Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I was just reading Adam Sternbergh’s review of David Denby’s new book Snark. Denby claims that snark is “a nasty, knowing strain of abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation”; Sternbergh replies that, au contraire, snark “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.”

Many people will get caught up in this argument, no doubt, but it is impossible to imagine a greater waste of time. I will say that Sternbergh’s review is not coherent or specific enough to get a good handle on. He writes as though all so-called snark is just a way of speaking truth to power, and never even mentions the use of snark in conversations among social equals; and while he seems to think that there is good snark and bad snark, he doesn't give any examples — except to say that he thinks Tom Cruise is fair game — so there’s no way to know what in particular he likes and doesn't like. Denby at least gives (hundreds of) examples to illustrate his claims.

But all that said, I want to go back to the point that this is a useless argument. Here’s my prediction: not one person in a thousand is going to be confronted with a statement whose core idea they agree with and say, Yep, that’s too snarky. They’ll either say along with Sternbergh that that’s good snark or (what amounts to the same thing) they’ll say it’s not snark at all but rather legitimate irony or sarcasm which the target of the criticism richly deserves. When faced with actual examples of critical language, almost everyone will approve of that critical languge if it’s directed against their (political, social, artistic, religious) enemies and disapprove of it if it’s directed against something or someone they approve of. Democrats will lament Republican snark, Republicans will lament Democratic snark, world without end. Why even bother having this conversation?

I’ll confine myself to this one statement: whether snark is ever a good thing or not depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to buld solidarity among people who already share a set of core convictions, or if you just want to blow off your own built-up steam, then snark might be a good thing. If you want to find ways to get people who disagree with each other to come to some mutual understanding, and perhaps even agreement . . . not so much.