Apparently a lot of people really hate this book. I came across a lot of criticism of it, but very little of it actually dealt with the book itself instead of their perceptions of the book.
I learned of this book, though I don’t recall this now, from reader the famous Gawker essay “On Smarm” by Tom Scocca that was making the rounds about 4 years ago. I am convinced from rereading big sections of it, especially the David Denby parts, that the author didn’t actually read this book, but instead took (understandable) umbrage with Gawker’s inclusion on Denby’s list of Snark-laden examples. I think they doubled their effort to misread it by spending most of the article really attempting to savage Nicholas Kristoff and Dave Eggers. Those guys, aside, David Denby’s book is wholly mischaracterized in that article as hand-wringing, brow-furrowing middle groundedness that scolds instead of creates.
It does scold, sure, it’s a polemic, but it does not engage in the kind of hand-wringing of the lost art of conversation and decency in modern culture.
A lot of the criticism seems levied at the use of “snark” as Denby’s criticism. He essentially defines it as cutting, bullying derision that punches below one’s weight-class and without any larger idealized world behind it. And many of his examples show what he means by this….crass insult and mockery with a knowing audience that doesn’t actually seem to do anything other than to silence and destroy. Being added to that list would annoy me, but he bolsters that list with lots of examples (some good and some not good) of things that don’t count as snark, under these terms. Some I agree with: Stephen Colbert and some I don’t: Keith Olberman. But the point is, he states his definition and then moves with it. So much of the criticism I found about the book engage with their own definition of the word and use that as the thing he’s railing against. They challenge his terminology but not his actual ideas. And the criticism feels empty. Basically: I’m snarky, and therefore this is bad criticism. He makes a case for defining snark this way based on some common and historical usage of it and then through a reading of the Lewis Carroll poem the “Hunting of the Snark.” Again, the two main points that seem to be taken up is “I disagree with your use of this specific term to name a thing” and “A thing I like was on your list/A thing I don’t like was not on your list.” But his actual point throughout is that meanness masked as irony is just mean and is intellectually lazy, often grounded in jealousy instead of criticism, and doesn’t actually do anything because it’s history-less.
To me, he just seems to know what he’s talking about more than the critics I have come across. He’s not who they say he is and this work is not doing what they claim it is. One point that comes up in the Smarm essay is that in 1989 David Denby said something scoldy about “Do the Right Thing” so who is he to judge now? It’s such an annoyingly vapid criticism of this current work that it’s embarrassing. It’s also intellectually bankrupt because Gawker and lots of the internet likes to play shadow games with taking responsibility for ideas. But anyway.
I also liked this one a lot. It’s connection to the David Denby book is that one, the cover is yellow, but more so 2) it was available on Overdrive when I needed something to listen to on my walk this morning. And 3), this also deals with using shallowness as a mask for actual critical engagement with something important.
One of my favorite Onion articles ever is:
“Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle With Cancer”: http://www.theonion.com/article/loved-ones-recall-local-mans-cowardly-battle-with–772
I have always hated the ritualistic prescription of feelings associated with types of suffering and funerals and all that. And like Barbara Ehrenreich I am deeply suspicious of certain types of charity. Ehrenreich had breast cancer and when she sought resources on it, she was confronted with a very positive, battling, life-affirming, tone, especially withe Susan G Komen Foundation. When she expressed her anger at cancer, she was scolded with her bad attitude and how it would never help her fight her cancer. She found that cancer had become a metaphor of strength and that her own attempts to question this were met with derision. This makes sense, as the general narrative of survival can be a powerful motivator for people under stress, but she also points out that this was working against her own needs and erasing the narratives of people who were dying, as well as adding undue stress on people already taxed with cancer and cancer treatments to actively work toward positivity on top of all their other stress. And as a former scientist with a PhD, she was concerned because it just doesn’t work. She talks about how positive attitude science has been basically inversely engineered from studies showing how stress can weaken immune systems and so the reverse must be true. But it apparently is not.
She moves from this chapter to various other forms of positive motivation/positive attitude being used as a replacement for critical engagement with the world. She talks about the positive attitude/motivation speaker brought in corporate America, replacing an actual progress agenda of making people’s lives better to flipping the switch and telling people it’s their responsibility to make positive results happen from negative things: say like corporate downsizing. She also focused on prosperity gospel preaching and the self-help industry, anything where a positive attitude replaces actual work.
I have confronted this a lot in my own life as a teacher. I am not a cheerleader, but I do earnestly believe in my students’ ability to achieve and do great things. I support and cheer their effort and personal growth, and only when it comes to state testing do I maybe blow a little smoke up their asses. But having worked for a failing school system for four straight years, I constantly had to deal with people using bullshit motivation science and self-help crap as a replacement for real resources.