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Q&A: David Denby talks "Snark," the Web and the woes of journalism

January 28, 2009 |  9:43 am
David Denby, author of "Snark".
(Photo: Casey Kelbaugh / Simon & Schuster.)

In his new book, “Snark,” David Denby dons a lab coat and rubber gloves and plays taxonomist with the kind of odious and repellent writing the Web has come to produce in such volume.

Denby, who is a film critic for the New Yorker, makes a point that many online readers might readily agree with: There’s a lot of writing out there that’s pointlessly mean, cheap, empty and thoughtless — and it’s getting old.

But the book goes further, suggesting that snarky bloggers, journalists and commenters have become a kind of intellectual scourge that’s “ruining our conversation” — and it’s this more damning claim that deserves scrutiny.

I spoke with Denby about his book, the Web and whether snark — which he sees as a journalistic “pinkeye” — is spreading as fast as he’d like us to believe.

A few reviewers have snarked that you’ve had trouble succinctly defining the term “snark.” Want to give it another shot?

Well, the contemporary version is the kind of nasty, insidious, rug-pulling, teasing insult, which makes reference to some generally understood shared prejudice or distaste.

It’s metastasized as a pop writing form. And the Internet, of course, spreads this stuff around virally, so it replicates itself and goes everywhere ...

Dang Internet!

Everyone I know in journalism is in a panic at all levels. Old media types like me are worried that our beloved publications are going to subside into just electronic versions. And they’ll have much less authority than they do in hard copy. In other words, once they’re only on the Web, they’ll just seem like a point of view rather than an authority.

I see what you’re getting at. But why would one medium (print) confer inherently more authority than another (the Web) — if what’s being said is the same? Aren’t ideas ideas, and words words, no matter if they’re on a piece of paper or a screen?

I’m afraid the great papers and newsmagazines will decline in authority for two reasons: When they’re no longer uniquely there, on the breakfast table, in our hands with morning coffee, they will join an immense chorus of voices clamoring for our attention ... and second, I wonder if they will continue to do some special things like investigative reporting, the beautifully crafted sports story, the long book, concert and movie review...

To be a skeptic for a moment: If you think of the Web as a giant cherry tree, you could really cherry-pick examples to illustrate just about any trend you’d like. And to be sure, there are enough snarky cherries to fill a fleet of dump trucks. But the Web has also enabled plenty of high-level discourse. Is it fair to say that the claim that snark is infecting the national conversation might be exaggerated?

The Internet is the greatest revolution in democratic practice since popular suffrage. Everyone knows that, and I am just as dependent on the Internet as anyone else. In the wake of a democratic revolution like that, there’s both an enormous explosion of information and expression, much of it useful or fun, and also an explosion of pent-up rage, social anguish, resentment, bilious, other-annihilating nastiness, prejudice and all the rest of the dark side. If that stuff is destroying conversation threads, screwing up people’s...

...reputations, spreading around unchecked rumor or just snark, it’s worth pointing to it and saying, “Stop lousing up my revolution.” The point of the book is to protect the best kind of humor by criticizing the worst.

We’re talking a lot about trends in media rather than just bad or nasty writing. It seems like you might be saying that snark is a kind of symptom of the decay of quality journalism.

Absolutely. To tell you the truth, I wrote the book in a sweat last spring and summer, and I wasn’t totally conscious of what was really bothering me.

Well OK, for any of us who write online, whether it’s articles, blog posts or comments in a discussion thread, is there a litmus test for snark we can apply to our words before we press ‘publish’?

Well that’s hard, but let me try. If you’re going to attack someone personally, ask yourself whether the writing creates a fresh image, whether it has a physical quality which brings it to life.

The trouble with snark is that it doesn’t engage. It’s almost bulimic: It takes something into its mouth and then regurgitates it. So that’s something you can ask yourself: Am I really engaging with the subject or am I just trying to show off and be clever?

Dorothy Parker always said she revised four words for every three that she wrote. And that can be very hard when there’s this one-hour deadline to write 1,000 words. So I think snark is inherent in that hyper deadline pressure.

You don’t write much about the world of movie criticism. Is snark a danger there?

When you’re talking about criticism, your words are a performance and you’re judging someone else’s performance. Certainly if you think something is terrible, you have the obligation to entertain the audience, especially if you’re writing at any length. So it seems snark is going to creep into that with even the best intentions at times.

But there’s a difference between what’s purely destructive and what’s criticism. If you describe something clearly — no matter how nasty you are — I don’t think that’s snark; I think that’s criticism.

You’re not carving out a snark exception for movie critics, are you?

In libel law, you can say virtually anything in criticism because it’s considered fair comment. But I don’t think you should use that as an excuse for writing badly. Put it that way.

You write that snarky writers are “cutting the path of their own extinction.” Do you think, as a rhetorical strategy, it may lose its oomph soon?

The trouble with snarking writers is that if they don’t up their game at some point, styles and humor change, and they’ll get fired. Don’t underestimate the cynicism and pragmatism of editors.

They’ll use you because snark creates a little storm every time it appears, but then they lop you off when styles and humor change. So if individual writers don’t develop something more serious to say about human nature, rather than just reflecting the zeitgeist in the media world, they’re not going to last.

Denby will read at the ICM Theatre in Century City at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday  and sign books at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena at 7 p.m. Feb. 5.

This article appeared in print as "OMG, he hates snarky posts."

-- David Sarno

Related: Why are we so Snarky? [an earlier Denby interview from Jacket Copy]