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Books / January 16, 2009

Maureen Dowd: queen of snark?


The burning issue in David Denby’s new book, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation, is that these days we’re all too snarky, and it’s imperiling Western Civilization. First, of course, he has to define snark, which takes most of the book. By the end you won’t be sure what snark is anymore, but you’ll know Denby thinks it’s bad.


Some confusion arises from Denby’s insistence that he loves all sorts of things related to snark:

…I had better say right away that I’m all in favor of nasty comedy, incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective. It’s the bad kind of invective—low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing; in brief, snark—that I hate.

Denby traces this bad kind of invective all the way back to ancient Greece when Athenian aristocrats at drinking parties derived amusement from having a designated snarker, a sort of classical Don Rickles, mock the flaws and weaknesses of individual guests. Eventually the practice spilled out into the agora where elaborate poetic forms of invective were developed that were liable to get a Greek guy killed. The Romans further systematized the rhetoric of snark, but of course their sheer rigor and formality made it better than any kind of snark we’ve got today. Because—

Wait, hang on. How can snark suddenly be imperiling Western Civilization if we’ve enshrined it as a practice since Cicero was a mouthy kid? Well, Denby likes some kinds of snark, it turns out. The structured, stylish, 25-stanza kind, anyway. Okay, got it.

Denby discusses a bewildering variety of snarkers through the ages, many of them requiring long explanations as to how they work as snarkers. The Roman satirist Juvenal, for example. He isn’t really a satirist at all, says Denby—he can’t be, because satire is one of the good forms that Denby likes. No, he’s a furious ranting snarker so relentless he achieves a kind of base genius. It’s Juvenal, the embittered outsider shunned by the emperor, who inspires Denby to make this promisingly lucid claim: “Snark is the expression of the alienated, of the ambitious, of the dispossessed.”

Though Denby had just finished telling us that snark started out as good fun for clubby Athenian elites mocking the traits of the “lowborn,” we move on hoping to see daylight. Who in modern times is a standout snarker expressing his or her ambition, alienation, and resentful outsiderhood? Well, there’s the old Spy Magazine crowd (okay), Tom Wolfe (oooookay), and Maureen Dowd (ooooooooookay, there’s no way to make that one work, she’s the complete, cosy insider, so we’re forgetting about that promising claim altogether, it’s only confusing the issue).

Denby’s last chapter is titled “What Is Not Snark”. It comes as a big relief to the reader who gave up on understanding the term way back. Finally, at least we’ll know what it’s NOT. But Denby’s first example of someone who isn’t snarky is Keith Olbermann, MSNBC’s loudly snide left-wing pundit. Oh sure, says Denby, Olbermann’s staples such as the “Worst Person in the World” segment “work as snark for his large club of viewers,” but it’s not really snark. In Denby’s view, Olbermann’s too fine for snark. He’s “intelligent as hell,” his tirades are “astoundingly syntactical,” and he’s a true believer in certain left-wing policy positions that Denby considers good. Therefore, though “he may use snark as a weapon, it is not his general mode.”

That hell-bitch Dowd, on the other hand, advocates no policy and operates from a central belief that as a rule “the powerful are moved by jealousy, rivalry, narcissism and fear of every sort.” That, in Denby’s view, is the classic snarker take on things: lazy, obvious, nasty, cynical. He doesn’t mention that it might also be true.

When Denby holds up the late film reviewer Pauline Kael as another noble non-snarker, it’s time to give the whole thing up as hopeless. According to almost any sane definition of the word, snark can be hauled out of Kael essays by the bucketful. You might say she showed future generations of reviewers how to snarkify their output for fun and profit.

