Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Hunting of the Snark

A while back, I'd downloaded the free sample chapters of Bill Bryson's new book At Home: A Short History of Private Life to my Kindle app and found it quite delightful, the sort of light non-fiction brimming which the author's curiosity which is infectiously fun to read at odd moments -- yet shrunk from buying the full Kindle version because paying $10 for an ebook just rubs me the wrong way somehow. So I made my way down to the library to look for a copy. There I found that some fifty people had already done likewise and placed reservations on the book -- so rather than join the throng I picked up another of Bryson's books which happened to be in. I'd never ready anything by Bryson prior to stumbling on At Home, but the premise of The Lost Continent seemed appealing: Having lived and worked in Europe the author decides to take a road trip through small town America and write about the interesting (and odd) things he finds there.

Yet somehow the infectious curiosity which had made At Home so enjoyable to read was wholly absent here and replaced with that particularly modern mode: snark.

Now, Bryson is clearly a good writer, and he draws the reader along in an engaging way. Yet somehow the snarky tone breeds a certain frustration in a book-length work, as opposed to that child of the snark, a blog post. As the author's unremitting put downs, however creative, of everything he finds build up in chapter after chapter you want to shake the author by the shoulders and say to him, "All right, we get it. This was a lousy idea. But you're no longer a sulky kid sitting in the back of the family station wagon. You're an adult driving the car. How about if you turn around, drive to a big, cosmopolitan city, and write about something you like? Stop being professionally miserable and get a move on!"

Though really, my beef with snark is not that it's negative. It's that it's shallow. Snark, including Bryon's here, is usually of the, "Would you beeeeelieve this shit? I get into this town, which is not even a one horse town. It's a half horse town. The horse was cut in half by a semi on the main road a couple weeks ago and people haven't yet finished exclaiming, 'Would you look at that, now!' to each other and moved on to actually getting out of their chairs and moving the animal. And like all other half horse towns in Iowa, half the establishments are owned by someone named Vern. I'm not talking about Vern's Fusion Bistro or Vern's Art House Theatre, either. No, it's always Vern's Grocery. Vern's Hardware. Vern's Christian Bookstore. Vern's Tavern. So I went into Vern's Motel and asked the lady behind the counter, with her hornrimmed glasses and beehive hairdo, if there was a room available."

Now, this is in fact fun to write. I had fun parodying it just now. Snark is fun. That's why throughout the world people dash off blog posts full of snark on their lunch break for the delectation of other people on their lunch breaks who can in turn leave snarky comments, or post lolcats, or link to it on Facebook with the universal modern question, "Have you seen this? WTF?"

But I'm not at all sure it works to write a work longer than the average blogpost in snark-ese. Especially since a book lacks a comment box in which the reader can participate by making original contributions such as "LMAO". Indeed, after the first twenty pages or so, during which I kept thinking, "But he'll get down to real writing shortly, right?" I found myself reading further mainly in order to see if someone would eventually dose out a comeuppance to the author. But thus far, no.

I don't know if I'll finish it or not, but I'm disappointed.


Andy said...

I had a very similar experience with Bryson's _A Walk in the Woods_ and his treatment of my fellow Tennesseans. I never finished it.

Christina said...

As an avid Bill Bryson reader, I have to say that it helps to keep in mind that his genre is 'travel journal,' which mostly amounts to strings of anecdotes, personal reflection and interesting tidbits of knowledge he collects along the way. If his earlier works aren't quite your cup of tea, maybe a better suggestion would be _In a Sunburned Country_ or _A Short History of Nearly Everything_. I found these two to be particularly enjoyable, but perhaps I'm a little partial to the snark. :)

Julie D. said...

I also fell into the Bryson "snark trap." His book English Our Mother Tongue is delightful and didn't have the mean-spiritedness that I was appalled to find in his travel writing. He especially seems to enjoy applying it to his native land, as so many do. However, I also found it in his European travel writing and so gave up on trying his new books. I understand that travel writing is stringing together anecdotes but his sort of humor seems to always swing to meanness.

I was wondering if his Home book was free of that and whether I dared take a chance on it.

Joe White said...

I am a longtime reader. I'm so glad you don't like Bryson. This post is perfect.

GenXBen said...

I felt the same about "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and "Lost Continent". Bryson strikes me as being biased against America, especially small town America, in an elitist style.

I quite enjoyed "Notes from a Small Island" and "In a Sunburnt Country" and I mildly enjoyed "Walk in the Woods", mainly the bits with Katz. However, my distaste for the other two books makes me wonder if these are good, or if I'm too unfamiliar with the subject matter to register elitist disdain.

I find Bryson also to be of the pop-sci Discovery Channel mindset. He seems to wildly exaggerate the scientific debate when it suits him. He speculated wildly about when the Aboriginals came to Australia, where they came from and how they got there. In fact, when I did some basic research there seems to be little debate about it. I almost expected Bryson to credit the Aboriginals with space travel to account for their being in Australia. And that's probably to make up the their shabby treatment. For that reason, I've avoided at all costs his "History of Everything". I don't need Bigfoot stories in my house.