Thursday, September 1, 2011

Snark by David Denby

If you’re reading these words, it’s more than probable that you have spent some time on the Internet.  The Web has been a mixed blessing – it has, for instance, allowed some of us to create like-minded communities dedicated to a single ideal or ideals.  It has also, however, allowed many of us to engage in anonymous invective and gratuitous cruelty.
Do you doubt that?  Read the message boards of most any site covering the arts, our celebrity culture or sports, and you can feast on snide attacks and juvenile backbiting. 
That snark has invaded our culture cannot be denied; sadly, it has gravitated off of the Web and pervaded our personal discussions, our public discourse, and our cultural identity.  Snark is the open sore of our shared cultural decay.
What is snark, exactly?  As David Denby points out, sark is “the bad kind of invective – low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing, in brief, snark.”
Denby has attacked the pervasive use of snark in his terrific little book, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation.  (And before your correspondent is accused of snark because of the adjective ‘little,’ I point out that Denby’s compelling polemic is a scant 122 pages.)
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  In it, Denby traces the history of snark as a style from ancient Greece and Rome through the modern era and into its current degraded age.  He takes pains to separate irony and satire from snark (praising ironists as diverse as Jonathan Swift and Stephen Colbert), and pillories those who trade on snark as a de facto means of communication (sticking it to such guilty parties are Maureen Dowd, Gawker and Joe Queenan).
Though Denby takes examples from a variety of media, his key target is how the Internet has adopted snark as its unofficial voice, and how that injudicious choice has hurt the Web as a tool to connect people and drive the shared discussion.  Or, as Denby writes:
It turns out that in the wake of the Internet revolution, snark as a style has outgrown its original limited function.  The Internet has allowed it to metastasize as a pop writing form: A snarky insult, embedded in a story or a post, quickly gets traffic; it gets linked to other blogs; and soon it has spread like a sneezy cold through the vast kindergarten of the Web.  Not only that, it’s there forever, since it’s easily Googled out of obscurity.  Along with all the useful, solid, clever, playful information and opinion circulating around, a style of creepy nastiness is rampaging all over the place, too.  The zombies are biting, and a hell of a lot of us are enjoying the spectacle.  The Internet did not invent sarcasm, or the porous back fence where our gossiping parents gathered, or the tenderly merciful tabloids; but it provides universal distribution of what had earlier reached a limited number of eyes and ears.  In brief, the knowing group has been enlarged to an enormous audience that enjoys cruelty as a blood sport.
Denby (born 1943) is a film critic for The New Yorker.  He is a graduate of Columbia University and he re-enrolled in later adulthood to write a nonfiction account of the core curriculum, Great Books (1996).  While I certainly do not agree with many of Denby’s assertions, Great Books is superb in that it allows us to watch an active and fecund intelligence grapple with the Western Canon. 
No doubt many will take issue with Snark, but I suggest that much of the squirming it produces will be borne of self-recognition rather than disagreement.  This is an important and timely essay – highly recommended.

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