ANYONE WHO FOLLOWS gossip blogs and webby tabloids has probably read the term "snark"--but what exactly is it? Open to any page of David Denby's new book and you're likely to find an answer. Snark is "the bad kind of invective--low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing." It plays on racial and gender stereotypes, but "is not the same as hate speech." Snark is "parasitic, referential, insinuating." It views the world as "a series of false appearances." It is "in general, not given to hard work." It "stinks up the air without liberating any laughter." It "serves not to break down walls of loneliness and fear, but to solidify them" and "stands for nothing and lets other people make fools of themselves." It "functions as the avant-garde of resentment." "Snark is not the same as irreverence or spoof," but instead displays "zero interest in civic virtue." It is the "expression of the alienated, of the ambitious, of the dispossessed." It relies on the "exhilaration of contempt," lacks a "coherent view of life," and fails to "honor the artistically and intellectually ambitious."
"I don't want to get caught in a thicket of definitions," Denby writes early on. His slim, scolding volume is, however, obsessed with defining its subject. Yet as his repeated attempts suggest, this is a slippery task. His concept is amorphous, and he knows it. The definitional battle is essentially surrendered on the book's jacket, which says of its title, "you know it when you see it."
Reading Denby flail in search of a suitable definition for snark is as painful as watching a stage actor repeatedly forget his lines, and twice as embarrassing. For Denby is a renowned journalist and staff critic at The New Yorker. And yet here he is, writing a book on a subject he can't even define.
He might have saved himself considerable anxiety if he'd gone with a simpler, more straightforward explanation: snark is any sort of needling invective that he doesn't approve of, particularly anything that criticizes his friends and political allies.
He often refers to snark as a sort of anti-politics. He complains about any commentary that he deems insufficiently reverent toward his earnest liberalism. As he sees it, snark is a crime, and with this book, he intends to name and prosecute the guilty.
A crude comment about Hillary Clinton by comic-magician and libertarian debunker Penn Jillette is snark; so, too, is a racially charged insult hurled at Barack Obama by a former College Republican. Sneering anti-Hillary blog driblets from Weekly Standard web editor Michael Goldfarb most certainly count, as do John McCain's sarcastic remarks about the cynical way advocates of legal abortion deploy health-of-the-mother exceptions. More often than not, Denby appears content to file snark under "mean comments made about Democrats."
Defenders of the Left, on the other hand, almost always get a pass--no matter how snide, cruel, or sharp-tongued. Keith Olbermann may use snark on occasion, Denby insists, but it is not his general mode. The faux news of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who hurl rhetorical poisoned arrows at the Right, constitutes a valiant defense of "civic virtue."
Other examples are not political so much as tribal. Denby's long-time mentor, celebrated movie critic Pauline Kael, did not practice snark, but "criticism, blessed criticism." A full five pages are devoted to reprimanding Tom Wolfe for insufficient moral and political vision, particularly in "Radical Chic," his essay on fashionable New York liberals who party, ever so delicately, with fashionable leftist revolutionaries like the Black Panthers.
Denby grumbles that there was nothing at stake for Wolfe. You might ask: What's at stake for Denby? Why, nothing less than the honor of the Manhattan's liberal-intellectual establishment.
In fairness, it should be noted that he devotes an entire chapter to New York Times political columnist Maureen Dowd, a liberal who makes much of the outsized rivalries, jealousies, and personalities that dominate American politics. Dowd's concern is psychological caricature rather than policy detail, and she was chiefly responsible for painting George W. Bush as a frat boy with daddy issues. Even here, however, Denby's fight is ideological. His problem with Dowd is not her wit or style, which he praises effusively. Instead, it is that she unfairly ridiculed Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, and, even worse, failed to mount a suitably strong and coherent case against George W. Bush.
This complaint gives Dowd too much credit and fundamentally misunderstands her brand of self-consciously shallow cocktail-party dish. Is Denby confused or just not paying attention? By the time he gets to charging the archcynics at the political gossip site Wonkette, the answer is both. After a derisive quote about Chelsea Clinton's education, Denby writes that the post in question "sounds like jealousy. Wonkette is written by young women who may have hated Chelsea's bland words as she went around the country supporting her mother's candidacy." As with Dowd, Denby seems incapable of appreciating Wonkette's destroy-all-politics mission. Yet his criticism is even less effective because it is flatly wrong: the top editor on Wonkette's masthead is not a young woman, but a man by the name of Ken Layne, and the post in question written by another male editor, Jim Newell.
The best point in Denby's favor is that he's attempting to defend against an onslaught of nihilism. Throughout the book, he insists that verbal sniping should be grounded in some higher purpose, something lasting and meaningful. There is a case to be made for placing a concern for virtue at the heart of comedy and criticism. Yet a world that weeds out everything else would be insufferably idealistic.
That might be exactly what Denby wants, however. The explicitly partisan slant of his book suggests as much. All of its judgments are moral and political; Denby seems incapable of appreciating the aesthetic virtues of frivolity. Wonkette, for example, is wantonly cruel to nearly everyone. The breadth of its derision makes it harmless; the site hates everyone equally and practices creative vitriol as pop art. The scorn is performed for our amusement.
Denby is a professional film critic, but he is not, it seems, into anything so lowbrow as amusement. What then is he after? He doesn't seem to know. His attempt to explain his purpose is worthy of a Dada manifesto:
I am not calling for a puritanism of language but, on the contrary, for a paganism of language in which every sensuous apprehension of the surfaces of life is filtered through a developed sense of how the surfaces and the interiors fit together, and what matters and what doesn't.
No doubt it would be possible to expend considerable effort trying to decipher what this means, but in the interest of "what matters and what doesn't," it seems reasonable to surmise that those words simply don't matter. Like the snarkists he claims to despise, Denby wants nothing to do with what he's for and everything to do with what he's against.
Is there a place for snark? Perhaps it is somewhat destructive, but bleak comic nihilism serves as a necessary balance to earnest utopianism. Perhaps, too, snark feeds into populist rage. But as an outlet for underclass grousing, it seems relatively harmless: better blog-posts than shotguns and pitchforks.
Denby is no populist, though. He has little concern for those outside his class. The subtitle to his book is "It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation." That's only two-thirds right. To be more accurate, snark is ruining his conversation. This book is literary NIMBYism for the commentariat, devoted to maintaining a pristine rhetorical space for Denby, his friends, and his political allies to converse as they please. It turns out that snark doesn't really mean anything. It's just the word David Denby shouts when he wants other people to shut up.
Peter Suderman blogs at theamericanscene.com.