We opened David Denby’s new book Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation with a bit of trepidation. After, all the Rabbit has made a living writing, editing and encouraging snark starting during those long-ago ‘80s days at the LA Weekly and continuing, well, at least through last night. In fact, we considered the term, which has been around since well before our time (remember Lewis Carroll’ “The Hunting of the Snark”?) as sort of a compliment. Indeed, when an old and dear friend, the director of a major university press, wrote to us about our reviewing technique, calling it “summary with snark” we felt smug and self-satisfied. Denby ruined all that.
Denby comes right out in the first sentence saying snark is a “strain of nasty abuse” and follows it up later in the same chapter defining it as a sort of pointless insider’s ridicule that has “zero interest in civic virtue.’ None of this bothered me at first. What hurt my feelings was that Denby—who we consider second only to Anthony Lane as a New Yorker film reviewer–didn’t approve. It was like being scolded to “not make jokes” by our not-so-prim-but proper aunt.
To make it worse, Denby seemed to back off, right on that first page. “I’m all in favor of nasty comedy, incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective.” And turn again: “It’s the bad kind of invective—low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing: In brief, snark—that I hate.” Defining by exclusion always make understanding easier. But if trash talk isn’t snark, what is?
That’s the problem with Snark. It doesn’t really define its subject in a way that separates it from witty satire, sarcasm, irony and the like. In Denby’s view, snark isn’t judged by its wit. Being clever for cleverness’ sake, especially at the expense of a public figure, still scores points in our book. But not with Denby. The problem we have discerning all snark as wrong and evil is our problem with the book. Despite Denby’s nine principles of snark, we still don’t know it when we hear it. We believe there’s good snark and bad. We know good snark when we read it. Snark of the evil sort appears to be in the ear of the beholder. One man’s lampoon is another’s snark. And so on.
So the examples of snark Denby provides are, predictably, of his own choosing. The heartless blog Wonkette seems prime for the picking, even more so when you read what it thought of Denby’s book. And New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd qualifies for her scatter-shot approach; she’s snarky towards everyone. But some of the others were…laughable.
Let’s be honest. We enjoyed Denby’s little book. We can appreciate his call for more civility in civil discourse. His snark creation myth, tracing the origins back to the eighth century B.C. (we’d love to have dinner with the woman who wrote Abusive Mouths In Classical Athens), his discovery that Rome was rotten with snark (or was it Satire?), the way he works in Alexander Pope; all of it educated us in the best sense. His use of image—that opening line in which the “nasty” is spreading “like pinkeye” hooked us immediately—and the way he develops those images, especially finding ways to make Lewis’ snark his, are all very smart. We just weren‘t convinced to give up our love of snark. But we are reconsidering the dearness of that long friendship.—Cabbage Rabbit