Those of us who have been following Snarkmarket for a long time often bond over the common experience of having to explain to friends and newcomers that despite our gleeful habit 1 of using Snark as a prefix for everything Snarkmarket (Snarkmatrix, Snarkmarketeers, Snarketeers, Snarkives, Snarkserpent, Snarkicon, Snarkseminar, Snarkfriends) Snarkmarket is not very snarky at all. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of snarky. But what does that mean? 2 The Snarkbrand’s conundrum came up during the Snarkseminar when Max Fenton, on videochat, told me he had purposefully stayed away for years; he is, after all, an editor at Believer Magazine, which was founded with an essay by Heidi Julavits decrying snark. She described it as
just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. This hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt is, I suspect, a bastard offspring of Orwell’s flea-weighers…Here’s another theory about snark. Maybe snark was a critical attempt to compete, on an entertainment level, with the Anthony Lanes of the world, critics who write witheringly and hilariously about movies that will nonetheless go on to sell millions of tickets and win twelve Oscars. Lane and Denby make us feel like cozy ex-pats in a country of higher standards; we are the giggling, minuscule minority. We also see those movies. Book reviewers who adopt this tone when reviewing literary fiction are about as humorous as cow tippers; as a result, they guarantee a book that might have sold 4,000 copies, will now sell 800. And nobody will read that book, not even the literary types, who are off watching Titanic with a knowing smirk.
(Emphases mine.) Some observations stemming from the inclusion of David Denby as an exemplar of the role models of snark: in 2005 he was famously derided as a bully in the letters section of the New Yorker by Owen Wilson (in defense of Ben Stiller), and in 2008 he published a book: Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. So there are no clear uniforms in this war, and neither self-identification nor external labeling are going to give us reliable labels for training our internal classifier in understanding what is and is not “snark.” Denby’s book got a non-endorsing review in New York Magazine by Adam Sternbergh, commencing with the caveat that
Denby’s book invites—even begs masochistically to receive—a snarky response, but he won’t get one here. I enjoy snark. I practice snark. And I hope herein to defend snark.
To me Sternbergh’s review feels like an exemplar of the anti-anti-snark backlash, the bristling defensiveness that I often encounter as I gleefully rave about Snarkmarket’s non-snarkiness. I haven’t read Denby’s book, but allow me to invoke Sternbergh’s use of it as a straw-man for anti-snark to justify, in turn, my use of Sternbergh’s review as a strawman for pro-snark. Sternbergh’s analysis (which I can’t agree is truly snark-free) points out several weaknesses in Denby’s critique of snark. Firstly, Denby defines it too nebulously:
Basically, Denby argues that snark is humor as a vehicle for cruelty. Of course, a book titled Cruelty: It’s Ruining Our Conversation hardly jazzes the reader, as it might have been published at any time in the last 400 years. Snark, as a term, feels current, modern: a viral killer for our cacophonous age.
While its true that Denby may have chosen to name his enemy snark rather than cruelty in order to “jazz the reader” and that cruelty coated in humor is an overly broad categorization of the alleged crime, lacking in precision, that does not mean it’s lacking in accuracy. 3 Sternbergh futher characterizes Denby’s argument as trying to ground a more precise description in notions of the hypothetical snarker’s intention–the snarker’s interest in rooting for something, if not the thing at hand. Sternbergh counters this with characterized argument with an example of a website, TV Without Pity, that “wore its snark proudly” while providing a space “to rant about, snipe at, dismiss, ridicule, and, yes, snark on their favorite shows. It was consistently funny, occasionally mean, and snarky to its bones. But it was never, ever, disengaged.” (Emphasis mine.) To me, this is an (extremely!) interesting example but not a refutation of the significant existence or harmfulness of indifferently cruel humor. (At one point did the goal move from decrying cruelty to decrying hostility or negativity?) Allow me to Venn:
Overlapping aspects of discourse surrounding the idea of “snark.”
More persuasively, in what I think is a particularly elegant passage, Sternbergh defends his vision of both snark and irony:
slackers adopted irony not as a pose of hipster cynicism but as a defense against inheriting a two-faced world. When no one—from politicians to pundits—says what he actually means, irony becomes a logical self-inoculation. Similarly, snark, irony’s brat, flourishes in an age of doublespeak and idiocy that’s too rarely called out elsewhere. Snark is not a honk of blasé detachment; it’s a clarion call of frustrated outrage.
(Emphases mine.) Anyone who has ever swooned at the work of a real muckraker can resonate with this. Denby further loses points in Sternbergh’s estimation for choosing bad examples of “victims” of snark from amongst the ranks of the powerful and professionally spun (Tom Cruise?!), idealizing a snarkfree world that never existed 4 the and ignoring the political value of snark as a calling out of bullshit. But Julavits already countered these points in her original piece of anti-snark: negative, even cruel, wit directed at powerful media titans, stupidly popular archetypes of nostalgia, and other disingenuously two-faced purveyors of exploitative bullshit is not the problem. The problem is that when you are always angry and cruel, and that anger and cruelty is made pleasurable via humor, you may forget to put the cocktail down when appropriate: when, for example, you are picking on a target who is not, overall, your own size. This leads to a secondary genre of arguments–the comparison of “size” via concepts like power and relative privilege. This can get quickly tricky and tedious, allowing just enough cynical coating of bullshit with disingenuous victimhood as to only provoke further witty rage in the righteous. Again, humorous rage is all well and good until it becomes a toxic, self-gratifying addiction. How can we enjoy our sugar without letting it poison us?
Reading all this text it seems to me that the problem with describing taxonomies and dichotomies of discourse and intention and harm in words alone is that you end up being trapped, having written your way into impossible corners, and unable to write yourself a concise rule for getting out. So when we try to describe in words, to our friends, why we like Snark with that cheerful capital S and not the snark targeted by Julavits et al, it is very hard, in words, to point out the bright shiny truth of what Snarkmarket is not. (After all, TV Without Pity sounds like it was kind of very much in our wheel house.) Fiddling with my ad hoc Venn diagram, though, it seemed quite obvious what most of it is–everything outside the red splotch of cruelty. Sometimes there’s anger and frustration, and sometimes it’s positive, and very often it’s witty and sharp and humorous. But almost never is the intention to smack someone down and make them cry, and then only if they really really deserve it. A concrete example of this last, to prove I mean it: Brian Phillips’s Grantland essay on bullying in the NFL which Tim just perfectly glossed.
What interests me now are the nooks and crannies of these overlapping categories. I’ve uploaded my somewhat crummy Venn diagram above as a PSD file here, and if anyone would like to use it to generate an image with annotations about which nooks and crannies you’re interested in, and why, I’d love to see them.
- Really, the very presence and flavor of glee in this habit almost proves how unsnarky we are. ↩
- check out the PSD file and make/annotate your own. ↩ If you think this post is too long, and it probably is, just take a look at the Venn diagram I made and
- I was a high school chemistry teacher once, and can get annoyingly hung up on the difference between accuracy and precision. Consider yourselves warned. ↩
- (For an archaic look at the snide bashing of earnest writing, check out page 583 of Volume XIII of The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art.) ↩