On Snark

I’m trying to decide if I want to read the new book by David Denby called Snark, which is just being published here in Britain. It’s apparently a dignified commentary on what’s wrong with the world today, perhaps something along the lines Miss Manners might come up with if she addressed blogging as a cultural phenomenon. But I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t really say if that’s what it is. Denby is a film reviewer for The New Yorker Magazine, which gives him a certain cache as a “New Yorker staff writer.” He has also written some books, one of which chronicled how he lost a bundle of money by being naïve, greedy and stupid (American Sucker), although it’s possible he made some money by writing the book, which also chronicled the failure of his marriage and a near-breakdown—all aspects of David Denby’s life I could probably get by without learning anything about. Another book chronicled his return to Columbia College many decades after graduation to re-take the Great Books courses he had taken as an undergraduate (Great Books). This was a pretty good book, and Denby and I share something in common—we like to re-read great books we read decades earlier. Personally, I think Conrad and Cary hold up pretty well, but Durrell doesn’t, sadly. So far as I know, he does not have a blog.

I have read some reviews of Snark, however, and I can say that there were serious, measured reviews, and not at all snarky. Although it’s also the case that they mostly were reviews from newspapers and magazines—not blogs. For example, The Financial Times this weekend referred to Snark as a “sprightly polemical essay.” Here’s what Peter Aspeden has to say:

There was a time when abuse was performed with style, wit and elegance; and it came from a clear moral stance. The ancient Greeks raised it to an art form: it had a formal structure and it took risks by offending the powerful. Jonathan Swift’s savagely ironic A Modest Proposal, which urged that the Irish poor should sell their children to the rich as food, was a masterpiece of outrage and black humour.

But “snark” – the term is borrowed from Lewis Carroll – is something different. Denby refers to a tone of voice, which has spread far and wide thanks to new media technologies, that is content to spread casual calumnies without regard to whether they possess any sense of.

Snark is “free-floating contempt in a void”: it is the unchecked innuendo that can end a career, or the clumsy and overblown destruction of easy targets. Its purveyor-in-chief is the anonymous internet blogger, who has nothing positive to contribute to civic discourse other than “low, ragging insult with a little curlicue of knowingess”.

Denby, a film critic for The New Yorker, makes his case with wit – vital to avoid the obvious charge of humourlessness. He is at pains to rebut the accusation. To take a stand against snark is not to submit to self-importance and excessive earnestness; it is merely to call for greater care in the choosing of victims and the crafting of jokes.

There’s more, and it’s generally favourable. That’s the only review I’ve seen in the UK. I’ve also seen some reviews in the US, which seem to suggest that Aspeden’s enthusiasm is a bit misplaced. In New York Magazine, Adam Sternbergh had this to say:

You have to give David Denby credit for bravery: Writing a book titled Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation is like writing a book titled Keying My Car: It’s the Wrong Thing to Do or Why Flaming Bags of Dog Poop on My Doorstep Just Aren’t Funny. You invite the transgression even as you decry it; you loose the hounds on yourself. Given Denby’s age (65) and position in the firmament (film reviewer for The New Yorker), he could have written the most concise, insightful, artfully balanced, and expertly argued book about snark and still come off like an Internet-age Andy Rooney, wagging his finger from his rocking chair at the boisterous kids on the lawn. And he has not written the most concise, insightful, artfully balanced, and expertly argued book about snark.

I’m sorry, did that sound snarky? I apologize. Denby’s book invites—even begs masochistically to receive—a snarky response, but he won’t get one here. I enjoy snark. I practice snark. And I hope herein to defend snark. But it’s too easy to stamp this book with some snarky dismissal (EPIC FAIL) and continue on one’s self-satisfied way. Denby’s book is serious, and wrong, and it deserves an appropriate response. Moreover, the book is premised on a popular meme: that so-called snark, what he calls “a nasty, knowing strain of abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation,” is both increasingly unavoidable and intrinsically corrosive. I disagree on both counts. Snark can be misused and misdirected. It can be mean, and it can be personal. It’s also not only useful as a form of public conversation but necessary, for reasons that Denby either ignores or fails to comprehend.

I thought this was a sensible, balanced and highly informed review, and it encouraged me to not read Denby’s book, unlike the sensible, balanced and highly informed Aspeden review, which made me think this book might be worth reading. Let’s see, can we get a third opinion? How about Walter Kirn in The New York Times?

In “Snark,” an earnest book-length essay of neo-Victorian public-mindedness that deplores the “nasty, knowing abuse” that the author would have us fear contaminates too much American humour lately, David Denby, a movie critic for The New Yorker, sets for himself what has to be one of the most quixotic projects that a moral reformer can undertake. He wants to correct and restrain, using scholarship and logic, perhaps the keenest, most reflexive, prehistoric and anarchic of simple human pleasures, short of eating or achieving orgasm. The act of laughter, this would be. Or, for Denby, the act of low, illicit laughter — laughter enjoyed for the wrong reasons and provoked by the wrong lines. Whether laughter for the right reasons is even possible, given humour’s subversive, corrosive history, is a difficult philosophical question, of course, but Denby feels that it is. This follows from his belief that the impulses to giggle, grin and cackle (and the various means for stimulating these impulses) can be, and ought to be, consciously aligned with civic virtues and literary standards, lest our society laugh for no just cause, at jokes that aren’t witty enough to laugh at and that may even be plain stupid and malicious.

The humour that stirs this wrongful laughter is “snark,” named for a fictional creature from the poem “The Hunting of the Snark,” by Lewis Carroll. As a species of vicious contemporary humour, it is defined by Denby in many ways — so many, in fact, that the creature never materializes as anything more than a shadow on a wall that Denby keeps shooting at yet never hits. In his opening pages he defines snark negatively — as a practice that certain famed comics are often charged with, but undeservedly and inaccurately because they actually trade in “irony” and also, one can’t help but gather from Denby’s remarks, because they’re politically virtuous in their japery, even when their words seem cruel and harsh. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are two of these unfairly maligned non-snarkers. Sarah Silverman escapes unscathed, while Penn Jillette, an avowed libertarian who entertains mostly in Las Vegas nowadays, and Sarah Palin, an avowed big-game hunter who’s safely tucked away up north somewhere, are portrayed as snarkers par excellence. So is John McCain, coincidentally, and pretty much everyone who ever tweaked Barack Obama for any reason — especially if they did so on the Internet and indulged in prejudice.

But “hate speech” isn’t snark either, Denby writes, because it aims to “incite,” not get chuckles, and because it’s “directed at groups,” not individuals. Denby finds such discourse loathsome, presumably, but he states early on that it’s no concern of his, first because it’s a constitutional right, and second, because he feels sorry for nuts who use it: “the legions of anguished, lost people on Web sites and the social networking site Facebook” who are “looking for a way to release fear.” In other words, vengeful morons can’t be snarky, only parties to bigoted violence now and then, which may be horrific and tragic but isn’t annoying. No, what really bugs Denby’s mandarin side is a much subtler species of expression: humour that celebrates “the power to ridicule” and is indulged in by semi-sophisticates who seek to sound clued-in and hip so as to soothe their feelings of “dispossession” and elevate their wounded self-esteem by sneering at folks like — get ready to be outraged! — the convicted insider trader Ivan Boesky, whose notorious taste in gaudy baubles was once satirized in the late Spy magazine.

And that, sir, is snark, society’s archenemy — making light fun of vulgar criminal robber barons who steal more in a month than Capone stole in a decade. This manner, this “snark,” and the motives he imputes to it, are treated by Denby as more ominous for our future prospects as a people than the invective of K.K.K. grand wizards. What he views as outbreaks of unacknowledged envy for the extremely wealthy and conspicuous by the comparatively poor and plain (masquerading as people of taste and virtue when, in fact, they’re merely climbers) is positively intolerable to him. And just as complicit in this grave offense (grave to Denby, but natural to the masses; see The National Enquirer and its routine photos of stars without their makeup) are the readers who laugh at such upstart snottiness. They should be bigger than that, somehow. Less petty.

Well, this is not at all helpful. It’s getting harder and harder to come up with a reason to read this book. Is there anyone in the US who liked the book? What about someone who represents everything Denby dislikes these days—Gawker, and intentionally snarky website? Well, I’m going to hazard a guess that they won’t like it. Bingo! In a review entitled Please Buy David Denby’s Book, So He Will Stop Talking, I learn that:

David Denby, the New Yorker movie critic (not the good one), continues to bait us in interview after interview so we’ll write something about his book Snark, so it will sell. Okay fine, here:

David Denby, can you present a short, clear, and meaningful definition of “snark,” that clearly delineates it from every other form of humour or criticism? Let’s see:

  • “It’s not hate speech, it’s not trolling, it’s not simple insult. What I’m getting at is contempt, and a signal sent to a member of a club (which can be enormous or tiny) in which a certain kind of reference is understood, and stands in for an attitude that one wants to put down”…
  • “’Snark is like a schoolyard taunt without the schoolyard,’ he writes. ‘Snark is hazing on the page.’” …
  • “Denby, in a phone interview, defines snark as ‘the knowing nasty tone, the cheap shot.'” …
  • “Snark is not original. It is essentially parasitic and lazy…Most people who are trying to be true use sarcasm or wit to speak the truth, but not snark”…
  • “It is an adolescent tone. I think a lot of it is powerless…There are some heavy hitters of snark like Maureen Dowd, who I go after at some length, but most of it is sort of a confession of impotence and it does seem adolescent and it does seem like kids in a high school cafeteria or sitting around watching TV a lot of the time. But when older people do it, I think it’s because of the panic that’s setting in that we don’t know where journalism is going and we want to sound hip and we want young demographics and panic is not a good mood in which to write anything. You release that and it’s kind of juvenile sarcasm. It signals to readers that you’re up to date.”

