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01.08.09

The High Priests of Snark

The New Yorker critic takes on smartasses who think they are being witty in an excerpt from his new book, Snark. Plus: A polite Q &A with David Denby.

The New Yorker critic takes on smartasses who think they are being witty in an excerpt from his new book, Snark. Plus: A polite Q&A with David Denby.

A strain of nasty, knowing abuse is 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. This is 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…

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.

It turns out 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 circling 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.

FIVE IN DENBY’S SNARK HALL OF FAME

Lewis Carroll
As for the word snark, he later told a friend it was also pointless—nothing more than the combination of snail and shark. As Carroll used it, there was something sinister, hidden and destructive in the nonsense word from the beginning. The snark is the thing that makes you disappear.

Sarah Palin
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…”)

denby-sarah-palin
Ron Edmonds/AP

Maureen Dowd
She writes as if personality, appearance and attitude were the only things that mattered. For her, politics is a stupid, despair-inducing entertainment, a tale told by an idiot signifying vanity. Despite all her larks and inventions, she's essentially sour and without hope. In brief, she's the most gifted writer of snark in the country.

denby-maureen-dowd
Bob Daemmrich Photography, Inc. /Corbis

Gore Vidal
The practice exists at different levels of ambition and skill, and at the top levels snark crosses into wit. In a 1976 essay….Gore Vidal, a master of high snark…achieves,…full snarky glory.

denby-gore-vidal
AP Photo

Gawker
This is the way snark journalism works now: The writers for Gawker or other gossip sites hear some accusation from a tipster or a sorehead, or read it in the newspaper, and then, after spicing the salad with dropwort, lay it out on the table, where it will remain forever. (The Internet does not clear away its dirty dishes.)

denby-gawker
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times/Redux

From the book Snark, by David Denby (c) 2009. With permission from the publisher, Simon & Schuster.