Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits


• An acclaimed and thoughtful author: David Denby has been writing insightful film reviews since the 1970s. Formerly a columnist for The Atlantic and New York magazine, he has been with The New Yorker for the past decade. His nonfiction account of Western literature, Great Books , has been praised for its intelligence and breadth of scope..

• A biting polemic on the cultural tone of today: Snark tells the story of that nasty combination of snide and sarcasm that goes beyond ...

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• An acclaimed and thoughtful author: David Denby has been writing insightful film reviews since the 1970s. Formerly a columnist for The Atlantic and New York magazine, he has been with The New Yorker for the past decade. His nonfiction account of Western literature, Great Books , has been praised for its intelligence and breadth of scope..

• A biting polemic on the cultural tone of today: Snark tells the story of that nasty combination of snide and sarcasm that goes beyond irony and satire to just plain ugliness. Snark erupts from the mouths of politicians and pundits, from bloggers and newscasters, and from comedians too lazy to be truly funny. It’s the cheap shot that hits below the belt. It’s everywhere, and according to Denby, it’s damaging to everyone it touches. .

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
New Yorker film critic David Denby has been described as "a grumpy curmudgeon," perhaps making him an ideal candidate to examine and critique America's snark culture. Snark Snark explores the digitally aided realm of the deeply sarcastic and resolutely irreverent, a snide, emotive community that grown far beyond the bounds of Manhattan and Los Angeles. To this great rational project, the author of American Sucker brings an earnest fervor for reasoning skills and well-practiced humility.
Library Journal

"It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation," exclaims Denby (Great Books), longtime film critic for The New Yorker. The noun snark, an apparent conflation of "snide" and "remark," harkens back to Lewis Carroll's fictional animal, though there's no need to "hunt" for this incarnation of the beast; it's ubiquitous according to Denby, and it's nasty: "the most dreadful style going, and ultimately debilitating." Not to be confused with satire, which at least has human betterment at its heart, snark plays on others' vulnerabilities to no good end. Snark is not a recent phenomenon; Denby traces its origins back to ancient Greece and is not himself above naming names, counting writers James Wolcott, Joe Queenan, Tom Wolfe, and Maureen Dowd (who actually gets a whole "fit," as the book's sections are called, to herself) among its better-known current practitioners. Alice Roosevelt Longworth might not have appreciated it, but this relatively brief, witty (a quality he claims that snark lacks) work is highly recommended for all libraries.
—Ellen Gilbert

The Barnes & Noble Review
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, " 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 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! --Amy Reiter

Formerly a longtime editor and writer for Salon, Amy Reiter contributes to numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Wine Spectator, Marie Claire, and Glamour, among others.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416599463
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/12/2010
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 984,614
  • Product dimensions: 8.34 (w) x 5.58 (h) x 0.36 (d)

Meet the Author

David Denby has been film critic and staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998; prior to that he was film critic of New York magazine. His reviews and essays have also appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

The Republic of Snark

In which the author lays out the terrain of his momentous subject, defines the nature of snark, and distinguishes among high, medium, and low versions of the unfortunate practice.

This is an essay about a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation — a tone of snarking insult provoked and encouraged by the new hybrid world of print, television, radio, and the Internet. It's an essay about style and also, I suppose, grace. Anyone who speaks of grace — so spiritual a word — in connection with our raucous culture risks sounding like a genteel idiot, so I had better say right away that I'm all in favor of nasty comedy, incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective. It's the bad kind of invective — low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing; in brief, snark — that I hate.