And by the way, you’d think Denby would have the grace not to go on sucking up to Kael in this context, considering he came to prominence himself as a “Paulette,” one of Kael’s acolytes in the film reviewing biz. He’s still in a cushy reviewing job at The New Yorker, Kael’s old stand, five million years later. Oh no, that’s a snark attack right there, isn’t it? But then, Denby’s book itself seems to provoke it. His slim monograph on the subject–structured in “Seven Fits” (cantos) in a belabored tribute to Lewis Caroll’s 1876 mock-epic poem, “The Hunting of the Snark”—could inspire a generation to declare eternal allegiance to the great god Snark.

By the end of the book, which is very short but seems long, we’re stuck with this conclusion: snark occurs every time someone says or writes something mean that David Denby doesn’t happen to admire, agree with, or find amusing. Because more and more people say and write such things, and the internet provides such a fast, furious forum for it, “it’s ruining our conversation.” Whose conversation? Not Western Civilization’s so much as Denby and his pals’.

Denby informs us, in an Afterward, that the book Snark was dreamed up over a chummy dinner with pundit Michael Kinsley. They and their wives all agreed “somewhere between the Singing Fish Satay and the Pow Wok Lamb” that “snark was becoming the characteristic discourse of our time.” This was indeed deplorable, harshing their mellow considerably. So who should write the high-minded rebuke? Kinsley graciously ceded the ground to Denby.

And as a result, here we are, loving snark more than we ever thought possible.

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17 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Alex  |  January 16th, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Whatever the drawbacks of this book, I think I agree with the main point, at least in regard to political discourse. You need only take a stroll through some right-wing blogs to see that snark has basically become a replacement for factual, supported argument. Instead of saying why they disagree with something, people now basically restate the position of whatever/whomever they disagree with in a sarcastic and exaggerated way, the tone itself foreclosing any possibility of rebuttal. South Park is a perfect example: when they decide to mock some (usually liberal) position, all they do is repeat it in a stupid-sounding voice – this is supposed to be enough to make us see how ridiculous it is.

    So we get a bunch of snarky quotes that become memes, ready to be endlessly repeated by those lacking any critical faculties, even in the presence of all evidence to the contrary. So in response to any claim made by Al Gore about global warming, any jackass can pretend to be someone cynical and savvy by deploying something like “sure, tell us all how you invented the Internet again”. End of argument.

    Finally, because snark can only be used to say negative things and not anything positive, it leads to the sort of insipid, simplistic moral equivalency (again, illustrated perfectly in South Park) which says that both sides of any given issue are ridiculous, and that everyone is equally silly, corrupt, etc.

    In short, snark is too often the weapon of those who have neither the intellect to figure out where they actually stand on an issue, nor the balls to declare it.

  • 2. Foog  |  January 17th, 2009 at 1:51 am

    That’s not snark, alex… well, all right, it’s Denbysnark.

    But real (and admirable) snark can’t be found with the shark-jumping knuckle-draggers at South Park. As you pointed out, they’re too one-dimensional. Real snark ain’t so sophomoric, or rather, it ain’t JUST sophomoric. REAL snark is high, low, and everything in between.

    For real quality snark in the bestest-yet-still-more-or-less-undefined sense of the word, you need go no further than this site. Particularly the reviews, but its everywhere. And for quality (U.S.) political snark, check out Wonkette.com. Subtle as getting teabagged by TRUCKNUTZ, yet still….

  • 3. five to one  |  January 17th, 2009 at 2:45 am

    good point, Alex

    But there’s also an embarassing kind of almost scary preaching going on in many later episodes of South Park

    like I remember one about scientology or tom cruise or whatever and in the end they had Kyle preach to the audience to the backing of a sad piano score. It was both digusting and puzzling at the same time

  • 4. Mark  |  January 17th, 2009 at 4:09 am

    Snark is a necessary weapon in the war against people in positions of power, right, left and center. As the review suggests, the fact that smug assholes like Denby and Kinsley are coming out against ‘snark’ (however they wanna define it) almost certainly means that it’s a good thing. I think the main point of the review, though, is to expose how ridiculous the whole discussion over ‘snark’ is anyway, since it’s always defined to reflect that person’s subjective biases. Chances are, ‘good’ snark is simply stuff that makes you laugh and ‘bad’ snark is stuff that insults your sensibilities in some way.

