Snark by David Denby

Nastiness Is A Thing Called Snark

Sunday Business Post, 11th October 2009

snarkWhat is the lowest form of wit? What has replaced the golden age of satire, spoof, burlesque and ingeniously dark comedy? According to David Denby, it’s something known as ‘snark’ -a phenomenon he ominously calls the ‘‘angry fanfare attending journalism’s decline’’.

Denby is a film critic for the New Yorker by trade, but here he turns his critical faculties to issues of style -specifically, the proliferation of a particular type of abuse, which he describes as ‘‘personal insult, low, teasing, rug-pulling, finger-pointing, snide, obvious and knowing’’.

One of Denby’s chief contentions is that snark -a term borrowed from Lewis Carroll –  has grown in popularity in recent years due to the internet.  He demonstrates how blogs and social networking sites like Twitter have become tools for those who simply wish to draw attention to themselves by being as vile and insulting as possible, often without substance or morality to back up their ‘argument’.  In cases like these, where abuse goes viral or becomes self-replicating, the object of the ‘snarking’ can fall victim to a sustained and widespread campaign of low insults – much of it dished out entirely anonymously.

Celebrities can often ignore or brush such criticisms off, but what concerns Denby more is the effect of this ‘‘free-floating contempt’’ on the innocent non celebrity; for example, the scenario of the college girl, who might sleep with another student, and then be identified by nicknamed internet ‘trolls’ on the campus forum, under headings such as ‘‘Who are the biggest sluts?”

While this is humiliating in the moment, internet mud can stick; prospective future employers might easily Google the person, thus accessing ‘‘a dossier of your follies [which] trails around after you like a finger-pointing ghost’’.

It wasn’t ever thus.  There was a time, as Denby illustrates in two hugely entertaining chapters entitled A Brief, Highly Intermittent History of Snark, when such criticism was less about injuring the subject harshly, and more about delivering the insult with memorable wit and elegance.

In the drinking clubs of eighth century Greece, these early forms of sniping took on more structure, and proponents of it often risked their safety by specifically targeting rivals or powerful public figures. Another early example cited is Jonathan Swift’s ironic and satirical masterpiece A Modest Proposal, in which he suggested that the poorest people in Ireland should sell their children to the rich as food.

These days, Denby argues that, as a bad journalistic style, snark is sneaking into the mainstream because traditional media is in an economic panic; on the one hand, the fall-off in advertising revenue suggests the old media business model no longer works, while those working in new media cannot yet make enough money.

He is scathing of internet journalists and bloggers who claim that they do a better up-to-the-minute job of reaching the truth than mainstream journalists – and yet somehow‘‘ don’t have time to check all [their] sources properly’’.

The author acknowledges that separating snark from satire is not always an exact science. For example, as a noted Anglophile, Denby shines a light on the consistently excellent British satirical magazine Private Eye, and demonstrates that, often, in trying too hard to find subjects to ridicule, it reveals many of its own underlying prejudices.

However, as a resolutely liberal observer and writer, Denby may inadvertently reveal his own. He is hugely critical of the ways in which parts of the American media snarked Barack Obama’s election campaign, arguing that concerted efforts to insinuate that Obama was, by turns, a socialist, Muslim and/or terrorist sympathiser could have stymied his presidential aspirations – many of these insinuations emanating from the Sarah Palin camp.

Yet he is also, perhaps, a little too eager to let the relentlessly snide Bush-bashing TV satire of fellow liberal Jon Stewart off the hook as ‘‘excusable’’. Nonetheless, Snark is a book which might make those of us with an internet presence think twice before clicking ‘publish’ in future.

While Denby is certainly under no illusion that it’s possible to eradicate snark entirely from the culture, he presents his case clearly and concisely, and as the beginning of an argument. The campaign for real wit starts here.

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