What misery it must have been for David Denby to research his new book, willfully indulging that which so clearly dispirits him if only to define, document, and deplore it. Imagine how much time the poor bastard must have spent trolling Web sites like Juicy Campus and Gawker and exposing himself to toxically high doses of Perez Hilton and Maureen Dowd, all in order to produce Snark, a self-described polemic against the stuff that practically begs or dares us to fling it at him from all directions. His nobility is a cold comfort.
Loosely characterized here, "snark" is the falsely knowing and condescending invective that passes for critical commentary mostly among commentators whose ubiquitous disappointment masks unwillingness and/or inability to stand for anything better. As such, it certainly can be alienating and depressing. But so can renunciations of it from the journo-literary establishment.
"What I'm doing here is a way of preserving humor," Denby writes early on, not quite persuasively. "Those of us who are against snark want to humble the lame, the snide, the lazy — and promote the true wits." To put it snarkily: Good luck with that. Those of us who aren't best-selling authors and New Yorker film critics can be counted on to become pissy — indeed, we may even seem to lack " some outraged ideal, some better way of life or art than the fallen and degraded versions that the satirist attacks."
But what if snarkers snark precisely because they've been so disabused of any hope for that ideal? What if their sad inheritance is a whole world that's just completely full of shit? Yes, San Francisco's own The Believer magazine was founded partly on the principle of outsmarting it, but without snark would there be such a thing as, say, punk rock?
At least Denby can hear in it "the expression of the alienated, of the ambitious, of the dispossessed." Apparently it's just that he's heard enough and is fed up.
After tracing snark's origins from classical Athens and Rome through 18th- and 19th-century England to Tom Wolfe and Spy magazine, Denby names nine basic operating principles and modern practitioners thereof: Attack without reason (Wonkette); appeal to hackneyed prejudices (Fox News); re-use stale old media-referential jokes (Camille Paglia); sling mud at the powerful (Gawker); shrug off the responsibilities of traditional journalism (pretty much the whole Internet); reduce human complexity to caricature (this one's a little spotty on current examples); adore, then loathe celebrities (US Weekly, Perez Hilton); attack the old (The New York Times); attack overpriced, underwhelming restaurants (Eater.com).
Denby gamely responds as the magnanimous gentleman whose display of irritation is almost archly genteel, as if to set an example. He knows he might sometimes seem a humorless fuddy-duddy with yet another tongue-clicking tract about these kids today. He even cops to his own occasional snarky indulgences. All he wants is "at least a notion of judgment formed by adult experience." Fair enough. Oh, and for us to give the benefit of the doubt to such variously self-incriminating snark magnets as Tom Cruise, Hillary Clinton, and Brooklyn-dwelling young writers. Less fair, perhaps.
He's certainly attuned to the Internet-exacerbated cesspool of our codependent celebrity culture, and he's strong on history — save for a halfhearted try to distinguish the culturally corrupting "Rovian tactics" of recent years from a mythic '30s and '40s in which the country, he says, was "at peace with itself spiritually: We were all in the same boat." You don't have to be a whippersnapper to think that just doesn't sound right.
All told, Denby puts up a good fight. His real opponent — detachment posing as engagement — doesn't stand a chance. But of course it wasn't really in the fight to begin with.