Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cheap Shots At The Queen of Snots

David Denby, an obscure film critic from a magazine nobody reads anymore, decided to make a name for himself by trashing Maureen Dowd in a book called Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal and It's Ruining Our Conversation. While the nominal reason is to advocate a return to civility, the real reason is to go on a character assassination tirade against Maureen Dowd. He rails on and on about how snarky writing is coarsening society, but the quasi-academic foundation-setting is really all build-up to the penultimate chapter (or 'Fit' as he more than appropriately calls them) devoted exclusively to Maureen Dowd, the only figure in the book to get such singular treatment.

A large portion of that chapter was excerpted in the New York Post, the trashy tabloidy competitor to the Times. For someone wanting to raise the level of discourse, Denby sure picked a weird place to do it. The Post, full of trashy stories and home to the ultra-snarky Page Six celebrity gossip column is most famous for its “Headless Body Found In Topless Bar” style of reporting, which may explain the "Queen of Snots" article title. Way to stay classy there.

Rather than just jump in on her, he butters her up with some faint praise.

Maureen Dowd has rhythm, pace, timing, an extraordinary ear, an amazing memory for odd bits of cultural flotsam. She's a brilliant aphorist who, in a few words, can say something it would take another writer paragraphs to spell out. She uses all the traditional tools of comedy - exaggeration, lampoon, insult, outrageous puns, fantasia - and gives them her own twist. She seems to have read everything, and she's shrewd about popular culture, particularly about the way movies colonize the country's unconscious.
Maybe it's her frequent movie allusions that bug Denby because he thinks that she is stepping on his turf. But what seems to annoy Denby most is her cynicism:
She assumes that everyone in politics is out for himself; that principles or beliefs in a politician are a set of self-flattering delusions; that the powerful are moved by jealousy, rivalry, narcissism, and fear of every sort - fear of being thought weak, most of all. She knows everything about poseurs and posing. But does she know anything else about politics?
No Denby, she knows nothing about politics. She was born in raised in Washington, DC. She worked for the Washington Star, Time magazine, and the New York Times without ever learning anything about politics. She must have won that Pulitzer Prize for fashion reporting. [/sarcasm]. To call her credentials as a journalist into question is just appalling and ridiculous. Denby must have another motive. Then he tips his hand:
Utterly repelled by piety and righteousness, she also seems bored by genuine advocacy. Disgusted by unbounded ambition, she never seems to wonder what an ambitious leader might do besides gratify himself. Her appetite for ridicule equals any politician's appetite for power, and maybe the two hungers aren't all that different.
Her problem, as he sees it, is that she is not partisan enough. She doesn’t overlook the peccadilloes of politicians when it would serve a greater good. And he is most upset at her picking on Al Gore and the Clintons. He has bought into the myth that Maureen Dowd single-handedly brought down Gore’s disastrous 2000 campaign. Of course, she needed a little help from 92,000 Nader supporters, hundreds of senile Palm Beach County voters, and five Supreme Court justices, but in Denby's mind, Maureen Dowd making fun of Al Gore’s suits was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Not only has Denby nursed this grudge for nearly a decade, he also finds it unforgivable that she dare to criticize Hillary Clinton. He makes the very vicious accusation that Maureen’s motives were merely to tear down the chances of a female candidate just because she was a woman.
At times, Dowd seemed eager to punish Hillary for her ambitions, as if deep down she were alarmed by the idea of a woman making so great a claim for herself, and snark filled the space where sympathy - or perhaps rueful appreciation-should have been. And, of course, what Clinton actually wanted to do as president - which, after all, might have validated her presumption - was of no interest to Dowd. Policy is for drips.
Again, here is the thesis that Dowd should have overlooked the failings of a candidate in order to support a greater good. Denby doesn’t want a critic, he wants a cheerleader. While accusing Dowd of being as sexist, catty, jealous woman, he is exposing his own prejudices. He dismisses Dowd’s attacks on George W. Bush as being too coddling and ineffective. So when Maureen attacks a Democrat she is being destructive, but she isn’t vicious enough when criticizing conservatives? You can’t have it both ways, Denby.

Denby has managed to bottle his rage and spill it onto a rather slender ranting polemic that he has the nerve to charge nearly twenty bucks for just to settle some scores with a columnist that he blames for the defeat of his candidates.

That’s just sad and desperate. The subtitle of the book is "It's Mean, It's Personal and It's Ruining Our Conversation", but it is Denby's book that is mean and personal. It is a vicious personal attack on a professional rival disguised as a noble treatise. The sole point of a hundred and fifty pages of rather widely margined and generously spaced build-up is so that he can take cheap shots at the writer he blames for his party's mistakes.

If I were snarky, I’d bring up the flagrant errors that riddle his book, but that would be unkind. Instead let’s have some sympathy for a bitter man who does a year of shoddy research and Google surfing just to hit a woman.


Grace Nearing said...

I'd be happy with that faint praise!

Maureen Dowd has rhythm, pace, timing, an extraordinary ear, an amazing memory for odd bits of cultural flotsam. She's a brilliant aphorist....

Denby's correct in saying that Dowd is not an advocate. I can't say whether she is "bored" by advocacy, just that she doesn't engage in it (much) in her column.

Snark is an underappreciated art form. The delicacy of snark is that once dispensed, what the reader/observer should remember is the sting of the truth and not the venom of the bite.

Mo MoDo said...

I'd be more impressed with the flattery if I thought Denby was sincere. What he does say is true, but he's setting her up for the smack-down.

And good snark is as beautiful as a well written sonnet. Just read Oscar Wilde someday.

Ken Layne said...

Denby's a PUMA.

Mo MoDo said...

It shows.

Anonymous said...

Wow. You deleted my previous comment. If I were you I'd forget about defending snark and work on thickening your thin skin, to use a patented Dowd alliteration.

Mo MoDo said...

I have never deleted a comment. You left it on a different post, Mr. Anonymous and it's still right there.

Welcome back.