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Snark Attack

In a new book, David Denby rages against mean-spirited humor but misses the point.

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Illustration by Gluekit  

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.

The first difficulty of writing about snark is that you have to define snark. This proves consistently tricky, no less so for Denby. His definition is a tap dance on hot coals, as he mostly tells us what snark is not. It’s not irreverence or spoof or satire. It’s not Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or Keith Olbermann. It’s not irony, at least not irony as exemplified by �the sharpened blade of Swift.� �Snark is like a schoolyard taunt without the schoolyard,� he writes. �Snark is hazing on the page.� Basically, Denby argues that snark is humor as a vehicle for cruelty. Of course, a book titled Cruelty: It’s Ruining Our Conversation hardly jazzes the reader, as it might have been published at any time in the last 400 years. Snark, as a term, feels current, modern: a viral killer for our cacophonous age.

Denby traces snark’s history from Roman poet Juvenal to Spy magazine to Maureen Dowd (see here), then contends it has flowered into an epidemic, thanks to the Internet. �I would bet that half the words written as instant messages or Twitter are snark of one sort or another � even a man as generous as Walt Whitman would be hard-pressed to hear in these flares the barbaric yawp of a free people,� he writes of the electronically enabled hoi polloi who insist on ruining �our� conversation. Snark �prides itself on wit, but it’s closer to a leg stuck out in a school corridor that sends some kid flying.� It’s the bitter bile coughed up by the angry defeated, �repackaging the anger as smear.� It’s the lingua franca of the bullying and the jaded, yet it threatens to choke us all, as the �gas of snark enters the air around us as a corrosive sense that cynicism is hip and everyone is vulnerable.�

To anyone who survived the nineties, these attacks may sound familiar. Denby’s essentially rehashing the arguments mounted against irony, post-9/11, when everyone was dancing briefly on its grave. Denby even exhumes Jedediah Purdy, irony’s premillennial adversary, who bristled at his peers’ morally asphyxiating detachment, calling it �the negative security of perpetual suspicion.� Snark, as it’s usually understood, is irony’s bastard offspring. It’s irony curdled into something even worse. But irony’s critics were wrong then, just as snark’s critics are wrong today.

Let’s examine the charge that snark is, by nature, disenchanted and apathetic, unable to rouse more than a fleeting sneer toward whatever victim stumbles into its crosshairs. �Snark’s aesthetic judgments can’t be trusted; it has too modest a rooting interest in artists actually succeeding at anything,� Denby writes. My first exposure to snark as an Internet term for sarcastic criticism was with the Website Television Without Pity. Founded in 1999 by three friends of mine, the site, which wore its snark proudly�its credo was �Spare the Snark, Spoil the Networks��was a virtual watering hole where TV fans could gather to rant about, snipe at, dismiss, ridicule, and, yes, snark on their favorite shows. It was consistently funny, occasionally mean, and snarky to its bones. But it was never, ever, disengaged. In fact, TV creators used to frequent the site to gather judgments and solicit opinions. These creators recognized the obvious: Just as anyone who ever read the lyrics to a Nirvana song (or Peter Bagge’s comic-book series, elegantly titled Hate) would know that slackers, in their wounded idealism, could be wincingly earnest, any visitor to Television Without Pity, or similar snarky fan sites, can see that its acid-tongued readers are the best fans a culture could hope to produce� informed, demanding, passionate.

This raises a tricky question that Denby, like most of snark’s critics, never addresses: Where exactly did all this snark come from? Did we simply transform overnight into a nation of venal assholes? I’d argue that slackers adopted irony not as a pose of hipster cynicism but as a defense against inheriting a two-faced world. When no one�from politicians to pundits�says what he actually means, irony becomes a logical self-inoculation. Similarly, snark, irony’s brat, flourishes in an age of doublespeak and idiocy that’s too rarely called out elsewhere. Snark is not a honk of blasé detachment; it’s a clarion call of frustrated outrage.

Take this small example from Denby’s book: In pining for the tough-talking wit of Rosalind Russell and her ilk, he writes, �Whatever its miseries, the country in the thirties and forties was at peace with itself spiritually: We were all in the same boat.� Now, you could calmly point out Denby’s lazy generalization as he reimagines a time of widespread inequality as an idyllic epoch of snappy-pattered togetherness. Or you could respond, �Denby, you dumbass, not only were we not all in the same boat, we weren’t even at the same water fountains.� Sometimes the snarky response is the correct response.