Perhaps a few contrasts will make the difference clear. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can be rough. Like all entertainers, they trust laughs more than anything else, and they wait for some public person to slip a stirrup and fall. "We're carrion birds," says Stewart, a man capable of describing Karl Rove as having a head like a lump of unbaked bread dough. But the Stewart/Colbert claws are sharpened in a special way. Even when pecking at a victim's tender spots, they also manage to defend civic virtue four times a week. When Stephen Colbert, a liberal, wraps himself in the flag and bullies his guests in the manner of right-wing TV host Bill O'Reilly, he is practicing irony, the most powerful of all satiric weapons. Attacking the Bush administration, Colbert and Stewart were always trying to say, This is not the way a national government should behave. Snark, by contrast, has zero interest in civic virtue or anything else except the power to ridicule. When the comic Penn Jillette said on MSNBC in May 2008, that "Obama did great in February, and that's because that was Black History Month. And now Hillary's doing much better 'cause it's White Bitch Month, right?" he was not, putting it mildly, practicing irony or satire. The remark was bonehead insult, but insult of a special sort. It spoke to a knowing audience — to white people irritated by black history as a celebration, and to men who assume an ambitious woman can safely be called a bitch. The layer of knowingness, in this case, was an appeal to cranky ill will and prejudice. Jillette's joke was snark. A question I found as a comment on a right-wing blog — "Is Obama a fat-lipped nigger — or what?" — is simple racist junk. But a student named Adam LaDuca, formerly president of the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans, wrote on his Facebook page that Obama was "nothing more than a dumbass with a pair of lips so large he could float half of Cuba to the shores of Miami (and probably would)." That remark, in its excruciating "humor" and its layer of knowing reference, is tin-plated snark (and also racist junk).

Snark is not the same as hate speech, which is abuse directed at groups. Hate speech slashes and burns, and hopes to incite, but without much attempt at humor. Some legal scholars — most notably, Jeremy Waldron, of New York University — have argued that the United States, a tumultuous, multiethnic country with many vulnerable minorities, should consider banning hate speech by law, as some countries in Europe have done. But that is not my concern here; the legal issues lie far beyond the range of this essay, and, in any case, I am against censorship in any form, on the usual ground that it will choke legitimate critical speech as well as vicious rant. I will hunt the snark but leave hate speech alone. I will also ignore the legions of anguished, lost people on Web sites and the social networking site Facebook who are convinced that, say, Barack Obama is the Antichrist ("Buraq was the name of Muhammad's horse!"), and who fly about wildly, like bats trapped in a country living room, looking for a way to release fear. Madness and paranoia are not the same as snark.

Nor am I talking about the elaborately sadistic young sports known on the Internet as "trolls." These are technically enabled young men, part hackers, part stalkers, who pull such pranks as teasing the parents of a child who has committed suicide or sending flashing lights onto a Web site for epileptics. The lights may cause seizures. Fun! The trolls have a merry time screwing people up. What they do violates existing statutes, and if federal and state authorities had the energy and resources to pursue them, the trolls could probably be prosecuted for harassment. So far they have gone largely unpunished, but I leave them to the cops and prosecutors. Finally, I will bypass the issue of political correctness, which, rightly or wrongly, is a way of protecting groups against calumny and lesser slights. Political correctness actually shares one leading characteristic with snark — it refuses true political engagement, the job of getting at the truth of things. All too often, PC tries to rein in humor that might brush against a truth. What I'm doing here — hunting the snark — is a way of preserving humor. Those of us who are against snark want to humble the lame, the snide, and the lazy — and promote the true wits.

Snark attacks individuals, not groups, though it may appeal to a group mentality, depositing a little bit more toxin into already poisoned waters. Snark is a teasing, rug-pulling form of insult that attempts to steal someone's mojo, erase her cool, annihilate her effectiveness, and it appeals to a knowing audience that shares the contempt of the snarker and therefore understands whatever references he makes. It's all jeer and josh, a form of bullying that, except at its highest levels, beggars the soul of humor. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times had Al Gore "so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct, he's practically lactating" in one column and buffing his pecs and ridging his abs in another column. Which was it? Effeminate or macho? Snark will get you any way it can, fore and aft, and to hell with consistency. In a media society, snark is an easy way of seeming smart. When Harvard professor Samantha Power resigned from Obama's campaign on March 7, 2008, after calling Hillary Clinton "a monster," Michael Goldfarb's comment, on the blog of the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard, was "Tell us something we don't know." Power's remark is a plain insult; Goldfarb's, with its cozy "we," which adds a twist of in‑group knowingness, is snark. Snark doesn't create a new image, a new idea. It's parasitic, referential, insinuating.

