Snark: It’s Mean,
It’s Personal, and
It’s Ruining Our Conversation
By David Denby
Simon & Schuster, 128 pages, $15.95
If David Denby—New Yorker movie critic, occasional cultural commentator, erstwhile online pornography addict—hoped to inoculate himself against snark by parsing it for over 100 pages, well … oh, boy.
This isn’t intended meanly or personally or to ruin “our” conversation (whoever “we” might be—Americans? The quivering media elite?), but Mr. Denby’s efforts feel slight and second-rate when compared with those of a similarly troubled critic, Lee Siegel of The New Republic. Last year, Mr. Siegel managed to make lemonade of an acidic and very public Internet humiliation with Against the Machine, an eloquent treatise about the impact of electronic media on human connection. Mr. Denby admits to no such signal moment here, though a sense of general grievance about all those young punks performing freestyle punditry and photo captioning on the Web—“outsiders banging at the gates”—pervades the pages of his new book.
The only specific motivation for this anti-snark screed, jacketed in shiny yellow as if to mimic the buzzing stingers it decries, was a conversation Mr. Denby had over a pan-Pacific dinner in Seattle with Slate founder Michael Kinsley and their wives. “Somewhere between the Singing Fish Satay and the Pow Wok Lamb,” the critic writes in an afterword that’s pure snark bait, the two men decided that this particular brand of invective—sneering, fleeting, “trivial kneecapping”—is “becoming the characteristic discourse of our time.” Mr. Kinsley was fixin’ to write a long essay, Mr. Denby a short book. They thumb-wrestled.
But maybe Mr. Kinsley was wise to cede this particular topic to his East Coast colleague. It’s exceedingly difficult to analyze humor—even malevolent humor of dubious quality—without coming off as humorless. And even if the diagramming is done lightheartedly, it’s hard to enjoy the experience of someone trying to tell you what constitutes comedy. Like porn—and we’re all too aware of how familiar Mr. Denby is with that, thanks to his 2004 memoir American Sucker—you know it when you see it.
THE AUTHOR SEEMS TO know what a difficult task he’s set for himself, and so he manages expectations, declaring legal issues raised by online snarkers “far beyond the range of this essay.” Deep philosophical questions like those grappled with so gracefully by Mr. Siegel are also beyond Mr. Denby’s ambitions. At the Internet’s frightening and exciting formlessness, he can only shake a fist.
That leaves him with history (both distant and recent), and semantics. Let’s not forget that in 1991, he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, to reengage with the Western canon, writing about the experiment in yet another volume, Great Books. Should you have forgotten his erudition, there’s a subtle reminder encoded in the structure of Snark: seven brief “Fits” (an archaic word for cantos) in tribute to the Lewis Carroll nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” We pay a short visit to the ancients, lingering longest on the aptly named landowner-poet Juvenal, arguably one of snark’s earliest practitioners. There’s a close reading of Alexander Pope and casual references to Raleigh and Kafka.
One doesn’t for a second doubt Mr. Denby’s literary bona fides (after all, he went to an Ivy League college—twice), but a lot of this has the whiff of a hasty Google Book search conducted on a Saturday afternoon before the critic dashed off to claim a padded seat in the anodyne chill of a screening room. There’s no hint of chin-stroking trips into musty stacks, the rump pressed penitently into a wooden study carrel. … Nothing wrong with a little online research, of course. “We have this incredible tool,” is how Mr. Denby appraises the Internet to his audience of lucky laptoppers. “Let’s not screw it up.”
Also, let’s not spend too much time gaping at caddish tittle-tattle sites like juicycampus.com—where, to his touchingly gallant horror, “the pathetic old sex pathologies, cloaked by anonymity, all come bursting out, free and proud.” (Unfortunate flashback to the well-coiffed “kneeling women” that so captivated Mr. Denby on the computer screen in his Upper West Side study.)
Then there’s amihotornot.com, upon which perhaps no other Manhattanite has clicked since 2000: a “poignant footnote to the celebrity cycle” where average citizens rate each others’ appearances and arrange assignations. “When digits yield to flesh, good luck to them,” Mr. Denby shrugs tolerantly.
AND WHAT EXACTLY IS this so detestable snark? He doesn’t want to get “caught in a thicket of definitions,” but from time to time he dangles a branch. It’s “abusive or sarcastic speech that operates like poisoned arrows from within a closed space”—like, for example, when you write or read an anonymous remark on the Web and maybe snicker a bit and feel sick inside. It’s a “single harsh syllable that expels a puff of insolent air in its wake”—a kind of verbal flatulence. It’s “investigative reporting’s bastard, weak-limbed child.” It’s “annoying as hell, the most dreadful style going, and ultimately debilitating.” He’s just not gonna take it anymore!
In the fourth Fit, Mr. Denby taxonomizes further into “nine principles of snark”—indifference to the truth and so forth. (It’s O.K., though, to bash overpriced restaurants.)
Who is snarking? Oh, honey, who isn’t? Joe Queenan and James Wolcott, two writers with piles of smart and funny work between them. Maybe Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, though maybe not. (“I realize the entire world is awaiting civilized judgment on this issue,” Mr. Denby writes, in one of the many moments where he casually undermines his own seriousness of purpose.) Tom Wolfe (who stands in perpetual weird opposition to The New Yorker) when he wrote about Leonard Bernstein and the Black Panthers in Radical Chic. The founders of Private Eye and Spy. My former colleague Choire Sicha, in this very newspaper. And definitely Maureen Dowd over at The New York Times, subject of the sixth Fit in which she and her fellow gliberati are basically blamed for Al Gore’s loss of the presidency in 2000—“snark’s greatest victory and snark’s greatest disaster.” (Would that Ms. Dowd and her cohorts were actually that powerful and popular; then Times stock wouldn’t cost less than a ham sandwich at the corner deli.)
Since then, we’re told, snark has only gained in momentum, thanks to computer users’ increasing comfort with blogging and commenting (“pipsqueaks who don’t have a coherent view of life,” scolds Mr. Denby, somewhat unfairly for someone who has been unabashed about exploring his own middle-aged confusion in print). So why is it that we just experienced the most transcendent election in two generations? And who among us has a coherent view of life, anyway? Is snark really so pernicious, after all? Are love, hope and creativity really so vulnerable and tender that they can’t survive its onslaught?
Perhaps it’s unfair to task the author with such questions; he insists that his modest denunciation of snark is not intended to elevate earnest sincerity soldiers like Jedediah Purdy but merely intended to help preserve superior forms of fun-making such as satire and spoof. Like, say, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Fawning over those two has become a truly tiresome default indicator of How Smart One Is.)
Closing this book, one is left with the impression that, rising sea of snark or no, satire, spoof and friends are going to muddle along just fine without David Denby as navigator.
Alexandra Jacobs is editor at large at The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.