Snark is hostile as spit ... hazing on the page. It prides itself on wit, but it's closer to a leg stuck out in a school corridor that sends some kid flying.
So writes David Denby in his new book Snark, subtitled It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. Denby explains:
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 encourage by the new hybrid world of print, television, radio and the Internet… I’m all in favor of … 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.
For Denby, the real problem with snark is not the viciousness and clique like behavior of its practitioners. The biggest sin is that snark is witless.
…[I]t lacks imagination, freshness, fantasy, verbal invention and adroitness --- all the elements of wit… If you crave immediate proof, turn to the discussion threads that follow a routine post on so many Web sites… a free-fire zone of bilious, snarling, other annihilating rage … snark is the preferred mode of attack. Everyone, it seems, wants to be a comic.
Denby lays out three criteria that differentiate snark from biting commentary. Snark is anonymous; it is ridicule; and it makes no argument of any kind, intellectual or otherwise. In contrast, biting satire is criticism, in the literary sense of the word. Satire attempts to construct a coherent argument, drawing the listener or reader toward the author’s conclusions. Snark is nothing more than “kneecapping.”
Yet Denby fails to address another, equally important characteristic of snark. Snark is the language of losers. It is the petulant whine of people on the outside, unable to figure out why so many are more successful than they. Snark is an attempt to make its purveyors feel better by whittling down others to their own measly size. It takes joy from hurting and pretends that playground insult is rapier-like wit.
Snark fancies itself as Jon Stewart, but is not even a pale imitation. Stewart does not slink behind the cover of anonymity, he is not attempting to hurt the feelings of his targets, and his satire is motivated by a comprehensive and coherent view of contemporary politics. He may skewer Conservatives as fools and hypocrites, but, at heart, he believes that their world view is both philosophically and factually wrong.
As Denby points out:
The trouble with today's snarky pipsqueaks who break off a sentence or two, or who write a couple of mean paragraphs, is … they don't stand for anything, push for anything; they're mere opportunists without dedication, and they don't win any victories.
Ultimately Denby asks: “What kind of journalistic culture do we want? ... What kind of national conversation?”
What kind, indeed?