David Denby, Snark

Snark, the new socio-journalistic etiquette book from New Yorker film critic David Denby, begins and ends on the defensive. He starts by making a crowbar separation between Stephen Colbert’s high-level satire and the insult comedy of Penn Jillette; he finishes with a chapter called “What Is Not Snark.” This strategy — defining his subject by what it isn’t instead of what it is — doesn’t exactly inspire a reader’s confidence. Why is he so concerned with defending his definition’s borders from the outside? Are the barbarians really at the gates, ready to rip the place apart?

It’s a particularly risky move given how contested the entire territory is. In Denby’s formulation, snark is the mutant cousin of satire and irony, a form of criticism that retains their acerbic critical bite but which upholds no alternative values, and professes no desire to make things better. To give his case weight, he traces the word’s history (it first appeared in an 1876 gibberish poem by Lewis Carroll, though Denby says the underlying attitude is visible in ancient Greece) and points out some of the biggest offenders in recent decades, including Tom Wolfe, Spy magazine, and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. The Internet is overrun with unchecked snark. The problem, however, is that irony is itself nearly impossible to pin down precisely, and these tangential history lessons, while fun, only underscore how inadequate a job Denby does explaining how snark relates to this already-slippery idea upfront.

Critics took aim at Snark almost immediately after its release in January, attacking Denby’s choice of targets, as well as his generally haughty tone. Perhaps out of spite, the backlash has been even snarkier than usual: New York magazine at least prefaced its dismantling by noting that “it’s too easy to stamp this book with some snarky dismissal (EPIC FAIL) and continue on one’s self-satisfied way,” while one outraged web review actually went with “Epic Fail” as a title. Even Charlie Rose got mad about it, for crying out loud.

Still, part of Denby’s argument strikes a chord with me, and I suspect I’m not alone. Minutes after Obama was elected, for example, one of my Facebook friends announced, “Let the predictable status updates begin …” This is a prime example of what irritates Denby so much, and presumably what motivated him to write the book: it’s cutting other people down — people who you actually agree with — just to make yourself feel superior to them for a fleeting instant. It’s meant to be funny, but there’s no real joke involved, and certainly no substantial critique. It’s simply a heckler throwing tomatoes, and it sours all of the productive energies around it.

But my goodwill doesn’t extend much further beyond Denby’s initial itch and his quick turns of phrase, mostly because I think what definition he does scrape together is plain wrong. Those who practice snark don’t seem to believe in much, true, but they aren’t the set-the-world-on-fire nihilists he claims they are. In fact, if there’s one thing celebrity gossip blogs like The Superficial absolutely believe in, it’s the concept of celebrity itself — that stars should be beautiful, flawless, some impossible body type, and still somehow ego-free. Denby doesn’t share these beliefs, nor in fact do most people, but now we’re talking about a matter of taste, not kind. Essentially, he’s accusing those with different values of having no values at all, which is such a sneaky logical shift that I’m not entirely sure Denby is aware he’s making it.

And for such a staunch anti-snark advocate, Denby sure can fling mud with the worst of them. After nearly 90 solid pages of chastising snarkers for painting in broad, reactionary strokes (assuming all celebrities are ultra-vain, or all politicians corrupt, based on the actions of a select few), he takes an astoundingly mirthful kick at the ribs of the entire restaurant industry, which he stereotypes as overpriced and pretentious. He writes that he is “moved by a wave of tenderness” at the “Deathwatch” section of the ruthless and very snarky Eater.com, which allows viewers to “gaze upon a failing restaurant’s empty tables, its desperate attempts to change the menu or decor.”

This isn’t “justified” or “necessary” snark, and the above description of empty tables doesn’t make me feel triumphant — it just makes me feel sad. But then again, I don’t wish financial ruin on anyone who dares open a restaurant, for the same reason I don’t wish anorexia on all aspiring actors: at root, they’re trying to do good, to make people feel happy. They shouldn’t be shamed just for taking a risk.

Which brings me to my counter-hypothesis: that snark and comedy are actually incompatible. To attack someone for no reason, with no premise, and with no motivation other than character assassination simply cannot be called a joke — to even link it with satire and irony gives it far too much legitimacy. On the other hand, if your target really deserves the noogie — as Denby’s book frequently does — it wouldn’t be snark in the first place.

Simon & Schuster, 144 pp, $18.99, hardcover

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, March 12, 2009)

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