Snark. Who doesn't give into it, engage in it now and then? Hear it or read it then have a laugh over it? It's the sneaky, smarmy, smartass attitude of columnists, talking heads, and websites out the wazoo, and it runs from the douchebaggery of Perez Hilton to the high-mindedness of James Wolcott, from the scumbaggery of Juicy Campus to the redoubtable Maureen Dowd.
David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker and author of Great Books and American Sucker, has had enough of the lazy trash talk. According to the jacket of Denby's latest book, Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits (Simon & Schuster), "it's mean, it's personal, and it's ruining our conversation" — what used to be approvingly called the "national conversation." The state of the nation, to judge from the cheap shots and the random character assassinations Denby encounters media-wide: rotten. What to do about the "creeping nastiness"? Clean up, to a degree, our act, Denby argues in his essay-length book. But let's start with what snark is and is not.
What it is: Denby calls it "teasing, snide, condescending" — a "low, ragging insult with a little curlicue of knowingness," a "verbal bridge to nowhere." Take Penn Jillette, who said on MSNBC in May 2008: "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?"
Right, a verbal bridge to nowhere. Jillette's asinine comment tells us nothing. It leads to nothing. But it's got a shelf life of a couple comic seconds. Go for it. Or don't.
Here's what snark is not: It isn't, according to Denby, along the lines of the classic name-callers of ancient Athens and Rome, who structured their verbal abuse of the powers that be in strict observance of the rules of rhetoric and poetic meter. And it isn't the satirical and irony-rich prose and poetry of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, who appeared to praise the very thing they loathed and wrote to let us know that they actually stood for something.
No, snark stands for nothing. It attacks without reason (the first principle of snark). It appeals to hackneyed prejudices, like racism or misogyny (second principle). It reaches into the "rotting heap of media referents for old jokes, old insults" and gives them a contemporary twist (third principle; see, say, Camille Paglia on Slate). It throws mud in the face of the powerful, and what's negative about the powerful (screw fact checking) surely must be true — or usable (fourth principle; see, say, Gawker). It reduces character to caricature (fifth principle), adores celebrities only in order to despise them (sixth principle), and attacks the elderly (seventh principle) to appeal to that prize demographic: 18-year-olds. It also punishes expensive but lousy restaurants (ninth principle). Restaurants? That's Denby in praise of eater.com, where he admits to relishing a solemn discussion of the "shitshow" that is a certain overpriced and underperforming New York City restaurant.
Who isn't or wasn't guilty of needless verbal kneecapping? In Denby's opinion, Keith Olbermann, who remains factual, syntactical, logical, and unapologetically passionate; the late H.L. Mencken, who may have been a racist but when faced with foolishness wrote with fitting invective; the late Pauline Kael, who could rag on an actor like Nicol Williamson without resorting to unfair rug-pulling; Stephen Colbert, a brave man of honest-to-God civic virtue; and the godless Gore Vidal, a man nobody could go to war with wordwise and hope to come away unscathed.
Maureen Dowd, however, gets a chapter here all her own. Why? Because, according to Denby, she's a talented mixture of malevolence and naivete. And what's more:
"She has not ... a single political idea in her head. Not one. Not a policy she wants to advocate or defend, a direction she thinks the government and the country should be heading toward. ... For her, politics is a stupid, despair-inducing entertainment, a tale told by an idiot signifying vanity. Despite all her larks and inventions, she's essentially sour and without hope. In brief, she's the most gifted writer of snark in the country."
Snarky of Denby to write? No, because it's the truth.