Snark Attack

The New Yorker's David Denby campaigns against "low, teasing, snide, condescending" criticism


Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation, by David Denby, New York: Simon and Shuster, 144 pages, $15.95

Not long ago, New Yorker film critic David Denby had an epiphany: American culture was being debased by "snark," that "low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing" style of criticism, a "bad kind of invective" that's "spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation" and proliferating on the Internet. Denby received this revelation while enjoying a "pan-Pacific dinner" with the political journalist Michael Kinsley. "Somewhere between the Singing Fish Satay and the Pow Wok Lamb," he writes, "Mike and I…said more or less the same thing—that snark was becoming the characteristic discourse of our time."

The byproduct of this conversation is a pungent and angry little book called Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation. In just over 100 pages, alongside the first-name references to his famous friends and descriptions of his high-class meals, Denby attacks the online boobeoise who, he argues, have altered the tone of debate by supplanting thoughtful conversation with snide and indiscriminant denunciations of the "douchebags" with whom they disagree. "In a media society," he writes, "snark is an easy way of seeming smart." If the bloggers at Gawker and Wonkette, two websites dedicated to all things snarky, delight in puncturing the pretentions of the old-guard bourgeois intelligentsia, Denby has provided them a slow-moving target.

In a condensed history of snark, Denby relies on odd examples from the distant past—a pointless diversion, for instance, into Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "The Hunting of the Snark," which has nothing to do with snark in its current meaning—and a fevered denunciation of various celebrity gossip websites and presidential campaign ads. While he rightfully credits the British satire magazine Private Eye and its American progeny Spy as snark trailblazers, he omits mention of Grand Royale, Suck, and Vice, all far more influential in establishing the tone of modern Internet snark.

It's likely that those publications are unfamiliar to Denby, and his brief backgrounder on snark's roots seems perfunctory—little more than a way to pad an essay into a small book that meanders towards the targets that really outrage him. For an idea of just what motivated Denby to attack an ephemeral style like snark, search for his name at Gawker, a media gossip site. Read the stories there about Denby's "pornography addiction," which he chronicled in his book Suckered, and the declaration that "we [have] come to hate David Denby." For a great majority of Denby's years as a professional writer, he was effectively firewalled from his critics. In the Age of the Internet, hipster bloggers are baying for the fusty critic's blood.

Denby wants things as they once were, when American culture was effectively a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie; when the Ivy League guardians of "our conversation" ruthlessly protected it from contamination by the jealous and uncouth. "Whatever its miseries, the country in the thirties and forties was at peace with itself spiritually: We were all in the same boat," he argues. Today we have "income inequalities and Rovian tactics that exacerbate ethnic and class differences"; then we merely had Nazism and the Depression.

It seems unnecessary to observe that in the 1930s, when unemployment was in double digits and Father Coughlin commanded a rather large radio audience, both poverty and dirty politics were not entirely uncommon. And long before the Internet existed, such lurid and sleazy magazines as Police Gazette, Confidential, and Broadway Brevities sold millions of copies a week.

It's just that the readers couldn't get at you.

There is nothing new in the use of brutal sarcasm and ad hominems to attack your enemies. What Denby laments is the way technology has empowered the snarky critic to take shots at the powerful and influential, allowing the democratization of published cruelty. As Denby writes, snark is "the weapon of outsiders who want to displace the insiders." True enough, but the reader can only wonder why a film critic at The New Yorker is troubled by nugatory attempts of "snarky pipsqueaks," as he calls them, to challenge the professional critics.

Anyone who has been exposed to the subliterate animosities and grudges of the cruder anonymous commenters or bloggers, or has bristled at the lowered bar of what passes as clever satire on snark-heavy websites, will have some sympathy for Denby's effort to attack against the "everyone-sucks-but-me" culture. But his bizarre choice of targets and imprecise definition of "snarky" derails his argument from the beginning. At its core, Snark is a deeply political book and, therefore, Denby offers special dispensations for a Right On!–variety of ideological snark. "Snark is irresistible," he writes, when discussing our previous president (and who could disagree with that?), but it apparently becomes gauche when directed at Democrats peddling hope and change. A large chunk of his argument is ceded to score-settling and a post-election outpouring of anger against those who said impolite things about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (Denby may be the only writer alive who would describe Sarah Palin's description of Barack Obama as "palling around with terrorists" as snarky.)

