David Denby: Snark

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.

David Denby: Snark

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.


  1. I do think this is an intriguing issue: ‘disdainful’ commentary seems so much easier to formulate than anything else, but beyond that, it is seeping in to accompany a kind of affected disquiet on a worrying scale. Charlie Brooker is funny enough, and I found Crace’s debunking encapsualtions amusing for a while, but there really is a ‘more of the same easy bile’ about the whole thing. It is that much harder to talk positively (as it is to act happy as opposed to unhinged, which is clearly the stuff of effortless glee) about something and, as you say, why bother with a load of narky waffle about something? Save it for the really deserving recipients…

    …though from a literature perspective, a number of my favourite books are rife with ‘snark’. Joseph Heller, John Kennedy Toole, Salinger couldall easily be convicted of exhibiting a fair abundance of the stuff.

  2. “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.”

    Funny. Nice touch.

    Lee, I think it is much harder to talk positively than to point out negatives. In addition, I think negativity can be a refuge. A person is much more likely to be ridiculed as naive, unsophisticated, or of low taste if the person speak positively about something, rather than humorously attacks it. Besides, as a society, we seem to enjoy watching some people tear others down (just watch half an hour of reality TV). Asshole is in.

  3. “…we will win this game through the strength of our disdain.”

    Exactly. This review hit one of my “bias” nails squarely on the head. Throw as much crap as you can at things that you don’t like and hope that some of it sticks. One of the features of the modern information explosion has been to open avenues for “disdain” that used to be closed. And attacking bloggers (and yes there are certainly lots of disdainful bloggers) ignores the face that mainstream media, like the Guardian, are jumping on the bandwagon. I was reading Muriel Spark yesterday (A Far Cry From Kensington) and she brought into focus the idea that civil irony and criticism is not only far more entertaining but far more effective than the pointless rant. Her foil in the book is a pisseur de copie — “urinator of frightful prose” — which I think captures quite well the sentiment in your review of this work. I’m glad you took the time to make something useful of this book (which I will not be reading, I assure you).

  4. I occasionally read Crace’s Digested Read, but gave up when I realised I was essentially spoiling it for myself, should I ever wish to read the book. That said. there’s one that has stuck in my mind these last couple of years, from the time of the Booker shortlist, regarding Nicola Barker’s Darkmans, because it pretty much captured everything about the book I was, at the time, soon to be reading:

    Beede sat in the cafe. “Ashford,” he thought. “Where else would you find characters called Kane, Peta Borough and a German character called Dory, who turns out to be not really German, doing next to nothing for 838 pages?”

    “Aha,” said Scogin. “I am Edward IV’s court jester.” “Course you are mate,” Beede replied. “What are you doing here? “I haven’t a clue,” Scoggin laughed. “But then there’s always one book on the shortlist that no one understands, so I guess we’re it.”

    Can’t say we use ‘snark’ up here in Scotland. Snarky, yes.

  5. “Snark is an entertaining read, best when telling us what we already suspected and why…”

    I suspect that’s when snark (the form of abuse) works best, too. When John Crace’s Digested Read used to tear into the latest witless blockbuster which I already knew I hated without ever reading it, I thought it was great. Now that he has a go at classics I love, I find it intensely irritating.

  6. Well you might be pleased to note, JRSM, that last Saturday I noticed there was no Classics Digested Read in the Guardian Review.

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Non-blog stuff pressing on my time at present prevents a more detailed response, sorry.

  7. “What value is the opinion of someone who only ever tells us what they hate?”

    Ah. With these words, you neatly undo whatever good may have come to me from your generous link in the last issue. Still, it’s a fair online cop.

  8. Well, let’s see. Here’s Clive James’ piece, dated Sept 2003. Mr. James gives credit to Heidi Julavits’ piece in The Believer, dated March 2003. Meanwhile, you say, “Denby suggests ’snark’ is in common use already…”

    I would agree about common use, at least in the States. More than that — I can’t immediately pull forth an antecedent, but I’d say all the cited sources above are too recent by at least a decade. That may be the gauzy haze of memory on my part, but I’m almost certain I heard “snark” being used this way in the 1990’s sometime, if not the late 1980’s.

  9. Thanks for the comment and the links, Hal. Clearly what we have here is a US-UK divide: though that doesn’t quite account for the Australian-British James’ use of it. Still, Denby extends and extrapolates the term from Julavits’ description of it as an exclusively book-reviewing phenomenon.

  10. Looking quickly, I see that Denby was born in 1943, and James was born in 1939. Meanwhile, while I can’t find a birth year readily, this interview with Julavits and this interview with her husband, Ben Marcus both include pictures that appear to place them as classic Generation X’ers. The Believer piece appears to be a quasi-manifesto in their premiere issue, and Julavits is an editor of the magazine.

    So what I suspect is happening here is more an age divide. “Snark” has been used for about as long as I said above but by younger people, and it was only with Julavits’ piece that older literary writers noticed. I think it’s true on both sides of the Atlantic that no idea or term is regarded as legitimate until Boomers or older give their approval.

  11. A good point, Hal – it’s a little like the slightly embarrassing spectacle of seeing Salman Rushdie cosying up to U2 because he thinks they’re at the cutting edge of popular music, or Martin Amis’s gradual descent into fogeydom – when once, they were the hip young things making new trends.

    I think the Believer piece must indeed be their manifesto: never having read the mag, my shorthand mental note for it is “publication that only reviews books they like.” Inspired, we now see, by a despair of all that snark that was swilling about.

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