The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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snark vs. Snark

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:

Venn diagram exploring overlap between Cruelty, Humor, Engagement, Anger, Justified Anger

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.


  1. Really, the very presence and flavor of glee in this habit almost proves how unsnarky we are.
  2. animated Gif of a running Teal dear. tl;dr


    If you think this post is too long, and it probably is, just take a look at the Venn diagram I made and check out the PSD file and make/annotate your own.
  3. I was a high school chemistry teacher once, and can get annoyingly hung up on the difference between accuracy and precision. Consider yourselves warned.
  4. (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.)


And it’s not a market either! I never really thought about that part before.

Well, what is “a market”, anyway? We may not be selling for cash, but that’s a narrow interpretation of market. The phrase “marketplace of ideas” is cliched in the extreme, but still signifies something a massively significant structure in human life. Water cooler, poster-session, gallery exhibition, library, CMS, music festival, Ren faire: all have the same structure of gathering and sharing and exchanging. Market comes from the Latin merx/mercis–goods and merchandise, and mergor “to trade” “Trade” is much more fluid and expansive than selling or even barter, and “the goods” can be both free and/or abstract

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually, b/c in my particular religious tradition (Gaudiya Vaishnavism) a Sanskrit/Bengali word for ( hāṭa ) market is used in two key verses as a metaphor for the market place of theologies and religious choices. The text (a foundational work in Bengali poetry, literature, and history) Sri Chaitanya Charitamrta dates back to the 1580s and the verses quote a written poem and a dying testament from 1530s, well predating John Stuart Mill. In both verses, very elderly and senior Vaishnavs directly or indirectly address the subject of the hagiography, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, comparing His life’s work to the setting up of a market or making something available on a market. (Full disclosure: I, like all Gaudiya Vaishnav Hindus, believe Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is God, so I’m totally biased about how great these verses are.) Reading the text makes it clear that even in rural Bengal, villages had marketplaces, and that people gathered there to meet and discuss things and share things with the local community, and many key events happen in marketplaces. A major part of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprahbu’s theology is congregational religious singing and dancing, and one of His major innovations was taking this congregational singing and dancing out of temples and the closed houses of the elite and into the streets of the villages” (nagar) and particularly, through the marketplaces–allowing anyone to hear it, find it as an “option,” and, if inclined, join. Because of these two verses, and another verse that describes the “price” of what He’s “selling” as “greed”, we use this metaphor a lot in our liturgy and sermonizing and poetry. There’s a certain freedom of choice and browsing in the marketplace analogy that feels key to me. I’ve been thinking about these metaphors a lot because my sister (with some help from me) has been giving a series of lectures to a very small group of Sanskrit students who are interested in learning more about our tradition, and it’s forced us to organize our knowledge of it a little more systematically. We’re nth generation Gaudiya Vaishnavs/second generation Bengali-Americans who grew up with second-generation GV-converts (i.e Hare Krishnas) and in “mainstream” American society; most of our friends and colleagues are Atheists and Agnostics, and we’re well aware of the fine lines between “free market” and “aggressive, marketing” and “harrasment” when it comes to “trading” matters of faith. So it has been, and is, hard work for us, our whole lives, to try and elucidate exactly what our understanding of “preaching” is without getting too completely tangled up in the local/Occidental history of Evangelism and other Abrahamic histories of persuasion and conversion. The idea of a virtual marketplace where it’s both okay to authentically and passionately share, and okay to smile and walk away, is thus sort of desperately important to me.

The other important ancient words for market are the Greek agora and Roman forum, both of which were places of business as well as for gatherings. The market is public but informal, more-or-less fixed in space but multipurpose in function.

A description of Athens’s famous agora:

The Agora of Athens was the center of the ancient city: a large, open square where the citizens could assemble for a wide variety of purposes. On any given day the space might be used as a market, or for an election, a dramatic performance, a religious procession, military drill, or athletic competition. Here administrative, political, judicial, commercial, social, cultural, and religious activities all found a place together in the heart of Athens, and the square was surrounded by the public buildings necessary to run the Athenian government.

