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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Snark and sprezzatura

Last night, just before turning in, I decided to check Snark Alert, the amazing space-age Internets device that keeps me informed about the State of Snark in today’s society today.  You know, because I have a professional interest in this.  So the first thing that came up, naturally, was this post by TBogg, founder and grandmaster of the West Coast school of snark.  Here, Mr. Bogg snarks away at David Denby’s latest book, Snark, which I haven’t read.  I did, however, read this review, in which I encountered this paragraph of austere beauty:

Take this small example from Denby’s book: In pining for the tough-talking wit of Rosalind Russell and her ilk, he writes, “Whatever its miseries, the country in the thirties and forties was at peace with itself spiritually: We were all in the same boat.” Now, you could calmly point out Denby’s lazy generalization as he reimagines a time of widespread inequality as an idyllic epoch of snappy-pattered togetherness. Or you could respond, “Denby, you dumbass, not only were we not all in the same boat, we weren’t even at the same water fountains.” Sometimes the snarky response is the correct response.

Now, I read and reviewed and mostly liked Denby’s Great Books (my very-first-ever assignment for Dissent, way back in 1996), but you probably know that I am bored silly by people who pine for the golden age that passed from this earth right around the time they were born.  And the boat/ water fountains bit is a bon mot, no?  I wish I had written that.  Because it seems as if Denby’s latest book is like a stream of bat’s piss.  And now that I’ve gotten the sense that Snark is a little bit like Lee Siegel’s magnum opus, Against the Blogofascist Machine:  How Internet Anonymity and Meanness are Destroying Our Culture and Bringing Me Down to the Level of the Immature, Abusive Sheep Who Criticize Me Because They Are Jealous of My Prodigious Talent, I think I’ll probably pass on the piss.

But that’s not what I came to talk about.  I came to talk about the metonymic skid that led me from TBogg to this post by the young women of the blog “Wonkette,” who patiently, if snarkily, respond to Denby by explaining a couple of the jokes he didn’t get and by pointing out that Wonkette is not, in fact, written by young women.  In the ensuing comment thread (which is, as you might imagine, chock full of extra extra snark), someone with the unlikely name of “Slavoj Zizek” appears and says,

Well, Snark currently gets three stars from the fourteen customer reviewers on Amazon. Which seems a bit high. Just twenty or so 1 star reviews and that rating will start to sink. Of course, to be really amusing, you should probably know something about the book in question, which is way to much work. Maybe a bunch of five star reviews?

“Uh oh,” I said to myself upon reading that, “I know what happens next.” And sure enough, when I clicked over to Amazon, there were a bunch of mostly one-star reviews dating from January 31 to yesterday—eighteen fresh ones, all of which appear to be Wonkette-inspired.

But that’s not what I came to talk about.  I came to talk about the fact that as I surveyed the damage, thinking poor Denby—there but for the grace of Moloch go I, I noticed that all the reviews had earned comments, even the most recent ones.  Upon closer inspection, I discovered that at some point yesterday afternoon and evening, some dear soul, looking upon the wreckage of the dogpile, took it upon himself to respond to every single one of those thirty-two reviews, chastising the one-stars and applauding mightily the perspicacity of those who had the good sense to give Snark the favorable hearing it deserves.  His name, I learned, is G. Charles Steiner.  About a bad review, he writes,

You write in harsh generalities and make serious negative assertions, neither of which do you support because you believe a review is no different from stating your political bias or opinion, and that’s simply not the way book reviews are done or what a reader comes to book reviewer to find. F+ for your review.

About a good one, he writes,

Nice review, Douglas! You’re another one of three reviewers I’ve found (out of 32!) that can write a good summary of the book and be somewhat objective about it.

And about a pretty-obviously-kidding five star review, one that begins, “It was a difficult book for me to read because my IQ is pretty much that of a Q-Tip. I had to read it a couple of times to understand how brilliant it is,” Steiner writes,

LOVELY, LOVELY, LOVELY, LOVELY REVIEW! The book found its audience in you! Thank you so much for writing a wholly appreciative review.

Well, I had planned to get into bed by 11, as part of my new I-just-finished-my-book healthy clean living lifestyle, but by that point it was half past and Janet’s asking, “are you coming to bed?” and I’m saying, “I can’t.  This is important.  Someone is really weird on the Internet.”

Now, despite the title of this here post, I don’t really think for a moment that Mr. Steiner is David Denby’s sockpuppet.  That would be sad.  Besides, Amazon says he’s using his real name.  But I do think his dedication to combating snarkmeisters and Wonkette-readers at Amazon.com is truly remarkable, and worthy of our sustained attention.  Indeed, the perseverance and earnestness displayed in these thirty-two Amazon review comments may very well turn the tide and serve as a watershed moment that will lift all boats and water fountains alike.  Because if our culture is ever going to be cleansed of snark, the fight will start in the trenches—in blog comment sections, in Amazon reviews, and in Photoshops around the globe where unscrupulous snark peddlers take the hard work of print-media culture critics and make parodic “graphic novels” of them.

Only you can help!  For as Gandhi said in his five-star review of Against the Machine, we must be the Internet commenters we want to see in the world.

Posted by Michael on 02/03 at 10:41 AM
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