The Snark Hunter

A genteel discussion on the future of snide humor with David Denby.

01.08.09 6:42 AM ET

Appalled by the snide, shallow jokes that masquerade as wit and debase our conversation, David Denby, the longtime film critic for the New Yorker, traces the history of vitriolic language in his artful new polemic Snark. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he muses on what happens when the snarkers become the snarked, the snarkiness Obama can expect, and who the snarkiest writer at the New Yorker is.

Read an excerpt from David Denby’s book, Snark.

Was there a particularly snarky event that led you to write the book?

I was stewing over it for perhaps six months, but there was no crystallizing event—certainly no personal attack (I’ve been snarked, but probably less than many other people). What provoked me was a sense that some sort of Gresham’s law was beginning to operate—that crassly unfunny kinds of personal attack were driving out genuine wit, that the Internet had become both the accomplice and generator of it, that journalists in a shaky time were terrified of appearing even one second out of date, and that this fear was leading to repetition of stupid knowing remarks whose purpose was not to say anything new, or to create a fresh image, or even a fresh insult, but merely to signify that one was plugged in. Once I got going last spring, I wrote the book in a cold sweat: I thought, for a while, that Obama would be done in by coded racist insults. I was wrong: For every snarky jerk who tried to turn him into a pal of terrorists, a hidden Muslim, and the rest of that, there were two people to step forward to expose the lies, turn back the smear. He was our democratic prince, and many of us wanted to protect him. The media eco-system attained a kind of equilibrium in his case—as it didn’t in Al Gore’s. But no one else may be protected that way.

You note that Hillary Clinton was a frequent victim of snark. Do you think Barack Obama will be impervious to it?

He’ll be satirized, ridiculed, and hung out to dry, just like every other Democratic leader, and, if he screws up, he should be. The last thing I’d like to see is a sobering up. But we could toughen up—have a little higher standard of wit for ourselves and a greater willingness to discourage the dreck. You can’t simply ignore or discard it any more—Google is a kind of space-garbage retrieval system as well as the greatest tool ever invented. I’m all in favor of editors who can turn snark into wit as well as moderators who deep six it before it gets onto the Web, and I think that’s a common opinion. I hear lots of folks saying that can’t stand the snarly, other-annihilating crap that seems to clog so many conversation threads.

You write that the eighth principle of Snark is to attack the old: "Your editors and Web publishers want young demographics, so they won't mind." What will happen when the young purveyors of Internet snark get old? In other words, what's the future of snark?

Of course they’ll become the targets, and they won’t like it very much. They’ll think that no one understands them, and all the rest of that middle-aged rue. Snark is part of the generational wars in journalism—hardly something new, but sharper than usual in this moment of intense anxiety and scrambling for jobs. Part of the comedy and pathos of snark from young writers in New York is that, as Vanessa Gregoriades pointed out in New York magazine in 2007, they all want to make enough money to stay in the city, so they join the publications they’ve been attacking at the first opportunity. In the future, as newspapers and magazines subside into the Web, I think there may be an increase as snark: The combination of a loss of authority and intense competition to be noticed will increase the snark volume.

Who’s the snarkiest writer at the New Yorker?

I knew there was a gotcha question coming. The magazine does satire, parody, lampoon, and literary burlesque, but it doesn’t do much snark. If you try it, it usually gets penciled or frowned out of existence by one editor or another as a cheap shot. Anthony Lane, my movie-reviewing colleague, is genuinely and easily funny, but, if you look closely, there’s often something melancholy under the jokes, so I wouldn’t call what he does snark. In all, I think the magazine was snarkier in the old days when it was more consciously and exclusively written for an elite. Since you raised the question of the New Yorker, I should say that this book was a purely personal project. I talked to friends at the magazine about snark, but I was speaking only for myself.