Of course, snark is just words, and if you look at it one piece at a time, it seems of piddling importance. But it's annoying as hell, the most dreadful style going, and ultimately debilitating. A future America in which too many people sound mean and silly, like small yapping dogs tied to a post; in which we insult one another merrily in a kind of endless zany brouhaha; in which the lowest, most insinuating and insulting side threatens to win national political campaigns — this America will leave everyone, including the snarkers, in a foul mood once the laughs die out. At the moment, there are snarky vice presidential campaigns (Sarah Palin's mean-girl assault on Barack Obama as "someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country...This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America."); snark-influenced crafts (advertising); an enormous, commercially flourishing snark industry (celebrity culture); snarky news-and-commentary cable TV shows, left and right; and snark words, such as whiny and whiner, which are often used to cut the ground under anyone with a legitimate complaint. Senator John McCain, displaying some creative flair in his attacks on Barack Obama on October 15, 2008, added a snarky visual effect (perhaps a first in a presidential debate) to ordinary sarcasm, by holding up his fingers for air quotes around the word health in a discussion on abortion: "Here again is the eloquence of Senator Obama — the 'health' of the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything." By using air quotes (was he channeling the late Chris Farley?), McCain was sending a sportive signal to pro-lifers — that's the snarky part — but also suggesting, perhaps unconsciously, that the heath of the mother was somehow irrelevant to the matter of abortion. At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, snark sounds like the seethe and snarl of an unhappy and ferociously divided country, a country releasing its resentment in rancid jokes. It's a verbal bridge to nowhere. I've been accused of writing some myself.

The practice has often been mislabeled. Snark is not the same thing, for instance, as irreverence or spoof. I've heard the morally outraged satirist Lenny Bruce described as a pioneer of snark, which is absurd. Bruce, in his way, was as serious as the prophet Jeremiah. David Letterman the ironist is snarky; Jay Leno, a straight joke teller, is not. Don Rickles takes on hecklers and insults his audience, but his act is a formal structure whose unvarying rules are known in advance. If he weren't vicious, people wouldn't go to hear him. What he does isn't snark; it's a harmless, self-contained ritual performed by a cobra with a ribbon tied around its head.

The platonic ideal of snark is something like this: Two girls are sitting in a high school cafeteria putting down a third, who's sitting on the other side of the room. What's peculiar about this event is that the girl on the other side of the room is their best friend. In that scenario, snark is abusive or sarcastic speech that operates like poisoned arrows within a closed space. Its intention is to offer solidarity between two or more parties and to exclude someone from the same group. On Gossip Girl, this is juicily entertaining, but in real life it's as hostile as spit. The crab that tries to escape the barrel — the girl who dresses differently or studies harder — gets pulled back into the barrel. Who does she think she is? A young writer who creates an ambitious work of fiction gets snarked by journalists of lesser ambition. What a pretentious phony! Snark often functions as an enforcer of mediocrity and conformity. In its cozy knowingness, snark flatters you by assuming that you get the contemptuous joke. You've been admitted, or readmitted, to a club, though it may be the club of the second-rate.

Let's not fall into a misunderstanding. Life would be intolerable without any snark at all. There are public events like Dick Cheney's shooting his close friend in the puss, or Eliot Spitzer's encounters with a $4,300 hooker after prosecuting vice for several years — events that no human being could fail to relish, rehash, retell. These misadventures inspired snarky comments by the hundreds, and all one can say about the comments is that malice is as natural as kindness, and that someone completely without snarky impulses would have little humor of any sort. 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. In a 1976 essay ("Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self "), Gore Vidal, a master of high snark, recounts the early days of his friendship with Tennessee Williams. Eventually, the narrative turns to Truman Capote:

Capote would keep us entranced with mischievous fantasies about the great. Apparently, the very sight of him was enough to cause lifelong heterosexual men to tumble out of unsuspected closets. When Capote refused to surrender his virtue to the drunken Errol Flynn, "Errol threw all my suitcases out of the window of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel!" I should note here that the young Capote was no less attractive in his person then than he is today.

