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On Snark

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Recently, I've been slowly making my way through a copy of Spy: The Funny Years. While technically a coffee table book, it is mainly in that form because publishing a regular-sized hardcover would not have allowed for reprinting articles from the now-departed magazine (unfortunately, in very small type). The anthology is at times, far too self-aggrandizing and loose in its praise. I'm willing to overlook that critical flaw, on the grounds that from the small sample of its content that I'm familiar with, Spy Magazine was a publication of the highest quality.

The purpose of this post is not to review the anthology, or to write an essay length treatise on the conceptual clarifications of snark (besides, I don't think that I'm very good at that sort of task, and have been very unhappy with similar attempts in the past). However, I have picked up on two themes in my reading, relevant to current goings-on. One is the story of the magazine's ultimately failure, largely owing to just plain dumb luck and bad timing. It's an interesting cautionary tale in itself, but not the hackneyed point that I want to make here. If you remain curious, two seconds on Google should whet any cravings.

Spy was impossibly mean-spirited, and very much a product of its time, exactly what the image conscious late eighties deserved. Many elements in the publication were precursors of the internet, anticipating prevailing trends from two decades in the future. Most of these similarities stem from its being deliberately self-aware, fixated on celebrity as an end in of itself, and willing to take on other segments of the media without pulling punches. It deliberately tweaked the establishment, who played along when they weren't pushing back.

Mostly though, Spy predated the web with its central emphasis on humor and vitriol, roughly being a Mad Magazine for adults if you will.1


Carter and Andersen would "Spy-ify" writers’ copy, often completely rewriting it to get the tone — equal parts venom and glee — just right. The writers, even the seasoned freelancers, didn’t seem to mind, which any writer will recognize as no small testament to Mick and Keith’s skills as editors.

Henry Alford recounts that Andersen once handed him back a galley of a story, telling him, "Never curb your tendency to aphorize." Writers kill for that kind of tutelage. Carter once called an article "too even-handed ... too lapidary." When the writer fixed it and handed it back, Carter said: "This is now a fine piece of hatchetry."

I don't much care for the websites that use humor and/or snark as a substitute for actual substance2, meaning that this criticism is limited to the narrow subset that actually does meet the exaggerated stereotype. They're not interesting to me, and specialization tends to rule the day when it comes to quality in any arena. Excepting the few prodigies that truly are witty enough to pull it off.

Now, the preceding point isn't directed at or inspired by any person or site in particular; nor am I trying to discourage potential future bloggers (in fact, I've been trying to do just the opposite for Rutgers football-themed blogs). If you don't like something; don't read it. I usually won't, and this post should not be construed as taking issue with any site's continued existence and popularity. It's solely born out of a mental light bulb from my reading, which I thought would make a good general statment.

Perhaps I'm mistaken on this point, but that strategy (or others like aggregation without much in the way of original contributions) seems to be commonplace on the internet, and especially in the realm of sports blogging. These tendencies have resulted in some level of criticism and prejudice towards the medium, declaring that the central fault of blogging is in (the stereotype of) its collective tone. That's certainly incorrect; sheer hackdom3 knows no boundaries. It's true that the blogosphere is far too reliant on these tropes as a crutch, but there's no necessary link between tone and quality. The example of Spy Magazine utterly shatters this myth. There's no useful distinction here between Free and paid, or crude and deferential. Rather, it's the effort, or lack thereof, that ought to count for determining quality and value. Any gap should be on the basis of the level of importance one places on taking pride in their contributions.


1 It's telling that another continual theme is the metaphor of life as one long, overblown extension of adolescence. The prime example being the 1989 feature on Bohemian Grove, and its status as a summer camp playground for the nation’s political and economic elite, eager to shake loose the shackles of adulthood, tell dirty, un-PC jokes, and literally urinate wherever well they damn pleased. Spoiled brats grew up, and used their status and wealth to indulge their every petty whim. Life (or rather, New York socialite society, the only variant that actually matters) was really one big high school. Naturally, the publication was keen to run this into its natural end with Spy High, using a yearbook format to further tweak its favorite targets.

2 Which tracks length and wordiness, but is not bound by them. Breadth of detail can be a virtue, but concise brevity is often the greater, and unfortunately far more often overlooked one. Striking the right balance can be a challenge.

3 This and other statistical topics being a useful acid test (unfortunately, not a ducking test) here. If a question has a plainly definitive answer, and yet the majority of media commentators insist on brandishing all manner of malfeasances, why shouldn't their (terrible) opinions be open to scrutiny and debate? Or are they just lecturers? Soothsayers? Zoltar machines?