Arts & Culture

Epic Fail: David Denby’s “Snark”

David Denby has the worst job on earth. As the New Yorker’s other film critic, Denby has the misfortune of competing with the suffocatingly funny Anthony Lane, a stylist and wit who once likened R2-D2 and C-3PO to “a beeping … Read More

By / February 3, 2009

David Denby has the worst job on earth. As the New Yorker’s other film critic, Denby has the misfortune of competing with the suffocatingly funny Anthony Lane, a stylist and wit who once likened R2-D2 and C-3PO to “a beeping trash can and a gay, gold-plated Jeeves” and wrote that Revenge of the Sith was superior to its predecessors “only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion.” Lane is a tough act to follow. Denby must work with a sneeze guard over his laptop to keep the flop sweat from shorting it out.

Denby is a fine writer, and his criticism is often perceptive and illuminating, but I doubt I’m alone in feeling a pang of disappointment when I see his byline and not Lane’s. I wasn’t surprised, however, to see his name on Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. It should have been called Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Hilarious, and It’s Upstaging Me on a Biweekly Basis. Denby describes snark as a “strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation.” The reader soon finds that Denby’s aim is to devalue what he lacks—above-average wit is nowhere to be seen in this book—by conflating it with everything from hyperbolic insult to gossip to jokes that aren’t funny to misogyny to racism. Let’s have a look.

The First Principle of Snark: The “Whatever” Principle. Attack without reason. To illustrate this principle, Denby relates a crack made on the weblog Wonkette the day Teddy Kennedy underwent brain surgery: “[D]octors fixed a clogged artery in his neck. They successfully removed the Jameson bottle.” Denby follows this up with a pious paraphrase of De mortuis nil nisi bonum which also allows that “the senator has lifted a glass now and then.” His disingenuousness is infuriating: Is he inviting us to be outraged by a cheap shot at a cosseted public official? Is that the most convincing example he can muster? No, he also comes to the agonizingly sanctimonious defense of Suri Cruise—an infant, and unlikely to appreciate the gesture. Are these attacks “without reason”? Quite to the contrary, they reinforce a useful sense of shame, by reminding readers that drinking to excess or giving birth to a publicity stunt are aberrant behaviors.

The Second Principle of Snark: The White Man’s Last Stand Principle. Appeal to common, hackneyed prejudices. Denby quotes a McCain ad about Barack Obama: “It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him . . . The One.” “To anyone above the Mason-Dixon line,” Denby writes, “it seemed nothing more than a sour reference to Keanu Reeves’ savior character in the Matrix movies. In the South, however, it may have functioned on another level: ‘The One,’ according to Southerners, is a putdown of someone getting above himself and is likely, in this context, to be taken as derision of an ‘uppity’ black.”

If I had to say whether snark or dishonesty posed a more serious threat to “our” conversation, I would not hesitate to pick the latter. For starters, the line is not a Matrix reference. It’s generic religious language composed to ridicule the religious overtones of Obama fever. Even the staunchest Obama supporters of my acquaintance complained about these quasi-millenarian delusions, if only because they set the bar too high. The TV spot Denby suggests may have been a racist insinuation was unambiguous. It is the height of snark, as Denby tries to define it—self-serving mean-spiritedness—to pretend otherwise.

The Third Principle of Snark: The Pawnshop Principle. Reach into the rotting heap of media referents for old jokes, old insults, and give them a twist. There is already a name for this: unfunny. Calling it “snark” dignifies it unnecessarily.

The Fourth Principle of Snark: The Throw-Some-Mud Principle. Assume anything negative said about someone with power is true—or at least usable. Here Denby is either talking about lies, which are already subject to libel laws, or he’s talking about needlessly embarrassing facts. If he’s talking about lies, then we don’t need new terminology for the phenomenon, least of all terminology that trivializes it. Nevertheless, this argument should find sympathetic ears, especially when Denby lashes out at the former Gawker blogger Emily Gould, a stranger to style and wit, who admitted on television that she felt justified in humiliating celebrities with the cash to console themselves. (Gould later wrote a self-pitying manifesto for the New York Times Magazine detailing how an upbraiding by Jimmy Kimmel sent her straight into the mouth of madness.)