This is funny no matter how you read it. But the last line achieves its full snarky glory only if you know that in 1976, when Vidal wrote these sentences, Capote was a sodden mess. Vidal's insult is perfectly phrased. How could one be against it? A writer like the Roman poet Juvenal (discussed in the Second Fit), who deploys a virulent, sometimes obscene wit — an early case of snark, I think — can make proper writers seem timid and slow.

Another, more complicated example of contemporary high snark — or, rather, attempted high snark: The literary editor and critic Leon Wieseltier reviewed The Second Plane, a collection of essays about Islamic extremism by the English writer Martin Amis, in the New York Times of April 27, 2008, and, at great length, Wieseltier deplored Amis's lack of seriousness. Amis, he wrote, used the catastrophe of 9/11 to show off his brilliant phrasemaking; instead, he should have tried — more soberly and with better information — to understand the nature of radical Islam. Wieseltier's clinching judgment goes like this: "Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer." Now, this is a knowing signal to readers who believe that Saul Bellow was a greater writer than Norman Mailer. Yet it's an odd insult, since most of us would hardly turn scarlet with shame if Mailer's The Armies of the Night or The Executioner's Song suddenly turned up on our résumé. What is there to "pity"? In that respect, Wieseltier's remark is a misfire. In another respect, it's a stealth dart aimed directly at Martin Amis's heart. An even smaller group of readers would know that Amis adores Bellow's work and dislikes Mailer's. The snark is unspoken: You write like someone you despise, not like your hero.

At the more popular level, there is a fine piece of wickedness perfected by the British humor magazine Private Eye. In the sixties, a British woman journalist, disappearing from a London party, had a pleasing encounter with a former cabinet minister in the government of Ugandan dictator Milton Obote; afterward, reappearing, she said that the two were "upstairs discussing Uganda." Thereafter, and for decades, whenever any public figure was taunted by the magazine for illicit sex, he or she was described as having "Ugandan discussions." The British libel laws are tougher than ours; the Uganda euphemism (and there were others) began as a way of avoiding libel, but it became a snazzy repeated joke, an insult that gathered laughter around it every time it was applied to a new victim. The two hundred thousand or so readers of Private Eye gloried in a gag that united them within the walls of an exclusively knowing club. "Ugandan discussions," a terrific piece of mid-snark, is much funnier than anything appearing in America today.

At what point do we write snark out of the book of life — or at least out of the book of style? When it lacks imagination, freshness, fantasy, verbal invention and adroitness — all the elements of wit. When it's just mean, low, ragging insult with a little curlicue of knowingness. Much of what passes for humor in American public discourse strikes me this way, and, in the Fourth Fit, I will set out the way snark is written today — a kind of stylebook of snark — and give examples. If you crave immediate proof, turn to the discussion threads that follow a routine post on so many Web sites. For every bright and easy conversation, there's another one that turns into a free-fire zone of bilious, snarling, resentful, other-annihilating rage, complete with such savories as racist taunt, nationalist war whoops ("Fuck those towel-heads"), misogynist rant, gay-baiting witticisms. In these effusions, snark is the preferred mode of attack. Everyone, it seems, wants to be a comic. I would bet that half the words written as instant messages or Twitter are snark of one sort or another. As for commenters, they don't just address the famous and powerful; they light into one another. You can't miss them if you look, and even a man as generous as Walt Whitman would be hard-pressed to hear in these flares the barbaric yawp of a free people. Then there are the college men writing on such sites as Juicy Campus who have slept with a woman and then refer to her as "a whore" by name while hiding behind anonymity (snark is their preferred mode of attack, too; more on this in the Fifth Fit). Low snark, in its current variety, is a degeneration of invective into smear or just dull slagging, and it shows up in professional venues, too — in gossipy celebrity and sports sites; in daily and weekly newspapers desperately trying to reach young readers and hoping that a snippy-snappy tone is the way to do it.

