"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, fresh 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."
So begins David Denby's succinctly titled Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation, which has recently been reprinted in paperback by Simon & Schuster. Denby, who shares film-reviewing duties with Anthony Lane at The New Yorker, is the author of one truly suburb book, called, again with appropriate succinctness, Great Books, about how the Great Books course at Columbia University has fared since he, Denby, was an undergraduate there back in the 1960s. I steered clear of his second book, American Sucker (the title alone seemed unfortunate to me), about his dabbling, with unfortunate results, in the stock market frenzy of the 1990s, but Snark definitely finds him back in fine form.
Especially on the Internet
One of the advantages here is brevity. Denby calls the book an essay — it only runs to 128 pages — and that is the correct term to describe the work. And because he is analyzing a form of comic writing — albeit nasty in its effect and with far-reaching implications for the state of language in our culture — being brief seems very much to the point. Overdoing things in such an obviously polemical pursuit would lead directly to overkill.
In addition to defining what snark is and how it operates on the contemporary scene — especially across the wide expanse of the Internet — Denby gives readers a complete history of the idea and its uses, tracing it back to ancient Greece, and analyzing how it's utilized best in the works of Roman satirist Juvenal and British writers Alexander Pope and Lewis Carroll, who some say invented the term.
But though these pages are filled with sprightly analysis, the best portions of Denby's book are those that trace the current epidemic of snarkdom. He makes it clear from the start what kind of invective he rates highly. He admits that comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can be rough at times. Like most comedians, they love to see those in power slip and fall, since then they can rush in and pick over the carcasses. (Stewart has even described himself and his pal as "carrion birds.")
But as Denby writes: "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."
According to Denby, snark has no interest in civic virtue or much else except "the power to ridicule." For example, "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 may have been a boneheaded insult, in Denby's view, but it was an insult of a special sort since it was directed at "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." Because of this "layer of knowingness," the remark was an appeal to "cranky ill will and prejudice" — and that immediately categorized it as snark.
But the author wants to make it clear that snark is not analogous to hate speech. Nor is Denby suggesting that those "elaborately sadistic young sports" who play about on the Internet and are known as "trolls" deal in snark. These are simply "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," which might cause seizures.
Denby wants no part of any of them; nor does he wish to consider the issue of what is or is not politically correct — though he will admit that political correctness shares a 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."
It's Often Misidentified
In addition, according to the author, the practice of snarking has sometimes been mislabeled. Snark is not irreverence or spoof. Some have said that the raunchy stand-up comic of the '50s, Lenny Bruce, was a pioneer of the form, but Denby considers that to be "absurd." He sees Bruce as a serious prophet — as serious, in fact, as Jeremiah.
Writes Denby: "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 harmless, self-contained ritual performed by a cobra with a ribbon tied around its head."
In the writer's opinion, snark goes after individuals as its target — not groups — though it may appeal to a group mentality, "depositing a little more toxin into already poisoned waters."
"Snark," he goes on to explain, "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."
Denby does admit that, in the end, snark is just words, and taken one piece at a time, it doesn't amount to much in terms of importance. But he rightly insists that 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."
Denby's little treatise explains a great deal about what has gone wrong recently with American society, pinning it correctly to the continued breakdown in language and hence civility, but it seems to me that if enough people dip into his perceptive "essay" and have the courage to use its prescriptions as a guide, Snark may just manage to set a few things right.