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Snark Attack

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


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.

Any visitor to snarky fan sites can see that their acid-tongued readers are the best fans a culture could hope to produce.

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.

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