Apropos of the current debate over snark, a neader writes:
I read your book on H.L. Mencken, a personal hero of mine. It was a very good biography. I just wondered whether you ever wanted to cut loose and be a real asshole while you were writing the book, like H.L. Mencken, since nobody writes like that anymore, and frankly, who can stand human beings and their phony sensible perspective? Your tone was pretty academic, despite the subject matter….The Internet has unleashed a lot of juvenility and hatred but very little that is quite so focused and “intellectual” and satirical as Mencken’s style. Our mainstream norms nowadays seem to prevent that kind of expression, like you didn’t say “trousers” in the presence of a lady in Victorian England. I like vicious expressions of highfalutin sentiments.
Oddly enough, I received this e-mail on the same day that I was quoted in Florida Weekly as follows:
I just don’t like snarkiness. It’s a cultural trend, I think, driven by the Web, where snarkiness is considered a virtue. It’s legitimate to be funny in a review, but there’s a certain kind of nastiness that I don’t like. Sneering about the serious efforts of a serious artist is not, in my opinion, an appropriate way to respond to things.
This being the case, why did I write a biography of Mencken in the first place? Because Mencken, as my correspondent clearly implies, wasn’t snarky: he was a serious man with a satirical turn of mind. Unlike the drive-by snarkmeisters of the Web, he carried more than enough intellectual guns to justify his bruising sarcasm. The reason why I didn’t write about Mencken à la Mencken, on the other hand, is because I don’t think that kind of rough stuff holds up very well at book length (not to mention the regrettable fact that I’m not as good a writer as H.L. Mencken). I, too, like “vicious expressions of highfalutin sentiments,” but a five-hundred-page biography is an altogether different proposition, one that calls for a cool head and a fair amount of detachment. Sarcasm is for short hitters.
As for snark, I’m against it–mostly. But sometimes not. As Noël Coward said in Private Lives, “You mustn’t be serious, my dear one, it’s just what they want….All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.” It also cuts through the grease of smugness, which of late has become endemic to the American cultural conversation. In the ever-relevant words of Justice Holmes, “I detest a man who knows that he knows.” The thumbed nose is the only appropriate response to such odious self-satisfaction.