It turns out that in the wake of the Internet revolution, snark as a style has outgrown its original limited function. The Internet has allowed it to metastasize as a pop writing form: A snarky insult, embedded in a story or a post, quickly gets traffic; it gets linked to other blogs; and soon it has spread like a sneezy cold through the vast kindergarten of the Web. Not only that, it's there forever, since it's easily Googled out of obscurity. Along with all the useful, solid, clever, playful information and opinion circulating around, a style of creepy nastiness is rampaging all over the place, too. The zombies are biting, and a hell of a lot of us are enjoying the spectacle. 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.

No one should take this essay as a request that all the angry people curl up in someone's lap and purr. Savage insult, especially insult directed at the powerful, is a necessary part of democratic culture, and in some ways we live in a great age of comedy and popular satire. Talent jumps up out of nowhere on some of the blogs, joining up with people like Sacha Baron Cohen, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, and Sarah Silverman; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; the crew at Saturday Night Live; the people who put out the satirical rag The Onion; the creators of The Simpsons and South Park and Family Guy. These are culture heroes, and rightly so, and they don't practice snark but something finer, or something crude and free, bold and happy — satire, spoof, lampoon, burlesque, all heaven-sent forms. They are entertainers, but sometimes much more. I will take a quick, admiring look at some of their forebears — the origins of snark in the noisy drinking clubs of ancient Greece; the poets and orators who practiced invective as a formal mode in classical Athens and Rome; the devastating eighteenth-century conservative wits Pope and Swift; the Oxford cutups and cutthroats who started Private Eye in the sixties; the media-savvy men who penetrated the walls of the famous in Spy magazine, the premier outlet for American snark in the eighties. In contemporary writing, snark has entered a degenerate phase, and I will try to distinguish between harshly funny satirical writing and trivial kneecapping.

Parts of my argument are directed at a medium in which professional and nonprofessional writers mix together freely, exuberantly. Why argue for decency, civility, style, grace in the Internet? In a medium which, by its very nature, is free to all comers, talented and untalented, cheerful and enraged, pure and impure alike? Why would anyone set up a tearoom with linens and silver in the middle of the saloons of the Wild West? What's at stake? Well, the frontier is now absorbing the traditional elite settlements of journalism: The network news broadcasts and many newspapers and magazines are slowly, hesitatingly, but inevitably sliding into the Internet, sometimes using online sites as an adjunct, sometimes as a principal venue. This massive, sliding-cargo movement leaves established editors and writers worried, and not just because they fear unemployment. In the near future, the authority of agreed-upon facts and a central narrative of what's going on in the world could weaken and even dissolve. The Internet is remarkably adept at amplifying, correcting, ridiculing, and overturning that narrative, but it cannot, on its own, create it. In the Internet, there will be no such authority, only the many niches and bat caves from which highly colored points of view will fly wildly like confused vectors, and in that situation, no one will be right, no one will be wrong, and everything will be a matter of opinion. In that future dystopia, the most memorable bits of invective and sarcasm will attain the widest currency, and snark will reign supreme.

We are in a shaky moment, a moment of transition, and I think it's reasonable to ask: What are we doing to ourselves? What kind of journalistic culture do we want? What kind of Internet culture? What kind of national conversation? My "position" regarding the Internet is this: We have this incredible tool. Let's not screw it up. As for the mainstream press, those of us not too blinkered and panicked to notice the dreadful writing that passes itself off as fun (both in the Internet and our own work) will want to stop the spread of that stuff. Journalism is a vast sea of good and bad, but surely some demands can be made, and the distinction between toughness and cynicism, incisiveness and fatuous sarcasm, satire and free-floating cruelty — these are differences worth fighting for in any medium. There's no need to sober up. But we can certainly toughen up. Copyright © 2009 by David Denby

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Table of Contents

The First Fit: The Republic of Snark

The Second Fit: A Brief, Highly Intermittent History of Snark, Part 1

The Third Fit: A Brief, Highly Intermittent History of Snark, Part 2

The Fourth Fit: Anatomy of a Style

The Fifth Fit: The Conscience of a Snarker

The Sixth Fit: Maureen Dowd

The Seventh Fit: What Is Not Snark

Reference List


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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2010

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