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Why are we so snarky? David Denby thinks he knows.

January 13, 2009 |  1:46 pm


David Denby. Some say he has the ideal job in the media today: film critic for the The New Yorker, author of bestsellers ("Great Books" and "American Sucker"), man of letters, culture scribe. His latest book is "Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, it’s Ruining Our Conversation," which the Times reviewed yesterday.

After a dinner with friends, Denby was moved to write this yellow-jacketed, 128-page tome on the meaning of our words today. Snark. What is it? Who does it? And why? He traces its roots back to 8th century BC ancient Greece and writes about how the Internet has hyper-accelerated our snarkiness (he also calls Maureen Dowd out on her flip-flopping nature). Lori Kozlowski talked to Denby for Jacket Copy about this new book, asking him to discuss where we are going, how we write about one another, and how we talk to each other.

JC: What prompted the writing of this book? You wrote in your Acknowledgements that it was started over a dinner conversation. Can you tell us a little about that?

Denby: My wife and I were in Seattle at dinner with Michael Kinsley and his wife. We were just talking, and Michael and I said at the same time that snark was the characteristic discourse of this period.

JC: You write that “the Internet has put snark on steroids” -- how so? And why is that?

Denby: I don’t want to blame the phenomenon on the Internet, but the Internet by the way it reproduces things so quickly — that a post gets traffic and goes everywhere — accelerates things. People are trying to be funny and to be quoted or be memorable. Something that is sensible isn’t necessarily catchy and isn’t going to spread like wildfire. Whereas something that is nasty is and does. Snark is not original. It is essentially parasitic and lazy.

JC: Someone said to me last week, “If it is true, then it is not snark.” Is that a true statement?

Denbysnark Denby: That’s a complicated question. It is a case-by-case basis. Most people who are trying to be true use sarcasm or wit to speak the truth, but not snark.

JC: In your first chapter you talk about a “future America in which too many people sound mean and silly, like small yapping dogs tied to a post; in which we insult one another merrily in a kind of endless zany brouhaha.” Do you believe that is our future?

Denby: I am worried about where journalism is going. I think if newspapers subside into the Web and lose their hard copy, they just become one voice among many. Everyone has a point of view then, and there is no authority. What the Internet can’t make is a narrative of its own because by its nature it is de-centered.

More on "Snark" after the jump

JC: “Half the words written as instant messages or Twitter are snark of one sort or another.” Why do you think this? Do you Twitter? Are you on Facebook?

Denby: I don’t Twitter. It’s just a guess. From conversations with friends.

[Denby's also not on Facebook, either. Darn: I wanted to be his friend.]

JC: Do you think a younger generation who seems to want to put it all out there is missing out on anything? Will we ever return to privacy?

Denby: You’ve hit it on the head. It will be the story of the future. The desecration of privacy. Everyone feels they have the right to expose you. And some people of power do need to be watched. But some of it is just nosy, busybody crap.

[Of the Google and Facebook phenomena, Denby adds: "You can't bury your past anymore."]

JC: You trace snark back to its 8th century BC roots in ancient Greece. How was that formalism different than how we communicate today? Do you think we will ever return to that formalism?

Denby: The Greeks started this in the drinking clubs, and they would abuse or roast a low-born Athenian. Then it became part of their culture. You were expected to attack your opponents in a personal way. But with certain rules.

[And, no, he adds, we won’t go back.]

JC: “Snark is the expression of the alienated, of the ambitious, of the dispossessed.”  Is everyone who is snarky in need of love or medication or both, or is it something else?

Denby: In need of more success. Success usually makes people relax a little bit.

[He paused and then gave this example of how snarkers can become what they pretend to hate: There is a bit of envy involved. For instance, he said, people who work for Gawker and snark at the mainstream media take a job in the mainstream media as soon as a position opens up.]

JC: You lay out nine Principles of Snark. Which of these is the worst? Which is most personally offensive to you?

Denby: No. 5. Total disregard of routine journalism. No phone calls, no checking things out. Journalism should try not to slander people.

The other one, No. 3. The trashiness of the jokes. The laziness. Just grabbing something off the rotting heap.

JC: Moving forward into the wild media landscape, how do you suggest we do better as Americans? How can we tame the writerly behavior on the Internet?

Denby: There are a lot of people who are sick of the way people drop in with their little bombs and insults. You need moderators — referees and editors who apply rules. We shouldn’t sober up. I love satire. But we should toughen up. Let’s apply writing standards to what we are saying.

Dowd JC: Let’s talk about Maureen Dowd (pictured, left). You devote an entire chapter to her. You call her the most “gifted writer of snark in the country.” Is she adding to our national conversation or just ruining everyone’s day?

Denby: She’s brilliant. She can be very funny. But she’s completely irresponsible. If she can make any joke about any way you are vulnerable, she will do it. She played Hillary and Obama off each other.… She gets things wrong a lot of the time because she is trying to find a point of attack.

JC: Would you ever consider yourself a little snarky? In a dog-eat-dog world, does it help to be a little snarky every once in a while?

Denby: Yeah, of course. To be malicious is to be kindly — to be human. How could you not be snarky about Dick Cheney shooting his best friend in the face?

-- Lori Kozlowski

Denby photo credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

Dowd photo credit: Win Mcnamee / Getty Images