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David Denby’s new book, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation,” is a highly entertaining essay that traces the history of snark through the ages, starting with its invention as personal insult in the drinking clubs of ancient Athens.
It tracks the development of snark all the way to the Internet, where it has become the sole purpose and style of many media, political, and celebrity Web sites.
The platonic ideal of snark is something like this: Two girls are sitting in a high-school cafeteria putting down a third, who’s sitting on the other side of the room. What’s peculiar about this event is that the girl on the other side of the room is their best friend. In that scenario, snark is abusive or sarcastic speech that operates like poisoned arrows within a closed space. Its intention is to offer solidarity between two or more parties and to exclude someone from the same group. On Gossip Girl, this is juicily entertaining, but in real life it’s as hostile as spit. The crab that tries to escape the barrel — the girl who dresses differently or studies harder — gets pulled back into the barrel. Who does she think she is? A young writer who creates an ambitious work of fiction gets snarked by journalists of lesser ambition. What a pretentious phony! Snark often functions as an enforcer of mediocrity and conformity. In its cozy knowingness, snark flatters you by assuming that you get the contemptuous joke. You’ve been admitted, or readmitted, to a club, though it may be the club of the second-rate.
The bright yellow jacket informs us that snark releases the anguish of the dispossessed, the envious and the frightened. It flows when a dying class of the powerful struggle to keep the barbarians outside the gates, or — alternately, when those outsiders want to take over the halls of the powerful and expel the office-holders.
Denby has fun snarking the snarkers, expelling the bums and promoting true wits. But he’s also making a serious point: the Internet has put snark on steroids. In politics, snark means the lowest, most insinuating side can win. For the young, a savage piece of gossip could ruin a reputation and possibly a future career.
For the rest of us, snark just sucks the humor out of life.
Denby defends the right of any of us to be cruel. He even shows us how the pros pull it off. But snark, he says, is for amateurs.
There are eight chapters: The Republic of Snark, A Brief, Highly Intermittent History of Snark [in 2 parts], Anatomy of a Style, The Conscience of a Snarker, Maureen Dowd [!?], and What Is Not Snark.
There are three pages of References, including works of Eric Alterman, Sven Birkerts, Martin Gardner, Al Gore, Sarah Boxer, Pauline Kael, HL Mencken, Cass Sunstein, Samuel Johnson, Gore Vidal and others.
David Denby is a film critic for The New Yorker, and author of “Great Books” and “American Sucker.”
“Snark,” by David Denby, is fresh off the printing presses (January, 2009). Published by Simon & Schuster, it sells for $15.95. ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-9945-6.
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