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When I found out from my publicist that the Washington Post would be reviewing my 2009 memoir "The Big Rewind" three months after it came out, I was excited and anxious in equal measures. The book had been reviewed far and wide but the Washington Post was different. If not quite the paper of record (that would be the New York Times, which had overwhelmingly kind things to say about the book), the Washington Post was the paper that brought down Nixon. It was a paper with history, a legacy. It was, in other words, a paper of cultural importance, a paper that mattered.
Like all others flogging their first book in the face of widespread public indifference, there was part of me that was worried about a negative review in such a prestigious publication. But my then-girlfriend and now-wife assured me that it wouldn't make sense for a paper to pan a three-month old book that wasn't exactly flying off shelves or on the tip of everyone's tongue. No, she reasoned, if the Post was going to write about the book this late in the game, it would have to be because someone there really loved it, and felt it deserved exposure beyond the one- or two-month window where books tend to get the most/only press attention, especially for books by inexperienced authors like me.
My future wife was going to graduate school at Brown in Providence at the time so we Skyped a lot and I remember vividly her going to the Washington Post website as soon as the review posted and reading it aloud to me via Skype. It started out innocuously enough, by praising The Onion, the site that employed me for sixteen years, primarily as its head writer, in appropriately effusive terms. Then it moved onto the A.V Club, the pop culture sister site of The Onion where I worked, and as she continued to read the review my now wife's tone and body language betrayed the nasty turn the review took.
"Ooh, sweetie, this is not good," she said worryingly as she scanned the rest of the review. "Not good" was putting it mildly. The review was scathingly negative, toxic and willfully misguided. The reviewer, whose bio at the end informed readers was studying post-modernism at Oxford, held the bizarre, unsupported belief that I started the A.V. Club to convey my hatred of pop culture and as a forum for what he seemed to feel was the mean-spirited snark that characterized my writing. To support his argument, he cited sarcastically named columns on the site I had nothing to do with, and dubbed me "The Snarkitect."
I realized I sometimes used humor, or at least jokiness, as a crutch so I resolved to be more nakedly sincere and open in my writing.
It would have been a strange and weirdly personal attack under any circumstances, but it was even stranger considering that the book he was reviewing was essentially a deeply earnest, sincere book about how pop culture helped me overcome a childhood of poverty, abandonment and suicidal depression.
The review was so off-base that it was hard to even reconcile its hypocritical nastiness with the book it was ostensibly reviewing but it did have a positive impact on my writing, and there was a kernel of truth to it. Perhaps because I was afraid of depressing readers, I had a tendency to distance myself from some of the pain I chronicled in the book by making jokes or approaching the trauma of the past from a place of detached irony.
I realized I sometimes used humor, or at least jokiness, as a crutch so I resolved to be more nakedly sincere and open in my writing. And though I retained an interest in the world of snarkitecture, and kept a subscription to Snarkitectural Digest, the only magazine that covers homes constructed solely out of nasty cynicism, I vowed not to be the person described in that Post review.
If I was ever even remotely a snarkitect, that side of me died conclusively the moment that my son Declan was born. When I held Declan for the first time it was as if my very brain chemistry itself changed dramatically, as I realized that the glorious creature I held in my arms would now be the most important thing in my life, a sacred responsibility that would change my existence in profound and deeply satisfying ways.
How could I hold onto the glib cynicism and snarky sarcasm of my teen years when, after exiting my last job, I spent the first three hours of every day with my son, the living embodiment of the world's joy and wonder and promise?
Everything I had been told about parenthood was true. All the cliches proved right: Being a parent was simultaneously the hardest and most rewarding experience of my life. It bonded my wife and I together in ways I never imagined possible. We already shared almost everything but now we shared the most important thing in either of our lives: responsibility for guiding this miraculous baby, who radiates sweetness and beauty and unabashed, unrestrained joy, to a happy and secure childhood against incredibly long odds.
How could I hold onto the glib cynicism and snarky sarcasm of my teen years when, after exiting my last job, I spent the first three hours of every day with my son, the living embodiment of the world's joy and wonder and promise? How could I be unrelentingly negative about so much of the world when I spent much of my days cradling the most positive thing that has ever happened to me in my arms, gazing adorably at his precious face as he grows and evolves and becomes more remarkable almost by the moment?
Snark is rooted in a sense that the world is such an awful and innately screwed up place that the only sane way to deal with it is with a sense of smartass cynicism and ironic detachment that borders on nihilism. There is nothing righteous about snark, nothing that elevates the human spirit or inspires empathy or compassion or any of the other qualities that make an often difficult world bearable. Snark only eviscerates and brings down, and the really poisonous irony of the Post review is that it was far more snarky and vicious than the book it cluelessly criticized for being snarky and mean.
Snark is inherently pessimistic. As an unemployed new father hoping to raise my son without the traumas that made up so much of my own upbringing, I do not have the luxury of snark. I do not have the luxury of cynicism or pessimism or negativity. No, I have to care because I am deeply invested in my son's future, and that means that I am also deeply invested in the world that he grows up in.
I want the universe to be kind to Declan, to continue to make him feel valued and validated, and that entails being passionately invested in everything around him. In that respects, fatherhood conclusively killed the Snarkitect in me, but by that point, he had long since failed to serve any useful purpose in my life or my writing. So it was really ultimately a mercy killing, and while part of me will always be annoyed that I got the worst review of my life in one of the world's best papers, there's even part of me that's grateful to that vicious reviewer for accidentally helping the process along.