Elusive thing, that snark

When a lonely voice rises up to warn us against Some New Scourge That Is About to Ruin Western Civilization (like irony, or Elvis, or television or Teletubbies or saggy gangsta shorts), you can be sure of two things:

1. It's too late to do anything about it;

2.It's actually harmless and you shouldn't worry about it, anyway.

So it is with the verbal habit of snark -- well, at least as described in "Snark," David Denby's unconvincing (although mercifully short) screed against that catty, nasty, insidery, and often hilarious style of some bloggers and their fans.

Except that Denby -- a film critic for The New Yorker -- sees snark everywhere these days, "spreading like pink-eye" from the Internet to become the dominant voice of all culture, drowning out more civilized forms of putdowns. Those of us who don't run in Manhattan high-media circles or spend all day on the web might think this analysis a tad paranoid, and Denby does an awful lot of running around in 128 pages to convince us otherwise.

While his film criticism is a model of clarity and good sense, in "Snark" he lurches like a drunkard with a fly-swatter, taking wild thwacks at Sarah Palin, Maureen Dowd, and seemingly everybody else whose stings and zingers have rubbed him the wrong way over the past two years. He wants to save us (and, more grandly, the sanctity of wit itself) from snark's debasements; but it's not clear that he even knows what the enemy is.

Such confusion actually fits the definition of "snark" as Lewis Carroll first used it in his mock-epic poem "The Hunting of the Snark," to describe a possibly mythical beast that was exceedingly difficult to locate and usually fatal to those who encountered it. But confusion is never a good narrative strategy, and trying to follow Denby's multiple and shifting takes on his subject proves irritating and exhausting.

Sometimes snark in "Snark" is "the expression of the alienated, of the ambitious, of the dispossessed" (e.g., Perez Hilton's celebrity-watch website). Sometimes it's the coded misogyny or racism of the powerful, embodied for him by Palin's campaign-trail attacks on Barack Obama as not representative of real America. Sometimes it's "post-aesthetic," with values of "hype, spin, and big money" (like the New York-centric Spy magazine of the 1980s.)

For Denby, Dowd is snarky because she has no political ideas or vision, while Stephen Colbert and Keith Olbermann are high satirists because they do. (Wait--Keith Olbermann not snarky? Keith Olbermann -- he of the "World's Worst Person" feature on his MSNBC show? Keith Olbermann, master of the suffocatingly leading question? Denby's filter comes perilously close to being just a way of justifying the funny stuff he likes and condemning the funny stuff he doesn't.)

Well, snark cannot be all of these things -- outsider and insider, anonymous and celebrity, guerilla and empowered. To clarify, Denby makes a cook's tour through a history of snark -- racing from the formal style of Greek vituperative poetry known as iambos through Alexander Pope to Tom Wolfe, Spy and Gore Vidal. (He's not helped by his selectivity: For instance, between Pope and the British 60s magazine Private Eye, snark apparently took a two-century holiday.)

For Denby, while snark was once a legitimate literary genre -- a kind of aestheticized invective, a poor, inebriated cousin to satire and its elegance -- it has now descended into angry braying and bullying. "I'm all in favor of nasty comedy, and incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective," he writes with gestural generosity, knowing how bad his disapproval looks. "It's the bad kind of invective--low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing; in brief, snark -- that I hate."

Never mind the fool's errand of trying to categorize between good and bad trash talk -- a line of demarcation so vanishing that it begs you to snark about it. Denby's moralizings are monumentally unconvincing, both as arbitration and as a personal policy. Why not just turn away from a style you don't like? Why not just avoid Wonkette or James Wolcott? Why not just never read the comments below any Huffington Post article? Why not just go about your business?

Because when you're an old-media critic or columnist and your business is being an authority, the prospect of being constantly one-upped by anonymous yobs on the Internet is more than just galling -- it's threatening to your way of life. The relentless participation of people in new media forms and their nasty, brutish, unschooled ways have oldsters like Denby in high hysteria, because their ability to have the last word has vanished like Lotus 123. His reaction is like a suburbanite's to graffiti -- he doesn't see in snark the rich tradition of the epigram, the bon mot, the aphorism. Yes, snark is about anger; but not in those who practice it.

The Internet's culture of the comment is often seen an index for our anomie and lack of empowerment, people pounding away at their keyboards late into the night, desperate to be heard and acknowledged. Why not see it instead as the people's revenge -- against sloppy, boring, unaccountable critics, against the emotional economies of celebrity culture? In that light, snark is a totally rational reaction, unlike the despair upon which "Snark" is founded.

"I have a tendency, I know, to be bothered by cynicism, slander, and failed, nasty wit more than I should, and, indeed, to take things too seriously in general," writes Denby. "Yet I think the genuinely bad stuff should be noted." A nice sentiment in a critic; a dangerous one in a commissar of morality. As usual, the last voice of reason just wants the rest of us to shut up.