Saturday, January 31, 2009

Don't criticize what you can't understand

I never really had strong feelings about New Yorker film critic David Denby, as some subscribers do. He was less entertaining than Anthony Lane, but not unreadable; and yes, he was occasionally out of his depth, but aren't they all? If he'd been writing about theatre perhaps I'd have been more sensitive to his shortcomings, but his movie reviews never really rubbed me the wrong way.

I recently saw his new book Snark in an advance-copies-for-review pile and I rolled my eyes: another writer tries to stretch half of an idea into a book-length Comment on Modern Culture. No thanks. The "pseudo-scholarly take on a pop-culture 'trend'" angle was especially unappetizing. I don't want to hear that particular lecture from anybody, but especially not from Denby. Although, as I said, I never had a strong reaction to his work in general, I had a dim memory that he was a writer whose insightfulness diminished as his subject broadened. That is, writing about one particular film, he did okay; writing long articles about the Meaning and History and Future of Film in Our Culture, as I remember him doing once or twice, he seemed sloppy with his "argument" and generally out of touch. (I think I hated this one, but I don't want to bother rereading it to recall the specifics.) Certain paragraphs and sentences still had the ring of truth within them, but the way they were strung together seemed false and tin-eared, inclined to generalize in unsupportable ways.

So I guessed from all that that Snark would be an unsatisfying, probably irritating read. But this Wonkette post -- about his attempt to take on Wonkette -- is really pretty horrifying. I'm actually embarrassed for David Denby.

I know it's not for everyone's tastes, but I love Wonkette, which I discovered belatedly toward the end of this election season. It got me through those last couple months, and it continues to help me cope with knowing that, for example, Peggy Noonan and Maureen Dowd and Bill Kristol and Richard Cohen and other such columnists are out there, and other people take them seriously. (That Noonan takedown makes me laugh every time I think about it. On the other hand, the very fact that Denby apparently describes Dowd as "the most gifted writer of snark in the country" is conclusive evidence that he has no clue what he's talking about.) Wonkette is the only place I can stand to read about the Blagojevich Affair. And the reader comments actually add value, which is a rare and impressive achievement. The funny thing is, Denby isn't off-base when he describes the site as "proudly idiotic." That captures something central to what they're doing over there. He just doesn't get how that approach is functioning -- how it manages to be crude and smart at the same time. The crudeness of the approach points out how crass the level of "serious" and "mainstream" political coverage and discourse actually is. When provoked enough, the Wonkette editors will explain that (much better than I just did), and it's impressive to me how thoroughly they understand what they're doing.

I wouldn't have expected the nuances of "snark" as employed at Wonkette to be apparent or appealing to Denby -- if we were friends, I wouldn't be sending him links to my favorite posts. And his not getting it would be fine, except that he's apparently so certain he does. And that's embarrassing. Normally Wonkette's post titles are (proudly!) hyperbolic, but in this case, "The 'Wonkette Part' of David Denby's Book Really Just A Bunch of Major, If Not Libelous, Errors" is accurate. Quite an achievement.

I'm not convinced that "snark" and its effect on "our conversation" is analyzable, or worth analyzing. But if you want to read more on the topic, read Adam Sternbergh's review of Denby's book in New York magazine. It's the only review I'd bother to read, because Sternbergh -- of the late, lamented Fametracker team, part of TWoP's extended family -- knows whereof he speaks. He's convinced me "snark" might be worth analyzing after all, if it's done by someone who knows what it is and how it works. "Snark is not a honk of blasé detachment; it’s a clarion call of frustrated outrage." Couldn't have said it better myself -- but then, I keep forgetting! I'm a blogger and not a writer.

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