Snark Undermines Public Discourse, Author Says A new book says snark is threatening to take over how Americans converse. Snark is a tone of teasing or snideness. David Denby, the author of Snark, discusses about how clever put-downs and cheap shots are coarsening public debate.
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Snark Undermines Public Discourse, Author Says

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Snark Undermines Public Discourse, Author Says

Snark Undermines Public Discourse, Author Says

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David Denby is a film critic for the New Yorker, but his latest book is not about the big screen. It's about the mean things people say on a computer screen. Visit the comments section of almost any blog, and you'll see what he's talking about.

Mr. DAVID DENBY (Film Critic, The New Yorker; Author, "Snark"): Teasing, nasty undermining, rug-pulling.

SHAPIRO: In a word: snark. Denby calls snarky comments hazing on the page. He sees it in every medium, and he says it's getting worse.

Mr. DENBY: This is the trouble with snark. It doesn't engage anything at any serious level, and it's almost bulimic. It doesn't swallow and digest. It just disgorges it back as a nasty little joke, and I think it's beginning to become, you know, a kind of plague.

SHAPIRO: You distinguish between snark on the one hand, and satire or irony on the other hand.

Mr. DENBY: Right.

SHAPIRO: And we actually have two cuts of tape here, one of which I think you would consider to be snark, and the other of which you do not. So let's listen to the first cut. This is Jon Stewart in a recent clip from "The Daily Show"

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): President Barack Obama today decided to take his case for the economic stimulus package straight to the people.

President Barack Obama: A failure to act and act now will turn crisis into a catastrophe.

Mr. STEWART: Oh, my God. He broke out the alliteration. Oh, my God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Crisis to catastrophe. It's going to go from disaster to doom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Okay, so would you consider this snark?

Mr. DENBY: That sounds pretty snarky, actually. I would say, though, that Stewart is one of my heroes, and Colbert. And I do make a case for them. And, of course, they do use snark now and then, but most of the time, there is a kind of civic passion in their jokes. And Colbert, my God, I mean, he, you know, when he puts on his Bill O'Reilly rubber mask and takes conservative positions to show what he thinks are the absurdity of those positions, that's irony.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's listen to Stephen Colbert. This is from the White House correspondent's dinner two years ago.

Mr. DENBY: Oh, okay, yes.

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): Most of all, I believe in this president. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently-flooded city squares, and that sends a strong message that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.

SHAPIRO: Now to many people, that sounds like the height of snark. But you say, no. This is something different.

Mr. DENBY: Oh, no. He's pretending to be one of the president's admirers and fans, and what he's really doing is exposing the president's policies. That's a pretty sophisticated level of humor, and it's very aggressive to the president's face. I would say that's irony at a pretty high level, and also extremely courageous.

What I don't like about a lot of snark is that it's anonymous. All of us are being snarked about, and people don't sign their names to a lot of it. Nothing is checked. Nothing ever disappears. So it's going to Google up, and it can hurt you at some vulnerable point in your life.

SHAPIRO: You have a great passage here in the book about why the Internet facilitates snark so much. You say a snarky insult embedded in a story or a post quickly gets traffic. It gets linked to other blogs, and soon it has spread like a sneezy cold through the vast kindergarten of the Web.

But as you point out in this book, snark did not start with the Internet. You trace it all the way back to the Romans, and we actually have tape here of a more recent historical example, from 1987 in Spy magazine. We had somebody read part of this essay that you quote in your book.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) In New York, there was an inverse relationship between a woman's dress size and the size of her apartment. A size two gets a 14-room apartment. A size 14 gets a two-room apartment. Rubenesque heft on a woman used to be a sure sign of wealth, as only the rich could afford to eat well. At Le Cirque these days, the ladies who lunch play with their $28 prix-fixe meals and come out thinner than when they went in.

And doesn't it seem that the more the wife diets, the more the husband balloons? Evenings, the couples march off to black-tie affairs looking like Olive Oyl and Bluto.

Mr. DENBY: Well, that particular piece of prose was the introduction to a devastating picture essay, which was of Upper-East-Side women in New York who were starving themselves in order to get into their evening gowns. That comes close to satire of manners and of wealth, but yes, the impulse - look, malice is as natural to human nature as kindness. And I try to give people a kind of a sense of where this came from and how it's always been there.

In both Greece and Rome, there was a formal mode of poetry, a genre in which you attacked, in a very personal way, your enemies, and you could do them in talking about their sexual behavior and so on. It was allowed. It was understood.

That's the kind of birthplace of this kind of humor, and I also try to account for the social forces that produce it. I mean, there are times when there are people who are holding power and want to keep the barbarians at the gate. So they snark them, or the reverse situation.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, you say snark serves not to break down the walls of loneliness and fear, but to solidify them by servicing communities held together by resentment.

Mr. DENBY: Yeah. The Internet is the greatest invention in democracy since universal suffrage. And Tocqueville said in the wake of a democratic revolution, you have an outburst of generosity and fellow feeling, but you also have an outburst of egotism and rage.

But I'm afraid people are beginning to talk about legal constraints on the Internet. I don't want censorship. And by the way, this book is not anti-Internet. I adore the Internet and completely dependent on it.

SHAPIRO: It's not even entirely anti-snark. You said life would be intolerable without any snark at all.

Mr. DENBY: There are certain events like Wall Street's fat cats awarding each other bonuses just before their companies went on the dole. Those are examples of extreme hypocrisy…

SHAPIRO: That demand snark.

Mr. DENBY: Which, right, where snark restores your sense of reality. But when it's done just to destroy, we're talking about something more serious. And the whole point was to give people a handle on what this is and a way of discouraging it.

SHAPIRO: David Denby is film critic for the New Yorker and author of "Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation." Thanks for talking with us.

Mr. DENBY: Thanks a lot.


Or maybe you should have said thanks a lot.

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