These buildings, along with monuments and small objects, illustrate the important role it played in all aspects of public life. The council chamber, magistrates’ offices, mint, and archives have all been uncovered, while the lawcourts are represented by the recovery of bronze ballots and a water-clock used to time speeches. The use of the area as a marketplace is indicated by the numerous shops where potters, cobblers, bronzeworkers, and sculptors made and sold their wares.

Alright, I can’t resist sharing some Saheli-trivia. From the age of 4 or so, for various reasons, my great ambition was to work for a real high school paper. But then I moved and ended up going to a crunchy granola private school (weirdly descended from the royal boarding schools of Salem and Gordonstoun) named… wait for it… The Athenian School. It had no paper, and when it had had a paper, it was entirely up to the students to get it printed. As an 8th grader sulking about my paperless future I was a crushed, but when I was a ninth grader a sassy sophomore (no, really, she was featured in Sassy magazine) decided to revive it, and I shot to her side like a roadrunner and glommed on to her like glue. It turned out that the historical name of Athenian’s paper was… The Agora. So for one year I was staff on the photocopied Agora. We cut and paste it together and stuffed it into our schoolmates mailboxes. Then it died again. At the end of my sophomore year I was determined to revive it and failing to persuade Ms. Sassy to take the lead, I declared myself editor and persuaded a junior who knew how to use Pagemaker to be layout editor. He agreed on one condition: get rid of the awful name Agora. He’d been at Athenian since 6th grade and seen too many previous failures and he refused to be sucked back into the curse. But we couldn’t agree on a name, so the first issue was “the formerly agora.” I kept yammering about how I wanted it to be different and totally unpredictable, so my sister suggested the name “divergence” and that stuck. It was a completely absurd zine, in retrospect, and I’ll have to reminisce about it later. (As someone who went back to teach, I am baffled and mortified at my editorial choices and the indulgence shown to me by the faculty about them and so, so, so grateful all the copies disappeared from the archives before scanners were plentiful.) Later in college calculus I found out what divergence really means and realized my math graduate student sister had totally punk’d me. My carefully groomed successor editor (who was a successful professional journalist for years! long before and after me!) wanted something more civic and professional, perhaps less filled with pulpy norish tech fiction starring our teachers (!) and changed the name back to The Agora, which name it held with dignity for several more years, the curse lifted. Last I was there it was printed on a real broadsheet and subsidized by the school and named, rather boringly, The Pillar, but now I think they’ve dispensed with all that and just blog.

“no, really, she was featured in Sassy magazine”

Am I the only one waiting for an email or post that shares this feature?

You know, I’ve tried to find it, and I can’t. I must be misremembering the spelling of her name. I also have reason to believe she doesn’t want to be found and has become a very private person, so I’m not going to try too hard.

I have always thought that Snarkmarket is a fine, if accidental, name — because this is a place where media snark is neither judged nor amplified out of hand, but weighed, dissected, and measured for its true value.

“Snarkmarket. Neither snarky nor a market. Discuss.”

Yeah, at this point, I believe it’s a name like Amblin (the production company) or THX (the sound standard)… a string of characters with a fairly arbitrary origin that have had meaning poured into them (rather than the other way around).

And “everything outside the red splotch of cruelty” is actually a pretty accurate mission statement.

Heh, I think I have an urban legend, entirely in my own head, that Amblin refers to the way ET walks. Every now and then I correct myself (yes, it’s more about hitchhiking as per the title of Spielberg’s first commercial film) for a while, and then the urban legend takes over.

This blogpost was on my list of links to include in this post, as it seemed to come from a fellow traveler of ours, except we’ve basically gone and done everything she’s protesting, so I didn’t have the heart to work it in.

Tour de fucking force, Saheli. What a maiden voyage.

Substantive reaction to come.


Gosh, thanks, Howard! That means a lot coming from you.

Major co-sign to that. On both parts — the tour-de-fucking-force part and the substantive-response-forthcoming part.

Maria Bustillos, she of the noble pen, separately distills at least part of this sentiment into an elegant, erudite formulation, prompted by Buzzfeed’s new “only positive reviews” book section:

“When real engagement is present, no snark is too sneering; without it, no praise is worth a sou.”


I totally appreciate the elegance of the aphorism and am looking forward to checking out more of her work, but I, at least, almost never appreciate sneers directed at someone who hasn’t earned it with their own cruelty or willful negligence.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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