Snark

In the opening paragraph of this brief polemic, David Denby assures readers that although he is ready to do battle with "snark", he is "all in favour of nasty comedy, incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire and certain kinds of invective". For 130 pages, Denby thunders on in this way, as if for the hard of hearing. Snark, he explains, is not the same as "blessed criticism" or "heaven-sent forms" like satire, spoof, lampoon and burlesque. Denby's use of "snark" and "snarky" and "snarker" is so promiscuous, and his examples of it so diverse, that the word ends up as shorthand for everything he happens to dislike, his every bugbear subsumed under one syllable.

Denby's book is a late entry into a debate initiated more than five years ago, by the American novelist Heidi Julavits, in an essay about book reviewing. Entitled "Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!", Julavits's essay warned that snark, defined as a "bitter, knowing, hostile tone of contempt", had "crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community". Denby follows Julavits in emphasising snark's destructiveness, comparing it to kneecapping, rug-pulling and towel-snapping, but he frees the word from her context, arguing that, having been fostered by journalism and having flourished on the internet, snark has "spread like pinkeye through the national conversation".

A journalist and cultural commentator, Denby has spent the past decade as film critic of the New Yorker, a post he shares with Anthony Lane, who plays a delightful Fool to Denby's earnest Lear. It is from this high perch that he looks down at the less reputable practitioners of snark, such as Republicans who make jokes about Barack Obama on Facebook and users of instant messaging, which Denby would "bet" is a snark-magnet. He doesn't only round on teenagers, though: his foes also include the Roman satirist Juvenal ("an early case of snark, I think"), Maureen Dowd, Washington correspondent of the New York Times ("the most gifted writer of snark in the country"), and Gore Vidal ("a master of high snark").

Denby’s use of “snark” is so promiscuous that the word ends up as shorthand for everything he happens to dislike

As Denby's definition of snark is malleable to the point of being meaningless, he is forced to play some disingenuous tricks in order to find examples that fit the bill. His attempt to tar the esteemed American critic Leon Wieseltier is a case in point. Wieseltier stands accused of being snarky in the "clinching judgement" of his review of Martin Amis's The Second Plane: "Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer." Denby describes it as an "odd insult", on the grounds that "most of us would hardly turn scarlet with shame if Mailer's The Armies of the Night or The Executioner's Song suddenly turned up on our résumé". Then he calls it a "stealth dart aimed directly at Amis's heart" for the amusement of those readers who know that Amis "adores Bellow's work and dislikes Mailer's." But Amis has been a loud admirer of Mailer for 30 years, so Denby's own clinching judgement that Wieseltier is saying to Amis, "You write like someone you despise, not like your hero" is hokum. The snark is all in his head.

A strange characteristic of snark, in Denby's portrayal, is that liberals are congenitally incapable of it, at least while they are expressing their political views. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart is cleared due to his defence of "civic virtue", while every conservative who cracks a gag becomes a victim of Denby's higher name-calling. English readers will be especially bemused by his dealings with Private Eye, though one can see why a writer fond of phrases such as "national conversation" and "movie art" might be unsympathetic to the idea of Pseuds Corner.

Denby also mounts a rickety attack on Tom Wolfe. After chiding Wolfe's 1970 New York magazine article on "these radical chic evenings", he seeks to prove the legitimacy of his position by informing the reader that Wolfe later became "a rather sour neocon" and "apostle to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal". Stripped of its emotive vocabulary, the description offers one unremarkable fact: Wolfe is a neoconservative who writes for a right-wing newspaper. Snarking the right is fair game, apparently.

If there is an essence to the book's disparate claims, it is that practitioners of snark know only what they are against. Denby tries to elude this trap himself with a final chapter advocating vituperation that is "insulting, nasty, but, well, clean". Throughout the rest of the book, however, he has been consistently guilty of the very things he condemns. He prefers drawing on received opinion to offering a reasoned account of his positions; he misrepresents his enemies; his prose tends to complacency and sarcasm; and his opinions are stated rather than substantiated. Worst of all, he communicates praise, of crucial importance in an argument against snark, in that pigeon-livered review-speak that stains our favourite paperbacks. Alexander Pope was "the greatest satirist"; H Mencken was capable of being "as funny as Mark Twain"; "The Hunting of the Snark" is "perhaps the greatest example of nonsense verse in the English language"; the Symposium was "one of Plato's greatest dialogues"; a translation of Juvenal is "extraordinary" (Denby does not read Latin).

I am not convinced that writing of this sort presents a sufficiently strong alternative to "the republic of snark", at least as Denby has peopled it. Who would willingly forsake the whizz-bang contrarianism of Tom Wolfe in favour of Denby's loose arguments and critical clichés? He may be right in claiming that snark is endemically destructive and nihilistic, but it exists for a reason. Confronted with his mixture of hypocrisy and certitude, conceitedness and ignorance, sentimentality and paranoia, one begins to see why it spread like pinkeye to begin with.