Is it just me, or is it true that somewhere along the line we became a culture that values (nay, practically demands) the snark? You know what I’m talking about, that sharp-tongued voice that cuts to the quick, that often mean-spirited comment meant to belittle. We hear it on our television shows and in our movies, in our dinner-table conversations, in our classrooms, in much of the fiction that we read.
As summer settles in and I have a chance to do a good deal of reading, I’m noticing the degree of sarcasm that some novelists give their characters—usually young, hip characters who think they have something smart to say about the world around them. It’s not that I’m totally against the snark; a zinger of a line can be refreshing. What was it Dorothy Parker said? “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” And Cole Porter? “He may have hair upon his chest but, sister, so has Lassie.” But let’s not forget Noel Coward who said, “Wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar; never spread it about like marmalade.” Too much snark, as Coward makes plain, piles up and gets sluggish and starts to become annoying.
Which leads me to that classic snark, Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. In a scene early in the novel, Holden is trying to read a book but keeps getting interrupted by another student, Ackley. Ackley asks him if the book is any good, and Holden says, “This sentence I’m reading is terrific.” Holden then admits that he can be very sarcastic when he wants to be. And yet, this same Holden is capable of compassion, sometimes even toward those that he derides. He is, most memorably, the person who fantasizes that he’s the protector of children. He tells his sister,
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going. I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
For all his sarcasm, all his cynicism, all his distrust of phony people, he’s genuinely worried about his little sister and by extension “thousands of little kids,” whom he wants to save. His compassion exists beneath the facade of his snark; the pressures of the plot make that facade crack from time to time, and the kinder, more genuine Holden is visible. The snark can’t hold, as it does in too many novels and stories these days. The sharp word, the sarcastic attitude, the cynical eye? Life has a way of breaking down the confidence it takes to put those tools to work, at least temporarily if not forever. The good fiction writer knows that. The good novelist is interested in the aspect of a character that’s hidden—the fear, perhaps, or the insecurity—that makes the construction of that snarky facade necessary and at the same time impossible to maintain.