  • 5. Peter  |  January 17th, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Snark is a meaningless non-word. Such words, and books organized around such words, and to a lesser degree articles discussing such books, will be part of the gigantic stock of things that people will mock this time period for.

  • 6. wengler  |  January 17th, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    The only time I ever came across Denby was when I read his review panning the film V for Vendetta.

    Needless to say I never felt compelled to read him again.

  • 7. Snarky  |  January 17th, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Everyone uses Snark. Assholes like Denby use snark too, but it’s their “we can use dirty tactics but you must play clean” logic. And then they gloat about how they win. Eileen Jones brilliantly exposed the sheer quantity of snark used by Denby. Bomb a couple Serbs or Iraqis or Palestinians with Depleted Uranium, that’s fine, but if someone so much as suggests that the same be done to US or Israel, oh no, they’re evil. How about giving the Neocons today’s version of Antharax (Smallpox) blankets. Oh wait, that’s snark.

    Like it or not, snark is going to be used by everyone in the media warfare game. So spit on Denby and snark away. Besides the good or evil definitions of snark are subjective. And no truly intelligent people watch South Park anyways, it’s a delusion for the mental middle class.

    As for Alex’s comment on Gore’s “Internet Invention” that’s not the end of the argument. Just ask the person who said it, to explain to you why the ice is melting and water levels are rising. Kind of a sweet justice in that, rich losing their islands to Mother Nature, after paying to pollute Mother Nature. Nature’s no one’s bitch, but you rich jackasses contributing to pollution WILL lose that offshore tax account. Let’s just hope that no bailout’s available for you Mofos. Only worthy bailout claim was made by the PORN industry anyways.

    Americans (noun?) – people who give away 700 billion dollars without so much as asking for a receipt and then wonder why they’re in debt and paying income taxes as debt taxes, err interest rates, to dictatorial China.

  • 8. internet anti-Zionists  |  January 18th, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    It is totally oversimplifying to say as Alex does that righties are snarky instead of say something else. First of all, we seem to recall William F’head Buckley trying to squirm away from Avram Noam Chomsky’s superior debating finesse through right-wing snark in the 60s talking about Vietnam. Second of all, rightie nastiness is something other than snark (which requires more brain cells than Lucianne Goldberg would let her bubbeleh Jonah borrow), it’ a combination of willful ignorance, criminal paranoia and astonishing pettiness you can read about in Joe Conason’s excellent “Big Lies.” Conason’s drawback is that he is the kind of spineless Democratic Party soldier who thinks Clinton was a great president, but his book is pretty solid in its cataloging of the strange and hateful planet Rightist Internet Tough Guys live on even if it does pull a few punches when not focused on its subject.

  • 9. Sigh...  |  January 18th, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    @internet anti-Zionists: I really loved your comment although it could have used a little more hyperbole and next time don’t skimp so much on the name dropping.

    FYI, I’m not being snarky. That was plain ol’ lowbrow sarcasm.

