In his simultaneously serious and snarky review of David Denby's Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation, Adam Sternbergh makes a compelling case for snark. Or at a minimum he makes a compelling case that snark's critics are attacking the symptom and not the disease.
You have to give David Denby credit for bravery: Writing a book titled Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation is like writing a book titled Keying My Car: It’s the Wrong Thing to Do or Why Flaming Bags of Dog Poop on My Doorstep Just Aren’t Funny. You invite the transgression even as you decry it; you loose the hounds on yourself. Given Denby’s age (65) and position in the firmament (film reviewer for The New Yorker), he could have written the most concise, insightful, artfully balanced, and expertly argued book about snark and still come off like an Internet-age Andy Rooney, wagging his finger from his rocking chair at the boisterous kids on the lawn. And he has not written the most concise, insightful, artfully balanced, and expertly argued book about snark.
He then uses Denby's own examples to demonstrate the value of snark and the misguided thrust of Denby's critique:
Take this small example from Denby’s book: In pining for the tough-talking wit of Rosalind Russell and her ilk, he writes, “Whatever its miseries, the country in the thirties and forties was at peace with itself spiritually: We were all in the same boat.” Now, you could calmly point out Denby’s lazy generalization as he reimagines a time of widespread inequality as an idyllic epoch of snappy-pattered togetherness. Or you could respond, “Denby, you dumbass, not only were we not all in the same boat, we weren’t even at the same water fountains.” Sometimes the snarky response is the correct response.
This seems truer than ever before. Consider how much of our public speech—in politics, celebrity, sports—is composed of spin, prevarications, and barefaced lies. If you’re looking for a telltale moment from the last election as to the state of our political discourse, don’t look toward Sarah Palin’s mean-girl snark attacks at the Republican Convention (as Denby does) or to the columns of Maureen Dowd. Look instead at that unguarded moment when commentator Peggy Noonan let slip her true feelings about Palin’s nomination into a hot mike—in contradiction to what she’d just said live on-air. Or consider the oft-made but pertinent point that postdebate commentators reside in “Spin Alley.” When we live in a world where professional analysts on TV can be trusted to simply say what they actually believe, then I think we’ll find that snark will start to turn its own volume down.
. . . Surely Denby is not blind to the damage done to journalism, and society, by a culture of habitual lies. (Maybe not. He goes on to stick up for Barry Bonds.) Later, Denby notes with patrician dismay that a blog named With Leather declares itself to be “all about the assholes and idiots in the world of sports.” He priggishly clucks at this “mix of adoration, envy, and resentment,” without even a nod to the world of sports being, self-evidently, full of assholes and idiots. Or that there’s a lucrative industry built up around camouflaging that fact from fans, who, not surprisingly, are then drawn to blogs like With Leather.
As Sternbergh says, snark is a conduit for outrage. It can be done badly or well, but the real question is whether it's appropriately targeted on those who deserve it. For example, how is it possible to write or speak of the Bush administration without snark? But since this question will inevitably lead to a defense of profanity, I'll leave it there.