Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation

As a partially reformed practitioner of snark -- a snippy, quippy manner of writing that has become a preferred style in Web journalism -- I approached David Denby's Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation with high hopes. Having penned a popular daily online gossip column for years -- back when the Web was still young and finding its voice -- I had mastered the snappy turn of phrase, the knowing wink, the gentle elbow poke directed my readers' way. Yet as the tone spread wide, to sites like Gawker, TMZ, Perez Hilton (shudder), and beyond, its cadences, once so comforting, began to feel repetitive and tired, and I more or less moved on.

Was Denby, a longtime film critic for The New Yorker, going to make the case that snark is not just tiresome and played out but actually a malevolent force? It seemed so. And I was not only curious about how he might make that case but also hoping he'd tell us how we got here, and where the tone of our cultural conversation might be headed, now that the majority of the American voting public has found within itself the audacity to hope. Now that more of us feel we can make an actual difference, that our voices may be heard, that we outsiders are the new insiders, will our impulse to throw verbal pebbles at symbols of power -- in Hollywood and Washington and on Wall Street -- suddenly evaporate? Will the new age of earnest engagement spell snark's doom?

Alas, Denby deals only glancingly with many of these questions in his slender, scattershot tome. He has organized his book into seven "fits" -- borrowing the term from Lewis Carroll's 1876 poem "The Hunting of the Snark," which is organized into eight fits, or cantos. (Carroll claimed to have created the nonsense term "snark" by combining "snail" and "shark.") But the use of the word "fits" is, in fact, fitting. Denby throws many of them here -- and in quick succession.

Taking an occasionally snarky tone himself (though he'd be loath to admit it), Denby is not pleading for civility or earnestness. "I'm all in favor of nasty comedy, incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective," he notes, straight off the bat. What he doesn't like is snark, which he defines as?well, here we have one of the central problems with Snark. From the looks of it, Denby classifies as snark any attempt at satire or humor or critical commentary or, um, mean self-expression that he doesn't like.

That broad "I know it when I see it" definition takes in everything from the gossip blog Gawker and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (whom, in a chapter entirely devoted to her, he dubs "the most gifted writer of snark in the country") to frat boys ragging on girls they know online. It even includes the crabby comments people post on the discussion boards of mainstream media websites. "I would bet that half the words written as instant messages or Twitter are snark of one sort of another," writes Denby. That's a pretty big target to aim at in a 122-page book.

Further blurring that target, Denby says he hates snark, except when he doesn't hate it. "Life would be intolerable without any snark at all," he allows. "One can't, without hypocrisy, be against all snark all the time. The practice exists at different levels of ambition and skill, and at the top levels snark crosses into wit." He goes on to identify Gore Vidal (poking mischievous fun at Truman Capote circa 1976), the Roman poet Juvenal, contemporary literary critic Leon Wieseltier (teasingly comparing Martin Amis to Norman Mailer), and -- at length -- the British humor magazine Private Eye, back in its '60s heyday, as examples of "high snark."

The snark he deplores? Just open up a browser and type "www": "The Internet did not invent sarcasm, or the porous back fence where our gossiping parents gathered, or the tenderly merciful tabloids, but it provides universal distribution of what had earlier reached a limited number of eyes and ears. In brief the knowing group has been enlarged to an enormous audience that enjoys cruelty as a blood sport." If this isn't an assertion that malicious wit is acceptable only when its appeal is limited to a small circle of elite readers, it certainly sounds that way.

As dispiriting as Denby's harrumphing can be, he does raise some worthy points: that the anonymity of the Internet may result in conscienceless flamethrowing; that our predilection for snark can prevent us from distinguishing degrees of poor behavior or even spotting good behavior; that on the Web, casually tossed-off catty comments can stick around to damage reputations for years. His recap of the early days of Spy magazine -- that bible of '80s snark -- is good fun (though loyal readers of the late, lamented magazine may disagree with some of his conclusions). And Denby gets in some good lines: "Like the ravenous Cyclops, snark sees with one eye. And then it complains that other people lack dimensions."

He also, more than halfway through his book, offers this terrific quote from Gawker Media owner Nick Denton, essentially defining modern-day Internet snark: "The ideal Gawker item is something triggered by a quote at a party, or an incident, or a story somewhere else and serves to expose hypocrisy, or turn conventional wisdom on its head, and it's 100 words long, 200 max." Trivial, perhaps. Unimaginative, maybe. But is snark, thus defined, evil? Fans of snark might even argue that, by exposing hypocrisy and bringing its readers a sense of community, Gawker and its celeb-centric brethren are doing a public service.

In contrast to Denton's tight focus, Denby's overall view feels indistinct, and a tad dated. He grumbles that young people today are living in a post-aesthetic world, where nothing seems worth celebrating, contending, "elation?is precisely the emotion -- engaged, passionate, jubilant -- that is anathema to writers of snark." That contention may have sounded convincing a few years ago, but if the drama of the past election year has proved anything, it's that elation is an emotion this generation has been longing to experience and express. And hasn't this recession taken the wind out of many snark-swelled sails? Lately, Denton been shuttering and selling off sites at a rapid clip. Could we be entering a post-snark era?

Denby acknowledges the question but doesn't find much reason for hope. "Whatever else the rise of Barack Obama means, it certainly suggests that?college-educated young people?have become eager to reject shallow cynicism and to embrace hope in the public sphere -- and, more to the point, to take power and change the tone of public discourse," he says. But he just as quickly sweeps those thoughts aside, griping that kids today are so aware of "the mechanics of hype, spin, and big money" and are so controlled by the "entertainment business cycle" that they have lost all sense of aesthetics.

If Denby is not calling for a return to civility, as he states up front, it's not entirely clear what he is calling for. Not for the end of nasty writing: He's a big fan of H. L. Mencken's vituperative prose, which he curiously deems snark-free and includes among those embodying "the ideals I have been straining for." (He dismisses Mencken's racist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant writings as "disagreeable, even a little silly.") Not for the end of satire or irony: He adores television satirist Stephen Colbert, rapturously recounting the ultra-ironic speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner in which Colbert famously (and bravely, and deliciously) insulted President Bush to his face. No, here are Denby's parting words: "Vituperation that is insulting, nasty, but well, clean, may live forever. Go and commit some. You'll feel better. You'll make other people feel better."

Ah-ha. Denby wants a return to aesthetics?his aesthetics.

Quick, somebody say something snarky!

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