Writing Right with Dmitri: Learning the Art of Good Snark

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Tip of the Week:This one comes from Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer's English, which is an excellent book. He says, 'Go a week without writing: very, rather, really, quite, in fact, or actually.' It's a reallyveryrather good idea actually.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Learning the Art of Good Snark

Editor at work.

Do you like snarky writing? I do. But what makes snark good?

Last night, this comment on a Youtube video made me laugh with delight. It appeared below a video of public domain footage of New York City in 1941. There were lots of busy streets, people coming and going, shop windows, etc. Most of the comments were nostalgic: 'Life was simpler then.' 'I was born the year before that. Thank you for the trip down memory lane.' 'I wish I'd lived back then so I could dance the jitterbug,' followed by, 'Have fun getting drafted into World War II,' that sort of thing. And then I saw it:

It makes me sad to think that all those pigeons are dead now.

I laughed until the tears came.

Why is that remark so funny? Well, for one thing, it goes against our expectation of a platitude about the past. For another, it subverts the false piety of vicarious internet nostalgia. Best of all, it invites us to share in the joke, both by being non-confrontational and by leaving it to our minds to complete the implied fatuity. I love it.

Good snark is good for people. It makes us laugh, and it makes us think. Good snark can be a healing balm in a hectic world filled with disingenuous but often dim-witted con artists.

What are the hallmarks of good snark?

  • It makes us laugh by being unexpected.
  • It makes us think by pointing out an absurdity.
  • It is not directed against anyone in particular, but against a common tendency in our thinking.

That last point is important. Good snark isn't satire, either: biting, gentle, or otherwise. Good snark is observation, not persuasion.

An aside about satire. There are quite a few 'comics' in the world at the moment who think they've hit the satire jackpot. They think this because the current political scene appears to be full of awkward people who don't know how awkward they are. The would-be satirists, though, seem to suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They believe that their insults directed at the politicians, followed by a grin or laugh, constitutes satire. They're too ignorant to know what they don't know: that's not satire. This is satire. It's also parody.

Now back to snark.

Who's Good at Snark?

Tangier has been mentioned in history for three thousand years. And it was a town, though a queer one, when Hercules, clad in his lion skin, landed here, four thousand years ago. In these streets he met Anitus, the king of the country, and brained him with his club, which was the fashion among gentlemen in those days.

Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

Mark Twain was a master of the snarky quip. He was also the anti-Suzie Q Ferguson of his day. In fact, he gave us the name 'Ferguson'. That's what he and his friends called all their tour guides. Here, Twain shows us how to make good snark by pretending to think something odd is quite normal, and commenting on it in a naïve fashion. Note that technique, you can use it.

He had that rather wild, strained, seared marking about the eyes, which may be observed in all free livers of his class, from the portrait of Jeffries downward, and which can be traced, under various disguises of Art, through the portraits of every Drinking Age.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

A sharp observation can be thrown in, disguised as a snarky remark. Dickens was talking about the 1790s, which was before his time. He thought they drank too much back then. They probably did. Stories from that period remind me of Raymond Chandler novels. Be honest: haven't you been reading one of those novels where Philip Marlowe, who has spent the last three pages finishing off a pint of whisky, is about to start a car, and wanted to yell, 'Wait a minute! I demand a breathalyzer on this detective!'? Seriously1.

Sarah was crying over her bill of fare.

Think of a New York girl shedding tears on the menu card!

To account for this you will be allowed to guess that the lobsters were all out, or that she had sworn ice-cream off during Lent, or that she had ordered onions, or that she had just come from a Hackett matinee. And then, all these theories being wrong, you will please let the story proceed.

O Henry, 'Springtime a la Carte'

'Springtime a la Carte' by O Henry is a light romantic fantasy almost entirely strung together with snippets of snark, like old bits of string from the junk drawer. O Henry got away with this a lot, as was only right: he was good at it. Read him early and often to learn how to tell stories. Even if you think he's too sweet for words. Just do it.

You know who else is good at snark? People who can carry on Twitter conversations, or post to h2g2, without making everybody else mad at them. The key to success at online snark is not to attack anyone personally, behave in a supercilious manner, or obviously post only to brag on oneself. It's surprising how quickly other people will pick up on that last tic.

Do you have any friends who are good at snark? If you've had the good fortune to hang around a certain kind of dry Southerner (US) or deadpan Prussian or Scandinavian, or anyone at all whose snappy comebacks make you chuckle but don't make you angry, rejoice. Listen to them. Take secret notes.

We can all use an insightful laugh these days.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

04.03.19 Front Page

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1Mr Dreyer forgot to tell us not to use 'seriously'.

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