My review of The Snark, by David Denby, from tomorrow’s Observer

Snark, by David Denby
Picador, £9.99

Gordon Brown’s former special adviser Damian McBride wouldn’t have known it, but those innuendo-laden emails he sent around about the Tory leadership were textbook snark. There was something ethically snarky about the surreptitious video which that witless prankster Heydon Prowse recorded during his conversation with Alan Duncan. With only one hundred and forty characters to spare, one of the few ways to get one’s message across on Twitter is a garbled dialect of snark.

But what exactly is snark, and however are we to recognise it? According to the New Yorker’s film critic David Denby, it is a kind of failed humour, muttered under one’s breath to a knowing audience, whose spread is systematically lowering the cultural tone. Snark is abuse, but abuse of a rarefied kind – “personal, low, teasing, rug-pulling, finger-pointing, snide, obvious and knowing.” It is lazy and parasitic; “it doesn’t create fresh language or a new metaphor or even a fresh physical description.” The professional snarker is the master of the low blow and the cheap shot. He has no time for the virtues of political life, and specialises in the kind of lily-livered laughter dead even before it hits the belly. Snark is the “teasing, rug-pulling form of insult that attempts to steal someone’s mojo, erase her cool, annihilate her effectiveness.” It finds it best expression in the stink-bombs thrown around on the playground of the web, those codas of innuendo passed straight around to one’s chortling gang. The internet, he says, has allowed snark to “spread like a sneezy cold through the vast kindergarten of the Web.” As the mainstream media subsides into the net, clutching like Fagan at its dwindling bag of gold coins, Denby believes that Snark can only emerge supreme. It is, Denby solemnly informs us, “the angry fanfare attending journalism’s decline.”

Snark is full of glorious, thwacking send-offs just like these. The real thrill of Denby’s book, however, and what distinguishes it from mere polemic, is his gallop through the history of literature to hunt out and trap the predecessors of snark and dissect their nefarious modus operandi. Snark differs from satire, he says, because its practitioners (think of Jonathan Swift) are usually motivated by savage indignation at the existing state of things and some idea of how they can be changed. Whereas the satirist is full of indignation about the state of things, the snarker pretends to a kind of superfluous anger, which allows him to go over the top. Snark, says Denby, is the kind of jaded cynicism which “attacks any kind of aspirational tone that doesn’t conform to a commercialised notion of hip.” He is all in favour, he says, of the literary swashbucklers who use irony as a double-edged sword, appearing to revel in the thing that they loathe.
When Denby comes to lay out the evidence, however, he inevitably muddies his case. Everyone from the Greek to the film critic Pauline Kael, it turns out, dabbled in something nastily close to snark. Gore Vidal is not shy of practising something called “high-snark”, Private Eye is shelved as “mid-snark” while the white-suited affectations of the young Tom Wolfe are written off as “vulgar snark.” He is very good on the kind of journalism which wades through the detritus of culture in search of something to snigger at –   another interview with Noel Edmonds, for example, or an all-too-easy snipe at an artist or writer trying something new. He has no problem, he says, with the rough-and-tumble of cultural life, and comes close to snarkiness himself when writing about the New York gossip magazine Gawker, whose only beef with the vacuous celebrities that it follows seems to be that its staffers can’t afford to live like them. It’s only when he goes further, to criticise critical bruisers like James Wolcott and Joe Queenan, and the vitriolic imagination of the New York Times’s witchfinder-in-chief Maureen Dowd, that the reader begins to wonder whether a snark-free world would be any fun at all. Even the lowest form of wit, after all, can sometimes pay its way in insight.

If Denby’s book has a fault, it is that it goes all too easy on the sniggering and Bush-baiting perfected by the likes of Jon Stewart. But then Denby is a liberal Anglophile and an eminently respectable film critic on the New Yorker, and is only wading into network television and the blogosphere in the spirit of noblesse oblige. Après all of us, his rolling prose style implies, le déluge. Even if he fails to trap the snark, his perfect critical pitch works best as a masterclass showing up everything that snark is not. Priced at a tenner, his svelte little j’accuse of a book seems to suggest that while the reader is quite welcome to avail himself of everything for free on the net, while they’re on his patch they’re sure as hell going to have to cough up for quality. I’d say it’s worth every penny.