David Denby’s Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits seeks to do two things. The first is to introduce the word ‘snark’ into everyday language, an attempt as doomed as was Malcolm Gladwell’s to augment the dictionary definitions of blink and outliers. In fact Denby suggests ‘snark’ is in common use already, meaning lazy, snide, knowing abuse, usually conducted in the public arena. Well, I’ve heard of snarky, a sort of elision of sarky and sneaky, which is not quite the same thing. He also tries too hard to find a parallel for his ideas with Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, and doesn’t explain why David Miliband appears on the cover of the UK edition.
Anyway, Denby’s other, and primary, objective is to highlight the increasing use of snark and here he is more successful. Indeed, for me the strongest part of this short book was the first half, where Denby outlines a history of such abuse, from Juvenal and Pope to Private Eye and Spy magazine (the inclusion of these last two cleverly provides a point of reference for both UK and US readers). Here he writes of Private Eye‘s origins but his comments are equally valid to describe the magazine now:
Like Juvenal, the Private Eye gang had a ruling-class mentality without a ruling-class portfolio. In terms of authority, they were outsiders, but their values were strictly those of the insiders – but insiders whose position in the great world had diminished. The attitude of the magazine was paradoxical: “We are defeated, but everyone else is ridiculous. We have no power, but we will win this game through the strength of our disdain.”
It is such monotone snarking that I find so unappealing in Private Eye‘s literary review pages. What value is the opinion of someone who only ever tells us what they hate? The same applies to John Crace’s tiresome Digested Read in the Guardian. These examples seem to embody the “negative security of perpetual suspicion” which Denby identifies from Jedediah Purdy’s For Common Things. Such ironists, says Purdy, “do not want the things in which [they] trust to be debunked, belittled, torn down,” exactly as they do to others’. “So [they] keep [their] best hopes safe in the dark of [their] own unexpressed sentiments and half-hidden thoughts.” In Private Eye too, as in Spy, Denby notes the tendency to ascribe a repeating insult to individual names – though one might consider ‘Piers Moron’ to be fair game – “as if imposing a label were some fearless act of social criticism.”
Denby identifies the features of snarking commentary, and highlights examples such as the media’s celebrity see-saw and the opinion pieces of Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. Here I felt somewhat sidelined, as I do when I read Al Franken’s books and he bases whole chapters around US politicos that I’ve never heard of. Similarly, if anyone reading the book feels John McCain would have been a better choice for US president than Barack Obama (I said if), they may wonder why almost all Denby’s examples of political snark come from right-wing commentators. Denby is also fogeyish when it comes to the internet, laying the common charge that blogs and the like are a hive of mindless abuse. Well, fuck him. Snark is an entertaining read, best when telling us what we already suspected and why, rather than when trying to crowbar it all into a handy portmanteau.