In January, film critic David Denby published an essay called Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal and It's Ruining Our Conversation. It's not a perfect book, but he's right. His book is a bit like Harry Frankfurt's popular essay "On Bullshit," which opened with the famous sentence, "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit." Frankfurt distinguished bullshit from lies, arguing that lies are opposed to truth, while bullshit is unrelated to truth. Snark is a serious attempt to understand what actually defines all of the rampant purposeless guttersniping that inhabits so much of the Internet and so much of the public discourse.
Denby is the film critic for the New Yorker magazine, and his sensibilities make him a perfect target for snark, of course: he's white, middle-aged, and writes for a magazine that persists in spelling a word like "cooperation" with an umlaut over the second o. Snark these days is mostly a product of the young, and the generation gap may make him especially sensitive to it, but he has a persuasive argument. Snark tends to be reflexive, a pale imitation of satire lacking wit or intelligence. Most things on the Internet these days are immediately greeted by a chorus of "that sucks"; most political discourse seems to devolve into winking or overt insult; and most people seem resigned to the idea that there's no way to stop the spread of snark.
Then again, Denby hastily adds, not all snark is bad. Some people really deserve to be insulted, and some insults are really artful. However, as with Harry Frankfurt's definition of bullshit, snark is generally divorced from factual considerations, trafficking instead in rumor, prurient innuendo, and juvenile scatology. The difference between snark and satire seems to be that satire is informed by a sense of righteousness: the satirist reacts negatively to his object of derision because there is something about it that is outrageous and deserving of indignation. Snark is utterly without righteousness. I don't care, but that sucks, says the Platonic snarker.
Denby attempts to give snark both its due in history and a proper definition. He gives two historical examples: revenge-minded classical poets like Juvenal, and recent smirking-society magazines like Private Eye and Spy. He identifies (and rips) two main snarkers by name: Tom Wolfe and Maureen Dowd, to whom he dedicates the penultimate chapter, a woman whose political poison pen is betrayed by what he describes as an utter failure to believe in, or advocate, any actual kind of policy. A satirist has to believe in something in order to satirize: things couldn't be so bad as to deserve satire unless the satirist had conviction that they ought to be much better. Snark is usually agnostic. It believes in nothing other than the worthlessness of its target.
- Attack without reason.
- Appeal to common, hackneyed prejudices.
- Reach into the rotting heap of media referents for old jokes, old insults, and give them a twist.
- Assume anything negative said about someone with power is true -- or at least usable.
- Ignore the routine responsibilities of journalism.
- Reduce all human complexity to caricature.
- Glom onto celebrities in an attitude of adoration and loathing.
- Attack the old.
- Attack expensive, underperforming restaurants.
His principles start out general and end up specific, like his book itself, which starts with Carroll and Juvenal and ends with Gawker, Perez Hilton, and Maureen Dowd. His archetypes describe most categories of snark, but the definition can be stated even more simply. Film and music critic Nathan Rabin of The Onion AV Club calls it "Everything sucksism":
[It's] a cheap adolescent nihilism that delights in taking down celebrities and pop-culture entities that are already walking punchlines. "Everything Sucksism" reigns on E! and VH-1, where seemingly half the shows (especially those with "Awesomely Bad" in the title) consist of anonymous C-listers making agonizingly banal, snidely delivered comments about tacky celebrities and failed projects... Everything sucksism is ugly, it's cheap, it contributes nothing of value to popular culture and worst of all, it's not funny. Everything sucksism reduces all of human endeavor to a cheap punchline.
Of course, film critics like Rabin and Denby both use snark in their work, but both are rather quick to defend their occasional uses of it. (Tellingly, Rabin says the worst thing about snark is that "it's not funny.") Bad snark is indiscriminate; good snark is discriminating, they would say. Good snark targets only bad things, not all things. And, of course, good snark is not anonymous. When Denby or Rabin or Dowd kills something in a column, everyone knows who wrote it. When a web commenter attacks, he hides behind a mask. Though he holds his targets up to arbitrary standards -- this movie is terrible, that woman is a slut, this guy is a moron -- he doesn't have to take responsibility for his own words. The anonymous snarker is safe from snark blowback.
Though it isn't perfect, Denby's book is welcome. Snark has become so ubiquitous that it generally passes without comment. As Denby says, much snark is like a middle-school rumor: vicious, authorless, and anyone who objects gets slagged as having no sense of humor. It's good that he's publicly objecting, and worth trying to convince the adherents of everything sucksism to focus their vitriol on the things that actually, you know, suck. We'd be better off without the hypocritical moralism, reflexive cynicism, and desire for cheap laughs that calls every woman a slut, every man a douchebag, and every idea bullshit. Denby and Rabin are fighting an uphill battle, but it's a good fight.