28,0,7443701.story

    Arianna Huffington (December 21, 2008)
    http://www.latimes.com/technology/la-ca-conversation21-2008dec21,1,7613827.story

    Bijou Phillips (December 14, 2008)
    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-conversation14-2008dec14,0,2901004.story

    Salon article (December 10, 2008)
    http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2008/12/10/mamet/

    Jamie Bamber (December 7, 2008)
    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-ca-conversation7-2008dec07,0,2005404.story

    Play the sad song and dance routine all you want, Choire. (And I’m still waiting for Tribune checks too. Goddam bankruptcy.) But the above clips indicate to me that you’re still doing just fine. You’re certainly making more money than me this month as a freelancer, and I certainly ain’t complaining. But then perhaps you’re long past knowing precisely where the “gates” are. (Oh, and Denby isn’t kind to you at all in the new book. And he’s right. But I guess you’ll have to wait until you can grab a copy.)

    Let the email record show that I DID warn you about your Rex Reed impersonations. Let the email record also show that you published a private email I sent you.

    Funny how snark is altogether different when you’re on the other side of the fence, and you’re a freelancer struggling to pay the rent just like the rest of us.

  3. This is an impressive essay, Ed. I had no idea I’d be so engaged by a defense of David Denby, wow.

  4. I think it’s funny how DrMabuse is studiously deliberate about using the bits of Denbyism that Champion championed to snark on Choire just now.

    It’s like the gold-star student in class dutifully copying the blackboard! (The idea that Choire’s five articles in a month, at today’s rates, can take even baby steps toward quantifying a living in New York City is also cute).

    Anyway, yeah, I didn’t even know about this book, and now I wanna read it too.

  5. Uh, you know Dr Mabuse and Ed are one and same, right?

  6. Really good work Ed. Thanks for furthering my premise that much of the new use of communications only serve a narcissistic function.

  7. Snark is wit for breeding-age heterosexuals.

  8. Richard LeComte January 6, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    You know, 21st century snark pales in comparison to the humorous vitriol let loose in the UK in the 18th century, from “Shamela” to Pope’s “Dunciad” to Swift’s Houyhnhnms and his “Modest Proposal” to “Tragedy of Tom Thumb.” Does Denby deal with the Enlightenment? In fact, doesn’t snark go hand in hand with democracy and freedom?

  9. Adam Sternbergh January 7, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    A spirited and thoughtful critique — I think you would have done a better job attacking snark than Denby did. I’m not going to argue with your arguments about my arguments — I’m happy to let people read both pieces and decide for themselves — but there are a few points that need to be addressed.

    Almost everything you’ve said here about Television Without Pity is wrong, which suggests an unfamiliarity with the site — and might explain why you misunderstand the point its inclusion is intended to make in the original piece.

    You write that my article “never cites a single example from the website in which its writers wrote something along the lines of, ‘That episode of Lost was fantastic’ etc.” That’s my error, then, because the site is full of that sort of thing. So is the entire, supposedly snark-addled Internet. That’s the point. Many of the snarkiest commentators out there are, in their hearts, true and passionate fans: committed, demanding, opinionated.

    So Denby’s familiar caricature of snarkers as people who can’t summon a passion for anything is wrong, and demonstrably wrong. You’ve caricatured the TWoP community here similarly, and that’s wrong as well. A sentence such as, “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,” becomes ironic once you realize that several writers from TWoP have been hired by the very producers of the shows they’ve critiqued. No one who doesn’t care about something spends hours watching it, critiquing it and, yes, snarking on it.

    As for the site’s founders, after shepherding the move to Bravo Online, they all subsequently left the site. I’ve never been a fan of the rhetorical technique you employ here, by which people are labeled sell-outs, then dismissed. However, by your logic, you — and Denby — should be praising the Internet, not burying it—-precisely because it offers a voice to people who haven’t yet been absorbed into whatever mainstream Borg-organism you assume everyone’s so eager to join.

    It’s true that snark has become the de facto voice of some corners of the Web. The more interesting question is: Why? For Denby, this question seems no more interesting than “Why are those teenagers on the bus so damned noisy?” He doesn’t care why — he just wants them to pipe down.

    And, yes, Denby praises certain forms of irony, vituperation, sarcasm, etc. But he never draws a convincing distinction between what he likes (Colbert, Gore Vidal) and what he doesn’t (Maureen Dowd, faceless masses on Twitter). Whatever your opinion of Dowd and Keith Olbermann, can you honestly suggest that what they do is essentially different? Yet Denby lashes one and praises the other. Similarly, Jon Stewart is funny, and ruthless, and funny because he is ruthless. I hate to say it, but that’s snark. You can’t simply not include him because you think he’s funny and you agree with his politics.

    The core problem is that, in defending Denby, you repeat his circular reasoning. He defines snark as anything that’s abusive and dismissive, then condemns snark for being abusive and dismissive. Yes, there is a lot of snark out there that’s mindlessly abusive, but that’s not an argument against snark, it’s an argument against abuse. Take Jon Stewart, again, who can be both snarky and a champion of a “corresponding set of virtues.” So too can a lot of anonymous people on the Internet. They don’t have trouble seeing snark as a vehicle for expressing legitimate outrage. Denby, on the other hand, argues that snark that expresses legitimate outrage isn’t snark, it’s… something else. He ignores the fact that snark, like sarcasm, like vitriol, like satire, can be properly and expertly applied.

  10. Mr. Sternbergh, do you really see no difference in the respective snark quotients of Jon Stewart and Maureen Dowd? That is bewildering. It’s true that Stewart, like all satirists, I suspect, has his moments of pure snark — his cackling Bush impression comes to mind — but his show is mostly in the business of highlighting the hypocrisy, incompetence, and other assorted shortcomings of government and the news media. Dowd’s columns, on the other hand, don’t contain any serious critiques; each one is an entire column’s worth of that Bush impression.

    Another way to think of it: even though we all know people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are preaching to the choir, we could imagine a very open-minded person being persuaded by them on some issue (say, that John McCain or Barack Obama completely contradicted an earlier position); satire has the ability to be persuasive. But Dowd’s columns are obviously, unapologetically unpersuasive. She starts with a premise — usually, something along the lines of “George Bush is a stupid idiot” — and makes awful jokes based on that premise. Satire makes a point; snark is just name-calling.

  11. [...] Ideas? Freelance? I know damn well that there’s no way in hell that I will ever write for The New York Times Book Review, but I decided to present a mock hypothetical. What if I were to pitch him ideas? He suggested that my journalism was “irresponsible” and “defamatory.” I asked him when he had last read my blog, and he indicated it had been many years. Well, how could he be certain that everything I was writing was “irresponsible” and “defamatory?” Another editor had told him. I mentioned the 1,600 word response to Adam Sternbergh’s review of David Denby’s Snark. [...]

  12. [...] also see our lengthy essay, in response to Adam Sternbergh’s review. This conversation represents an effort to get Denby [...]

  13. [...] also see our lengthy essay, in response to Adam Sternbergh’s review. This conversation represents an effort to get Denby [...]

  14. Leaving aside everything about Denby, internet, reviewers…….it’s about time someone took on Maureen Dowd. Time and again I’ve read her column and come away thinking, who’s side is she on, anyhow? And that’s Denby’s point, isn’t it, that her indignation never goes anywhere, nor does it emanate from anything other than her own cleverness. (And I wish someone would show me how I can respond to her columns on line. )

  15. [...] a particular school of cultural critic — you know the kind — who are forever seeking signs that the world is going to hell in a [...]

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