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A modest but failed proposal

David Denby misses the target with his snippy attack on snark


Daniel Defoe is best known as the father of the modern novel. The son of a candlemaker, he worked hard to succeed in the literary world of 18th century London. But as an ambitious, prolific writer he had his enemies. One of them was the satirist Jonathan Swift. Though born into poverty in Dublin, Swift was related to landed gentry, and a rich uncle paid for his education at Trinity and Oxford. He was not a good student, but his talent was obvious, so he made it through. They were natural enemies, and Swift’s darkly funny novel, Gulliver’s Travels, was in part a parody of Defoe’s more earnest Robinson Crusoe.

For most of their careers, they were political antagonists. Defoe is considered one of the pioneers of liberal economic journalism. Swift was the leading pamphleteer for the Tory party, until it lost power and he moved back to Ireland.

In 1728, Defoe published The Generous Projector or, A Friendly Proposal to Prevent Murder and Other Enormous Abuses, By Erecting an Hospital for Foundlings and Bastard Children. He wrote about a common problem of the time, the infanticide and social neglect of illegitimate and abandoned children. He proposed the creation of orphanages that would find a social use for them.

A year later, Swift wrote A Modest Proposal. In this now classic piece of satire, he suggested that one possible solution to the excess of destitute children was for the rich to buy them and eat them for dinner.

There has always been debate among scholars about the real target of Swift’s essay. The popular interpretation is that it’s a satiric attack on the callous British gentry and a defense of Ireland’s poor. But there’s also a good argument to be made that it was, at least in part, a parody of the grand economic plan Defoe pioneered.

There’s not much about this in David Denby’s Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. For Denby, Swift is the uncontested hero of a golden age of pure satire fuelled by nothing but a desire to afflict the rich and change society for the better. There’s no trace of snark in A Modest Proposal, Denby insists.

By “snark” Denby means “a strain of nasty, knowing abuse.” In short, insider innuendo. Much of his book is his interpretation of the history of satire and how it’s devolved into the snark that is “spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation.”

So it’s interesting to see the ways in which Swift actually fits Denby’s definition. Denby targets today’s anonymous bloggers who hide behind avatars to attack with impunity. Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels using a pseudonym. To write a series of satirical editorials, The Drapier’s Letters, he posed as a shopkeeper.

But this was typical of the age. The 18th century saw the dawn of modern publishing. It was an era seething in snark. If this isn’t common knowledge, it’s because, with rare exceptions, snark tends to fade into obscurity.

For this reason, it will always be hard to compare today’s snark level with yesterday’s. But there is one important difference. With the Internet, today’s snark is more easily published, archived and accessible. Here Denby has a point. There is vicious stuff being published and people are being hurt. Teenagers may not have the literary confidence to hold their own against cyber bullies, or the wisdom to realize that these attacks usually fade away.

But this discussion takes up about five pages of Snark. Far more of it is devoted to Denby’s snippy takedown of people whose sense of humour he considers inferior: Maureen Dowd, Tom Wolfe, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Wonkette, Gawker, Spy magazine… Most of the snark Denby attacks is a year or two old. It already feels stale and harmless. It’s hard to work up the same righteous lather Denby has clearly worked so hard to preserve.

The vague impression left, in the end, is of a book not likely to last beyond the writing it criticizes.

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