“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,” writes author David Denby in the opening of Snark. As the title and opening line suggest, Snark is about snark, the vituperative and often shallow tactic that, in the age of the Internet, has turned our communication anemic, the schoolyard equivalent of an irritating shoulder-prod.
Published in 2009, following the rise of Barack Obama, Snark has a very particular mission in mind. At a modest 125 pages, which includes a reference section, it is arguably an extended essay in the form of a book. As Denby writes in the acknowledgments, the inspiration for the book came during a 2007 dinner with journalist Michael Kinsley; as one plate was whisked away and another arrived, the two men hit upon something they felt was emblematic of modern discourse: snark. Kinsley had for some time considered exploring the idea through a long-form essay for a national magazine. As it were, Kinsley deferred the task to Denby who, with the blessing of his editor, wrote and published the book the following year. In my opinion, the book suffers slightly by its peremptory feistiness. Due to its length, Snark sometimes feels like a series of lecture notes—anecdotal examples, tidy to the point of suspicion, produced for effect rather than serious investigation—but the intentions behind the book remain pure and convincing and perhaps most unfortunately carry greater resonance now than they did when the book first came out.
This is not a puritanical book. Denby is no crusader for polite discourse. He defends this by culling history and providing examples of critique he finds satisfactory, even heroic, such as in the great satirist Jonathan Swift. A large portion of the book is identifying and shelving examples of worthy and unworthy critics and their respective brands of invective. Unsurprisingly, the rise and ubiquity of snark coincides more so with the “new hybrid world of print, television, radio, and the Internet.” What defines snark? It’s exhibitionist, free of meaning or purpose, and explicitly snide, leering, and abusive; its goal is denigration, embarrassment. Not only does it lack refinement or grace, it suffocates dialogue by consciously operating outside its boundaries—it has no business educating or critiquing or moving conversations forward; it is a doorstop, a rude and definitive slap in the face. As Denby writes, “Snark often functions as an enforcer of mediocrity and conformity. In its cozy knowingness, snark flatters you by assuming that you get the contemptuous joke.”
Thus the Internet troll, the racist or misogynist meme, TMZ, celebrity gawkers, the rape joke, the lynching joke, and so forth are contemporary examples of snark. They assume a veil of humor, but in reality are tasteless and, in some cases, downright sexist or racist. In criticizing snark, Denby isn’t appealing for civility; what he cares for is conscious and engaged dialogue, however vituperative or polite its emanations. Hillary Clinton, for example, is routinely the victim of cheap shots fired by critics uncomfortable with her presumed temperament or choice of attire. Men of similar standing are hardly given the same treatment. When she is accused of being cold and calculating, a barrage of memes blames her perceived masculinity. They poke fun at her inability to rein in her husband’s licentiousness. They shame her wrinkles. Derogatory charges veiled as sarcasm, but they’re hardly funny. They’re rude and meaningless, are neither critical nor salutary; unsettled by a woman in power, these accusers bandy their insecurities through snark, through tasteless and derivative tactics that throw a pie on any real conversation about politics and the future of the country. Similarly, snark has recently stifled the dialogue around the death of young black boys at the hands of the police. Justifying their deaths by saddling the news stories with stylized images of rappers in gold chains and silver teeth—confirming, by way of analogy, their “thugness”—is snark as dismissive mockery. But for what purpose? It doesn’t highlight any issues, doesn’t take a stand. It’s just condescending, lacks vigor, and like the misogynist cracks against Clinton, merely pose as lazy and derivative red herrings.
There are effective ways of using mockery that don’t devolve into snark. Take, for example, Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa,” published in Granta:
“Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.”
It’s a wonderfully smarmy piece about the perceptions Americans have about Africa, and the ways in which these perceptions—in habits, cultures, and stereotypes—shape the way we discuss and understand the continent in a myriad of ways. Though very funny, there is an inner rage that percolates throughout the piece, and in the end the joke is not on Africa but on us.
Thus, David Denby’s Snark is a primer against this denigration in our discourse. He identifies and bemoans its prevalence. Pieces like Wainaina’s are hard to come by; more so we are served the meme and the lynching joke. And nothing, it appears, can alter snark’s momentum. All we can do, perhaps, is recognize its personality, its tone and behavior, and operate above it. Really, it’s not that hard to do.
Pronoy Sarkar works in marketing at Simon & Schuster.