The Fifth Principle of Snark: The Reckless Disregard Principle. Ignore the routine responsibilities of journalism. Denby gnashes his teeth at the “habit of never checking the truth of anything” on blogs and media websites. Yet no mention is made of, for instance, the Killian documents controversy (Dan Rather), Vicki Iseman (The New York Times), or the Soap Opera Plot against the Palin family, in which major media outlets tried to convince us, if memory serves, that Bristol Palin had given birth to all the other members of the family while sequestered in a Mexican convent. Once again, Denby confuses snark with libel while omitting significant recent examples of the latter.

The Sixth Principle of Snark: The Hobbyhorse Principle. Reduce all human complexity to carcicature. Here, Denby’s Nine Theses begin to peter out into inanity. Criticizing some aspect of a public figure is tantamount to murder. Never mind that reducing someone to caricature has been known since time immemorial as “caricature.” Is there reason to complain if Angelina Jolie or Madonna are dressed down (so to speak) as misery tourists or Third World kidnappers? If Tom Cruise is characterized as a mentally ill trampolinist? Denby reaches back into the vault to harass the editors of Spy for their campaign against short people, an ill-conceived joke that few other than Denby and Tom Cruise are likely to remember.

The Seventh Principle of Snark: The You-Suck Principle. It’s snarky, according to Denby, to turn on a celebrity one used to adulate. The catalyst—drug abuse, a disastrous marriage, bizarre behavior—is irrelevant. The beautiful needn’t be damned. Denby sees them as fragile Fabergé eggs; it’s his role to see them safely to the end of the race.

The Eighth Principle of Snark: The Pacemaker Principle. Attack the old. You’ll never guess who doesn’t make an appearance here. Hint: He was permanently crippled by his Vietnamese captors and as a result has been slow to set up a Facebook page.

The Ninth Principle of Snark: The Gastronomic Principle. Attack expensive, underperforming restaurants. Is snark ruining “our” conversation, or the conversations of New Yorker staff writers? In fact, Denby approves of this manifestation of his enemy: “Vicious snark is necessary when it amounts to protest against oppression by overpriced dining.” He’s not even kidding. And I’m not even laughing. And neither, probably, are you.

Denby is at his best, or at least his most justified, when wondering what the Internet will do to the concept of reputation. He is understandably horrified by the ease with which petty, unqualified, and anonymous assailants can spread lies about those with the courage or ambition to put themselves in the public eye, whether or not it’s the limelight. The trouble is, much of the chum he dumps in the snark tank is something else altogether. It is, at best, low comedy—at worst, prejudice or brutality.

And Denby frequently tries his hand at what he calls snark, but he’s abysmal at it. He reduces the brilliantly readable James Wolcott to a “the most adept towel snapper in the locker room.” A paragraph later, he scolds Joe Queenan for his facetious suggestion that the blind are lucky because they “get to go through life without ever seeing Shelley Winters.” With film-major pedantry he reminds us that Winters “had love affairs with Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, and William Holden”; it never occurs to Denby that the joke would have fallen flat were Winters someone celebrated for her ugliness. Should I write Denby an angry letter reminding him that Wolcott has written criticism—of a variety of genres—far more memorable, entertaining, and penetrating than Denby’s? Wouldn’t that be taking the joke a bit too seriously?

Public life, particularly public life in the arts, is not for the sensitive or timid. Most of the people Denby rails against have hides like depleted-uranium tank armor; his is a rice-paper screen painted with mists and swallows. If you are a professional Snarksmith, to borrow the title of my friend Michael Weiss’s website, the only message to read into Denby’s priggish tract is: Keep up the good work.