Monday, July 11, 2011

On language: technicalities and execution

17. Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation. A Polemic in Seven Fits by David Denby

This entry was written months before the downfall of News of the World, but I just didn't get around to posting it. How appropriate it seems now...

The about
Denby details snark clearly: it requires the writer to have an audience that will not only laugh along, but which will also tut-tut along to some usually imaginary/gossip-based moral outrage while thinking that the writer is a particularly clever individual. And nobody need to check any facts. The snarky writer can use hyperbole and lambast his object with scary imagery, while nudging and winking at his readers. You know what I'm talking about, right? Britney is a total slut, amirite? Then, if a reader or the object of snark actually dares to talk back, they are told to lighten up and not take things so seriously because it was all just a jest. What a perfect shield to hide behind!

Denby traces the origins of snark back to the Ancient Romans, explains what differences there are between satire, irony and snark and finally, takes a few people by name to task for being lazy snark writers. One small chapter is dedicated entirely to Maureen Dowd, the columnist of the New York Times whose political commentary consists of commenting on how effeminate male politicians are and how ball-busting the females are, without ever revealing what political stance Dowd herself stands by. It would be impossible to say, as her opinions on who is up and who is down seemingly change based on whether she has come up with a sharp jab worthy of posting, regardless of its factual basis.

Snark often revels in homophobia, racism and misogyny, which Denby includes in his rules on how to write effective snark: find the lowest common denominator amongst your crowd that you think gets laughs or enraged approval. Other rules include dismissing journalistic integrity for cheap laughs and feeding the reader's inner Peeping Tom.


Denby manages to put into words what I have found slightly unsettling in various magazines and newspapers  I read: I did not recognize this writing style as snark, just as writing personas bringing more attention to themselves than to the issues they were writing about. I canceled a subscription to a Finnish magazine years back when I would find that I'd never learn anything from the articles, save for what supposedly witty remarks the authors spouted. It was a young magazine, and since then I have read individual issues that actually have interesting journalistic content and less focus on snark and the writers' personalities.

Snark was very informative and at the same time very well written, so it was a joy to read. I had to chuckle at the few instances of snark that the author commits within the writing, probably to illustrate the point he makes in the introduction that nobody is above using snark every now and then. Denby's annoyance with snark stems from writing that solely relies on this particular style that he sees as lazy, locker-room gossip that is hurtful these days because these writings and manufactured facts remain on the Internet. He mentions the website Juicy Campus, where men can rate/denigrate the women they have slept with on campus completely anonymously, while posting the women's full names and even pictures. Some individuals feel the need to out gay guys on the same site, and post about their suspected drug habits, who knows why. Some might say that this is harmless, but maybe the potential employer of a woman or a man whose info is posted on that site thinks twice about hiring these people, if they have been labeled as sluts and drug addicts--even if the writing is based on some anonymous guy's hurt feelings. The reader doesn't know the truth, because the accused are not there to reply with their side of the story, and nobody can talk face-to-face with the accuser, who is hiding behind anonymity.

18. The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing by Bonnie Trenga

The About:
Trenga takes the reader on a copy editing adventure through a series of mysteries. Each one is about a page long and is riddled with authors' stumbling blocks like clichés, mixed metaphors, punctuation that's all over the place--you name it. After each mystery, Trenga explains why the mystery sucks and what you should do to fix it. Rewriting is encouraged!

This is a very silly book, and thus a good approach to a topic that people without any interest in grammar or style might not touch with a ten foot pole. Each short mystery is so filled with laughably bad style that it's clear what's wrong with them, and if the reader can't quite put into words why the story is terrible, Trenga will break it down.

As a teacher I'm also fond of the sort of teaching approach this book uses, which is where students have to figure stuff (grammar or facts) out themselves, instead of being given lists of rules to memorize. There are plenty of style guides and editors' handbooks that list comma rules and how to spot run-on sentences, but rarely do they begin by showing a text with unclear writing and having readers first figure out what's wrong before they get to see the rule.

I'd recommend this book for any middle or high school teacher (why not even more advanced students?) who want to show their kids that being careful about what they write can be fun.

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