Hunting snarks with a pop gun

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David Denby is a competent, at times insightful, film critic for New Yorker magazine, but he clearly has too much time on his hands between screenings.

He's written an essay that years ago might have been issued as a pamphlet or "broadside."

Today, it's published in a little yellow book by Simon & Schuster, which has the gall to charge $15.95 for its 122 pages.

It's called "Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal and It's Ruining Our Conversation."

It also unfortunately puts a definition to a word that was invented by Lewis Carroll apropos of nothing.

(Retelling the story of the word did give Denby some extra material to pad his insubstantial little rumination. Otherwise, it might have been 50 pages. Oops, is that snarky?)

The Snark was one of that strange man's imaginary animals, but when novelist Heidi Julavitz used the word to describe unpleasantly critical book reviewers in her indifferently researched 2005 McSweeney's magazine article, the word gained, as they say, "traction."

Both she and Denby meant "snarky," the adjective that describes "cutting" or "snide" remarks, says the Oxford Dictionary.

Denby now expands the territory to cover a broad range of abusive personal attacks on celebrities in show business and politics. The Internet is the super magnifier of these attacks, he says, many launched anonymously and, therefore, with much more malice.

Anonymity is one of the Web's so-called virtues. It grants the timid, unhappy and insecure the chance to cut people down to their size. When it's taken away, the faceless writers flee to dark corners like roaches when the kitchen light is turned on or PittGirl. (Snarky, again.)

"Anonymity is a strategy with a long history, good and bad, but I dislike it as a hiding place for snark," Denby agrees. "[The Internet] is a medium you don't have to pay for -- so much of it is free, without cost, including the cost of responsibility."

Denby's position, though, isn't about the nature of the Web but the nature of today's society and the way it's created a class of entertainers, not critics, who get laughs and applause for humiliation and ridicule.

His snarky stars are New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, frequent Times Sunday Book Review contributor and print comedian Joe Queenan, Vanity Fair's faux intellectual James Wolcott, the Fox News pundit parade and such slap-down Web sites as Wonkette and Gawker.

Certainly Dowd lost her sense of perspective -- some might say her grip -- during the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Her columns deteriorated into mean overreaching put-downs and peculiar psychological rants that haven't stopped now that Sen. Clinton is the likely secretary of state in the Obama administration.

Denby devotes a whole chapter to Dowd. "Her appetite for ridicule equals any politician's appetite for power, and maybe the two hungers aren't all that different," opines the movie reviewer.

But, Dowd, unlike the young eager-to-please Internet nasties, is an experienced journalist who doesn't have to prove her credentials by dissing those of others, thus excluding her from Denby's "snark" label.

She's one of several targets the author squeezes into his snarky pigeonhole, but they don't fit.

If Denby truly wanted to pursue the promise of his little shallow book by investigating and reporting on the nature of cultural conversation in 2009 America, it would take several years and more researchers than he employed here. Conversely, a more tightly written and sharper focused opinion column might spur the very conversation he claims is being ruined by bringing in letters from readers.

Instead, his book stands the real prospect of being outdated by next month. Times change quickly in our impatient popular culture, and today's snark will soon be tomorrow's sap.

Contact Bob Hoover at 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com.



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