This seems truer than ever before. Consider how much of our public speech�in politics, celebrity, sports�is composed of spin, prevarications, and barefaced lies. If you’re looking for a telltale moment from the last election as to the state of our political discourse, don’t look toward Sarah Palin’s mean-girl snark attacks at the Republican Convention (as Denby does) or to the columns of Maureen Dowd. Look instead at that unguarded moment when commentator Peggy Noonan let slip her true feelings about Palin’s nomination into a hot mike�in contradiction to what she’d just said live on-air. Or consider the oft-made but pertinent point that postdebate commentators reside in �Spin Alley.� When we live in a world where professional analysts on TV can be trusted to simply say what they actually believe, then I think we’ll find that snark will start to turn its own volume down.

Yet in snark Denby sees a symptom and calls it a disease. In a particularly tin-eared moment, he defends, of all people, Tom Cruise. Given the wealth of legitimate snark victims, why pick the star who best personifies the meticulous image-grooming and draconian information control that’s come to characterize modern celebrity? Surely Denby is not blind to the damage done to journalism, and society, by a culture of habitual lies. (Maybe not. He goes on to stick up for Barry Bonds.) Later, Denby notes with patrician dismay that a blog named With Leather declares itself to be �all about the assholes and idiots in the world of sports.� He priggishly clucks at this �mix of adoration, envy, and resentment,� without even a nod to the world of sports being, self-evidently, full of assholes and idiots. Or that there’s a lucrative industry built up around camouflaging that fact from fans, who, not surprisingly, are then drawn to blogs like With Leather.

That’s the recurring blind spot in the criticism of snark. Can it be nasty? Definitely. Is Perez Hilton a repugnant Horseman of the Apocalypse? You bet. Is snark scattershot in its application? Of course�all too often it’s applied like a clawhammer to the soft skulls of undeserving targets. Does the reflexive glibness practiced at certain outposts of the Internet (which, contrary to Denby’s sensationalism, flourish mainly in the niche of media and celebrity gossip; snarky blogs about economics, business, politics, and technology are the rare exceptions) produce, in the regular reader, a wearying hopelessness, building up in your system like mercury poisoning? Yes, I’m afraid it does�though no more so than the wearying hopelessness that might come from watching too much Nancy Grace.

Charges against snark are valid, especially when backed up with cherry-picked evidence. But you could make the same accusations against all strains of humor, throughout history, when misapplied. In targeting snark, Denby sights a trendy straw man, but he misses the important point that snark is not an idea; it’s a conduit�an outrage delivery device. He claims that snark is the favored voice of a generation �who know, by the time they are 12, the mechanics of hype, spin, and big money,� and about this, he’s exactly right. But instead of moving on to denounce the toxic pervasiveness of hype, spin, and big money, he blames the refuseniks who rail against it, claiming that everything seems �lifeless and unreal to them.�

Current events are certainly unreal but snark’s response is hardly lifeless. Snark is not the poison; it’s a home-brewed antidote. It’s the angry heckler at the back of the room. But Denby can only hear the hecklers, not the ridiculous act they’re heckling. When you are living in a nation awash in bullshit, it should not be surprising when people cry out, The nation is awash in bullshit! and maybe throw in an extraneous And your mother dresses you funny! It should also not be surprising, I guess, when people like Denby, ensconced on their porches, their conversations interrupted, tut-tut and tell those people to keep their voices down.

David Denby’s Hall of Shame
In his new book, the New Yorker critic identifies�then slays�his worst offenders. Below, a few of his targets.


Private Eye
What: British satirical rag founded in 1961.
The Accusation: Established the paradoxical credo of the dispossessed (or snarky): �We are defeated, but everyone else is ridiculous. We have no power, but we will win � through the strength of our disdain.�


Tom Wolfe
Who: Author of New York Magazine article �Radical Chic.� (1970).
The Accusation: Though �brilliantly composed,� what lowered this article from Wolfe’s usual social satire to snark �is [his] contempt for absolutely everyone.�


Spy Magazine
What: Satirical monthly founded by Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter.
The Accusation: �Acrid, knowing, and both undermining and caressing at once,� it was the center of American snark in the eighties. Created �New York Terror: �the fear that one � was �clueless.’�


Nick Denton
Who: Owner of Gawker Media.
The Accusation: With sites like Gawker and the �proudly idiotic� Wonkette, Denton has written �snark’s current mission statement: indolent parasitism as a work ethos.� Encourages assumption that �no one is worth anything; the corrosive view is the only view.�


Maureen Dowd
Who: Washington columnist for the New York Times.
The Accusation: �Despite all of her larks and inventions, she’s essentially sour and without hope � she’s the most gifted writer of snark in the country.�


Perez Hilton
Who: Creator of perezhilton.com.
The Accusation: Like all celeb bloggers, engages in the �You-Suck Principle,� glomming �onto celebrities in an attitude of adoration and loathing; first adoration, then loathing.� But Perez is the most �infantile.�

Snark
By David Denby.
Simon & Schuster. $15.95.

 
 
 
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