No, you cannot. That’s because “snark” is not an actual, scientific term; it is a made-up word that means whatever the writer wants it to mean. Therefore your book, while perhaps eloquent (haven’t read), is, in the end, just a preposterously meaningless rant. A sort of “snark,” if you will.

Of course, Gawker is a blog, and blogs are the lowest of the low—even lower than Fox News, apparently—so there’s no point in looking at any other blogs either. They’re all going to hate it. Actually, as far as I can tell from a Google search, a lot more blogs have reviewed Snark than magazines or newspapers. I’m not sure what to make of this, and I guess I’m not sure what Denby will make of it either.

But wait—maybe I don’t have to read it. The Guardian had a whole post—no, I mean piece– by Denby, or a précis, or something, last Saturday. Denby is certainly doing his bit for book sales. So here’s the first bit.

What is snark? Abuse in a public forum of a particular kind – personal, low, teasing, rug-pulling, finger-pointing, snide, obvious, and knowing.

How does snark work? Snark is hazing on the page. It prides itself on wit, but it’s closer to a leg stuck out in a school corridor that sends some kid flying. It pretends to be all in fun, and anyone who’s annoyed by it will be greeted with the retort, “How can you take this seriously? What’s wrong with you?” – which has the doubly aggressive effect of putting the victim on the defensive. No one wants to argue with a joke, so this is shrewd as far as it goes. But some of these funsters are mean little toughs. Snark seizes on any vulnerability or weakness it can find – a slip of the tongue, a sentence not quite up to date, a bit of flab, an exposed boob, a blotch, a blemish, a wrinkle, an open fly, an open mouth, a closed mouth. It exploits – slyly, teasingly – race and gender prejudice. When there are no vulnerabilities, it makes them up. Snark razzes pomp, but it razzes certain kinds of strength, too – people who are unaffectedly serious. Snarky writers can’t bear being outclassed by anyone, and snark becomes the vehicle of their resentment and contempt.

Hmm. This does sound serious. But it also sounds really, really confused, hardly the sort of thing someone who read Great Books (twice, apparently)would write. Maybe he didn’t really read them–how else to explain the miasma above that’s supposed to pass for a paragraph? I mean, I’m as concerned with the debasement of modern discourse as the next guy. But that includes the debasement of language, and using sentences that make sense. Denby has lots of tips in the article on how snark operates—in fact, he counts the ways. But I’m not going to go into this any more–you can go read them if you want, but they read much like the quoted section.

In actuality, Denby has a point, but it’s the wrong one. It’s not that it’s easy to be snarky these days. There is, in fact, entirely too much snark around. It is all over the internet. But it’s also everywhere in the MSM, as Denby notes. It’s everywhere. But there’s a simple reason for that, and it’s not because people have become more, well, snarky. It’s because there are too many easy targets. At one time, there was a limited number of “celebrities” one could get snarky about. Now they are legion, and the success of Gawker and similar sites simply shows that they have multiplied beyond control. Ditto politics. The level of political discourse in the US has never been particularly high—snarky slurs against Washington and Jefferson were popular, and common, back then. But the political landscape now is so littered with easy targets that no one in their right mind could possibly resist being snarky, unless you’re totally devoid of any sense of humour whatsoever. Who could possibly make up the modern Republican party? People like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay would at one time simply have been interesting characters in Pogo—now you can’t turn on the television without them shouting at you. The cultural landscape? Good lord, has anyone taken a look at The New York Times best seller list? Or what people watch on television? Or go to the movies to see? Really, the amount of effort being made on someone’s behalf to place all this dreck in front of us deserves nothing but snark.

So here’s my solution. Instead of trying to elevate the level of discourse about the culture around us, as Denby seems to want (although I haven’t read the book, so I can’t be certain), how about taking seriously the notion that a culture that gets as much snark as modern American culture does actually deserves it? And if we actually made some effort to improve the culture, that would be a big step in the right direction of making snark a bit less prevalent. Make better movies. Produce better (and fewer) musicals. Write better books. Engage in more reasoned political discourse. See? That’s not so hard.