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Funny Games

Snark--Is It The Lazy Evil David Denby Says It Is?

By John Barry | Posted 2/4/2009


By David Denby

Simon and Schuster

Irony supposedly died earlier this decade. Auden's "September 1, 1939," was being blogged, e-mailed, googled, and occasionally dusted off by columnists who pounced on its "low dishonest decade." Enough of Seinfeld. Another world war had begun. Or, as Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter put it in a quote that became viral among the talking heads, "I think it's the end of the age of irony. Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear."

No such luck. In his new book Snark (Simon and Schuster), New Yorker film critic David Denby offers a 144-page polemic against a breed of irony that has become virulent in the internet age. Snark is irony written by resentful and often anonymous hacks, bitter and underpaid, irresponsible and petty, fringe and frivolous, who pull the rug out from overachievers, and yearn for the days when they may replace them.

Speaking as a freelancer, I'll try not to take that too personally. On one hand, Denby is attacking is the great unwashed, the anonymous gossips who spend their time blindsiding others. Gawker, Wonkette, Perez Hilton, all fall into that group. And there's a brief broadside at a critic writing for the New York Observer. In the upper echelon of the profession, for good measure, Denby takes on columnist Maureen Dowd, the empress of snark. He also goes after Tom Wolfe, Fox News, and Chris Matthews. But the brunt of his contempt is directed at "investigative reporting's bastard, weak-limbed child"--those who leave people naked and dangling, defenseless, without attribution. "It's the bad kind of invective--low, teasing, snide, condescending" that he's after.

Denby has sniffed out a dead mouse in the American idiom that stinks, and with the persistence of a rude guest, he's started checking out the garbage can, under the sofas, and elsewhere, for the source. He surfs his way through the classics--college blogs and gossip columnists.

Snark being a polemic and not investigative journalism, Denby never takes the time to engage one of those snarking, snarling, angry puppies he's talking about. That's probably because he doesn't know where they live. Speaking of the web site Gawker, he notes, "[M]any of its writers come from outside of New York." Then, digging further, in a New York magazine piece he finds that Gawker writers don't make enough money to live decently in Manhattan. What he does know is that they're ruining everything: journalism, reputations, the national mood.

It's not that he doesn't have a point. As the lines between internet and print media gradually dissolve, standards are threatened. People are pissing and blowing their nose in the same waters that established journalists have to flounder around in now. There's much to dislike: the lack of gravitas, the cheap humor that derives from jokes that "everybody gets," the anonymous wankers that pervade the same blogs that may also link to, say, Frank Rich's righteous indignation.

In the internet age, humor has become viral and, sometimes, destructive. But snooping around web sites to back up that obvious proposition only tells part of the story. Why is the prevailing sense of humor so bitter? Denby doesn't pursue that question in depth, although he assumes that the writers who practice it can't get the good jobs. But there's more to it than that. America is a humor-driven country, and when the times change and the pop-cultural narratives jammed down our throats get cartoonishly simple, the sense of humor changes. The truth is, for better or for worse, humor is no longer the province of the Capital Steps, or Tom Lehrer. It's become a form of pushback, a political weapon, and a survival tactic. The media offers the old jokes. The masses supply the punchlines.

"[S]nark flatters you by assuming that you get the contemptuous joke," Denby writes, with a smattering of contempt, "you've been admitted, or readmitted, to a club." You mean a club that accepts the public as a member? Six years ago, some of America's most respected columnists--the same ones wiping their hankies over the inauguration--were on the USS Abraham Lincoln gazing slack-jawed in awe at the bulge in George Bush's flight suit. But the snarkers--the ones who, as Denby puts it, "[a]ssume anything negative said about someone with power is true"--were already tapping away, pissing all over the moment.

Maybe instead of a broadside, snark deserves a little more credit than Denby gives it. The night before the inauguration, in Dupont Circle, thousands of shoes were being hurled at 30-foot high inflatable Bush. Is that snark? Yes. It's fringe. It's frivolous. It's snide. It riffs on an old joke. And the next day, a new president was telling us to put aside childish things. But if I made enough money freelancing to spare a pair of shoes, I'd have aimed one straight at that inflated crotch. With all due respect to Denby, a contrarian and eloquent critic in his own right, there are times in history when a well aimed shoe--and an army of snarky, anonymous bloggers--says it all.

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