  • 10. WE  |  January 19th, 2009 at 6:06 am

    I think that Alex’s post perfectly summarizes my sentiments, and if this becomes a battle of semantics, I can only say that I also hate that lazy, cynical, cruel, snobbish, patronizing and intellectually bankrupt form of retort that seemed to seep into our culture during the early 90s, snark or whatever. I remember some South Park episode where someone mentioned global warming bringing about another ice age and then some redneck character had a very one-dimensional moment of Homer Simpson like lucidity which amounted to; how could global warming cause another ice age you idiot? I’m sure millions of people have in some form adapted that same snobbish and dismissive simplicity, how can something hot make something cold you fuckwit? Of course, how many of those people will ever think about the gulf stream and what will happen to it if greenland completely melts is another issue altogether. Snark allows people with domineering personalities and average intellects to project a sense of superiority over people who tend to be far more intelligent but meek. The Chomsky/Buckley debate was a great example. What is interesting from a sociological perspective is the fact that Buckley threatens violence against Chomsky from the outset, somewhat emasculating him and creating a powerful suggestive force within anyone who watches the debate that behind the intellectual facade, schoolyard rules still apply. Even intelligent people will have that little voice saying, yeah, O’Reily really could kick the shit out of John Stewart, Buckley and every right-wing vomit machine that proceeded him are masters of neutralizing our cerebral cortexes and stroking our amygdalas to manipulate the ape within us. That is why verbal debates are almost always bankrupt, things that will assure your victory would look retarded on paper, has anyone ever read an O’Reily transcript or any Fox News transcript for that matter, the arguments are often unintelligible. Satire and humor are powerful tools, Tina Faye’s impersonation of Sarah Palin was able to communicate something directly that would have been lost in more academic language, but it communicated a truth, while “snark” often obfuscates the truth. Maybe it’s not about the word, but whose interests it serves.

  • 11. Carpenter  |  January 19th, 2009 at 6:54 am

    Alex snarks, “You need only take a stroll through some right-wing blogs to see…”

    Maybe you mean guys such as David Frum (a leftist who agreed to be Bush’s speechwriter only on the promise that it would be for the benefit of wars against Israel’s enemies, according to his own autobiography), Bill Kristol, Max Boot, and the rest of the neocons. They are not right-wing, they only masquerade as such. They are in favor of the leftist welfare state, the leftist idea of mass immigration and affirmative discrimination, and anything else that will give ordinary Americans a bad day. They are only “right-wing” in that they, as neocons, managed to use the Pentagon’s resources to whack and bully the nations that give aid to the Palestinian resistance.

    Real right-wing conservatives are witty, resourceful, and dare I say far more handsome than these pretenders.

    By the way. I grew up seeing the same thing every election here in my own country: the conservative posters torn down, conservative billboards vandalized. The leftist ones were left untouched. Which side is the snarky one? The left also support riots and car burnings in Parisian suburbs. That’s when an ideology goes from being simply snarky to being an enemy of the country it parasitizes on.

  • 12. Carpenter  |  January 19th, 2009 at 7:03 am

    Snarky says, “Kind of a sweet justice in that, rich losing their islands to Mother Nature, after paying to pollute Mother Nature. Nature’s no one’s bitch, but you rich jackasses contributing to pollution WILL lose that offshore tax account. Let’s just hope that no bailout’s available for you Mofos.”

    Your snarky insults are to no avail: you Al Gore loyalists have nothing to back up your claims. Polar bears drowning? Oh, please: when asked in court, the only support the Gore side had for that claim was that some polar bears had drowned in a storm. In fact, there are three times more polar bears alive today than fifteen years ago. And as for temperature changes, a thorough study from 2007 showed no correlation at all between ups and downs in co2 production and temperature during the 20th century. In fact, 2008 was the coolest year in a decade. Temperatures have fluctuated throughout the centuries; the Dark Ages were much warmer than Europe today, which is why the Vikings called Greenland green; it was covered by grass, not ice. Grapes were grown in Britain, and Sweden at that time was far hotter than today.

    But I digress. Mustn’t let the morons sidetrack any discussion with their environment stuff. Where did the 1980s warnings about “global cooling” go, I wonder though? Howling, snarky environmentalists warned about how pollution would cool down the world, through a permanent cloud cover. Ah, well.

  • 13. DocAmazing  |  January 19th, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Carpenter–please don’t mistake ignorance (your own) for snark. The “global cooling” argument was actually the projections for a nuclear winter; the greenhouse effect was actually a subject of conversation in the early 1980s, as a quick websearch would reveal. I’d love for you to provide some citations for your “coolest year in a decade” and “three times more polar bears” droppings–they sound a great deal like Ronald Reagan’s bleatings about trees causing pollution.