Denby tags the Fox News screamer Bill O'Reilly as a boorish knuckle-dragger, but his liberal counterpart Keith Olbermann is something else entirely: "One can't help but noticing…that Olbermann's tirades are voluminously factual, astoundingly syntactical…and always logically organized." The leftist writer Gore Vidal is a "master of high snark," while his conservative counterpart Tom Wolfe is an overrated racist. If you agree with the snark, it probably isn't snark.

Denby identifies Wolfe's "Radical Chic" as a progenitor of today's snarky style, but it fails, he says, because the writer's teasing of haute-liberal infatuation with the Black Panthers "now seems more fatuous than the assembled partygoers." How so? Because according to Denby, "In the end, [Wolfe's trademark] white suit may have been less an ironic joke than the heraldic uniform of a man born in Richmond, Virginia, who entertained fancies of a distinguished Old South in which blacks kept their mouths shut, a conservative who had never accustomed himself to the new money in the Northeast." While denouncing bloggers for rumor-mongering and for besmirching reputations with nothing but conjecture, Denby nevertheless finds it appropriate to imply that Wolfe's writing is steeped in white supremacy.

Denby accuses many of his targets of employing racist language in the service of snark, but often draws the wrong conclusions from his provided anecdotes. On the anonymous Internet, socially taboo topics like race become topics of humor, motivated both by racist belief and an attempt at finding the subversive in the forbidden. To the captains of snark, like those who produce Vice and The Onion—whose readers, incidentally, skew heavily into the Obama-voter demographic—racially-tinged jokes concurrently poke fun at the idiocies of the racism and the restrictions of the P.C. culture in which they were raised.

On top of the boorish jokes, Denby argues, it is also problematic that those reckless bloggers and snarky columnists don't act like real journalists, don't make phone calls to verify details about those they attack, and "ignore the routine responsibilities of journalism." (Incidentally, in the paperback edition, Denby might note that Wonkette is not "written by young women" and is not owned by Gawker Media.) To Denby there is no separation between humorous commentary and journalism.

In a short, bitter denunciation of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd—whose politics are generally agreeable to him—Denby bemoans her lack of seriousness. Her articles ripped the Bush administration, but they were too jokey and didn't "come close to an adequate critique of power." Her attacks on Hillary Clinton "seemed eager to punish Hillary for her ambitions, as if deep down she were alarmed by the idea of a woman making so great a claim for herself." At this point, Denby seems priggish and humorless, and the reader comes close to simply telling him to lighten up, rather than explaining that Dowd is a satirist, not a sexist political scientist.

And while Denby exclaims that he "would love to take the good-guy, libertarian position" and allow the market of low-brow ideas to weed-out the cruel and profane, this opposite seems to be happening. So is it British-style libel legislation that is needed? Denby says he can't be a libertarian on the issue, yet, elsewhere in the book, he admits that prosecuting bloggers and commenters under a hate speech–type law would offend his values as a defender of free speech. Indeed, he knows what he doesn't like, he can identify the problem, but other than publishing a book, offers no suggestions as to how an army of Denbys might rollback the culture of snark.

The best he can offer is the hope that Obama's election will tone down the shrill and excitable corners of the Internet: "Whatever else the rise of Barack Obama means, it certainly suggests that…the college-educated…have become eager to reject shallow cynicism and to embrace hope in the public sphere—and…to take power and change the tone of public discourse."

But snark predated George Bush and it will surely exist after George Bush. As the author Colson Whitehead recently put it, "Something bad happens, like 9/11, it's the death of irony. Something good happens, like Obama's win, it's the death of irony." Or the death of snark. But snark, like irony, isn't going anywhere, and will likely continue to fuel many more Michael Kinsley-hosted Singing Fish Satay dinners for years to come.

Michael Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason