21 August 2009

Jumping the snark

Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation, by David Denby (Picador)

In the miniature footsteps of Harry G Frankfurt’s On Bullshit comes another super-slender monolinguograph, with New Yorker film critic Denby expatiating on snarkiness, a mode of derisive humour. At least, that’s what I think it is. Denby has gone and made up his own definition: that snark is personal abuse. An American comic is quoted as saying: “Obama did great in February, and that’s because that was Black History Month. And now Hillary’s doing much better ’cause it’s White Bitch Month, right?” Snark, Denby cries. No: that’s just sheer dumb nastiness.

According to Merriam-Webster, “snarky” means “sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent in manner”; a New Yorker friend of mine writes: “‘snark’ is piquant sarcasm, usually by a hipster type”. Undaunted by actual usage, Denby insists that snark is mere invective (“creepy nastiness”, “dull slagging”). He spends a lot of time on coded Republican attacks on Obama: nope, not snark. If a joke is actually funny, on the other hand, Denby won’t allow it as snark: it becomes “wit” (cf Gore Vidal), or at least “higher snark”. This enables Denby to don a schoolmasterly cap and rank great satirists: Swift’s “snark-free” A Modest Proposal comes top, followed by Pope’s Dunciad (contains traces of snark), with Juvenal slouching up at the rear, “a genius of snark”. You can try this sort of thing at home, picking any random handful of writers; I didn’t.

Essentially, it turns out that snark is anything that offends Denby’s private sense of decorum and cultural hierarchy. Private Eye once took the piss out of the Beatles (“But really — the Beatles?” Denby splutters); and Joe Queenan said something unkind about the actress Shelley Winters, who Denby gallantly ripostes was “a luscious knockout for years”. Denby writes that “snark has its priggish tones”, and he should know. Look at all these young bloggers being wittily derisive! Why won’t they learn to respect their elders and betters? Denby confesses approval of “vituperation that is insulting, nasty, but, well, clean” — signalling with that flailing, comma-buttressed “well”, and the desperate italics, that he still can’t say exactly what he is objecting to, except that he knows it when he sees it.

An entire chapter of his own melancholically unfunny book, meanwhile, has been devoted to attacking the Washington Post columnist Maureen Dowd — she was wrong to mock the Bush administration, you see, because her mockery didn’t actually make the Bush administration go away — and Denby has argued that snark goes hand-in-hand with irresponsibility, anonymity and hatred of idiosyncrasy, which will be news to anyone who appreciates the state-of-the-art snark of a website such as The Awl. Perhaps Denby has been so pained by what he has encountered online (at least via the person he thanks for doing “some Internet research”) that he can’t bear to go back there any more. A happy ending all round, then.