    Baseless drivellings like yours are available for free at Pajamas Media. Surely you can do better.

  • 14. WE  |  January 19th, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Carpenter, as you can check here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change

    there really is no debate about among the scientific community about the role of human action in global warming, you will always find your dissidents in every field, the flat earth society is a permanent component of human civilization for a variety of reasons, but I suspect you know this, and your desire to present these extreme positions probably center around some desperate attempt to get attention, although you will think that intellectual grandstanding will abnegate how pathetic it is, because there is one central fact, people who seek out opposing opinions in forums such as this for the sheer purpose of confrontation, whether it be under the veil of “look how superior I am for getting all of these ____________ worked up” or whether you have a genuine psychological desire to somehow prove everyone wrong, thereby reinforcing your own desperate and stable vision of the world, you’re just sad. That is not to say that people need to agree or that debate in itself is abnormal, but the type of confrontation seeking you are engaged in is so obvious to anyone who understands how pathetic it is to be someone like you. Good luck.

  • 15. rick  |  January 20th, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Oh God I hate the New Yorker. The New Yorker is the only publication which can produce hilarious viral pompous idiocy amongst my admittedly small circle of friends, especially their film criticism. Their “whimsy” or whatever is a farce, like “Ali G” or “The Office” or something, only they’re unaware of it. “Snark” itself is just a hole in a barrel, detestable on the grounds it’s feeble and weak. The Exile(d) is the barrel…a total literary renunciation of everything British people thought was morally estimable in 1720, when literary culture started going “mainstream.” You want to see the soul of the common people, go to the comments on Youtube…there’s the future of literature, only written by non-idiots.

  • 16. WE  |  January 21st, 2009 at 6:19 am

    “You want to see the soul of the common people, go to the comments on Youtube…there’s the future of literature, only written by non-idiots.”

    Jesus, you have no idea how often the comments on Youtube have made me wonder if the homo sapiens really wiped out all of the neanderthals or if they just blended into the the human population, secretly planning to win a demographics war by breeding us out like Palestinians in Israel or Catholics in Northern Ireland. When that day comes, be prepared for the deklar8ion of emansop8ion of the kneeanderfall n8ion!!!!! HOMO S8PIENS BE LIKE SO HOMO DAWGZ!!!

  • 17. Snarky  |  January 24th, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Carpenter – you are an idiot par excellance. My post was about sea levels rising, which is an established fact. You then go on to talk about polar bears, Al Gore and Vikings. You do realize that sea levels rising can actually cause the islands to go underwater, as seen in my post, and that polar bears, Al Gore and Vikings can’t do that.

    A bit of history for you Carpenter. Back in the days of the Vikings, people traveled on the basis of the word of mouth, they didn’t have GPS. Vikings would come into your village, rape your women, and kill your men. Although they may keep your pages where they are, where Republicans like them. They may even employ the pages, but I digress.

    Thus people would want to get revenge on the Vikings. Thus they’d ask, where the Vikings are from. Greenland would be the response, so that the avengers go and freeze in the ice, while Iceland was green and produced crops. Also, basic geographical common sense would tell one that since Iceland lies SOUTH of Greenland, Greenland would be covered with Ice, and Iceland would be very nice. Then again, you Palin Republicans lack even the basic knowledge: newsflash: Africa has always been, and remains, a continent!!!

    So that’s Vikings. As for polar bears, yeah, I’m sorry that Putin won’t actually let you use dive bombers to take the polar bears out, like Palin does. I guess this is proof that Russia is evil.

    And about Al Gore’s trial, his main point was that the sea levels are rising, too bad you were checking out Sara Palin at the time, and thinking about congressional pages, and skipped that part. But next, you will assure us with talking points that sea levels are, like the economy on a sine curve, and they fall and rise irrespective of what humans do, even though all scientific evidence proves to the contrary.

    And if you think Neocons are for a welfare state, you need to visit a brain surgeon, ASAP!


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