The Great Snark War
Media elites are quibbling over what is and isn’t snark. Let’s call the whole thing off.
For the past five years or so, some of the most esteemed Web sophists have debated snark. And I say to you now that there is only one way to resolve this debate: Both sides should have their computers destroyed, and then be driven underground.
The latest salvo in the ongoing struggle comes from the The New Yorker’s David Denby, who has penned a book called—of course—Snark. Denby’s book, released this month, “has fun snarking the snarkers,” a phrase that should probably never be uttered again. A less irritating way of describing the book would be to say that Denby thinks the ironic detachment and contempt associated with snark are having a corrosive effect on our culture.
Denby traces the origins of snark all the way back to ancient Rome, but there’s little doubt that the word’s modern usage—and all of the insufferable chin-scratching over whether or not it’s a good thing—is a fairly recent development. But really, it’s impossible to say. That’s because the word “snark,” much like “hipster,” is an older word whose meaning has been so hopelessly contorted that you’re never going to be able to get everyone to agree on a definition.
But Urban Dictionary gets pretty close. The top-rated definition is simple and elegant: “snark,” it says, is simply a snide remark. Sounds easy enough, but it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Or at least it is if you’re an anti-snark partisan.
Take Adam Sternbergh’s review of Denby’s book in New York magazine. There are so many caveats to Denby’s definition of snark—which excludes Jonathan Swift, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and all “real” satire—that at the end of it, you can’t help but feel that Denby is simply defining snark as any kind of sarcasm or satire that rubs him the wrong way. There is definitely a difference between good satire and bad satire, but the big, bold line between satire and snark seems to exist only in the heads of irony-impaired critics.
The only thing that saves Denby’s thesis from becoming completely laughable is that he targets folks who tend to be far worthier of our scorn than he is. For example, two of the people he takes aim at—Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, and Nick Denton of the shrieking multi-headed hydra that is Gawker Media—champion a particular breed of terrible satire that is ruining it for the rest of us.
But despite what Denby says, the problem with Dowd and Gawker isn’t that they’re mean-spirited; it’s that they have an almost pathological aversion to substance. Dowd, for example, abuses her position on the Times op-ed page on a biweekly basis with vapid columns that practically make her colleague Bill Kristol look like an intellectual heavyweight by comparison. At least Kristol, smarmy hack that he is, chooses to employ his particular brand of disingenuous mediocrity in writing about matters of significance.
Dowd, on the other hand, seems content to invent petty little soap operas out of whole cloth, making out every elected official under the sun to be an emotionally stunted teenager in a way that seems closer to projection than reality. It doesn’t help that she pads all of this breathless, second-rate Gossip Girl plotting with the sort of lame one-liners that would shame even the most intolerable sitcom writer.
Gawker shares Dowd’s obsession with sub-par high school gossip, but in its case, the campus of choice is Manhattan and its media elite. The nastiness of that blog isn’t so perpetually grating as is the frivolity of it; like Dowd, most of the writers for Gawker’s main page are more gossip columnists than mordant cultural critics, yet they bury their irrelevance under a layer of infuriating, look-how-clever-we-are witticisms. Just when it seems like Gawker is on the verge of saying something interesting, it gets buried under more catty posts about the personal lives of minor literary celebrities. In other words, it’s a catty British-style tabloid with a thin veneer of undergrad English major pretension that only serves to make it all the more obnoxious.
If someone put a gun to my head and told me to side with either Denby or the likes of Gawker and Dowd, I would choose Denby without a second thought. But luckily we don’t have to choose. There are plenty of reasons to wish that both armies in the Snark War would just shut the hell up. There’s a third way that neither seems to have considered: the path taken by that odd little black swan, the rare beast known as good satire. In terms of tone, the comedic stylings of Stewart and Swift are much more closely related to the “snark” Denby derides than he would like to admit. The difference is that good satirists don’t just attack people for the fun of it, but as a reaction to actual injustice. Good satire is an elegant counterattack to the corrupt and the ignorant. It is a productive, light-hearted way of expressing horror and disgust on behalf of the downtrodden. Compared to quality satire, Dowd and Gawker just seem small.
But that doesn’t mean they snark. There’s no such thing as snark—it’s an obnoxious, fuzzy neologism used to describe things that already have perfectly suitable words. And if we’re going to kill this idiotic debate, it’s going to have to start with a moratorium on that word; if not because of its dispensability, then because of its ugliness. Just say it aloud: snark. It isn’t a word so much as an act of violence against the English language. And now that Denby has made it a book title, we’re going to be cursed with countless more articles and blog posts ruminating over that eternal question: “To snark, or not to snark?”
Just kill me.
Ned Resnikoff is a student at NYU and a regular blogger at Pushback.
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