THE BLOG
02/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Snark Ascending

Though not yet reflected in census statistics, snark, the language of sneers, smirks, and snide asides, is now spoken in more American households than Portuguese. If snark is the native tongue of any particular minority, it is surely the tribe of professional critics. Consider Dale Peck's infamous review of the 2002 novel The Black Veil, which begins by proclaiming: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." Assessing the 1972 movie What's Up, Doc?, John Simon wrote: "Miss Streisand looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun." David Denby also reviews movies, for the New Yorker. But in his snappy new opuscule Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits (Simon & Schuster), Denby fulminates against the epidemic of verbal hazing. It has spread far beyond reviewers, to infect countless witless amateurs. A statement on the canary yellow cover of Denby's intrepid book encapsulates his thesis: "It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation."

Denby traces snark's etymology to Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "The Hunting of the Snark" and its genealogy back to boozy roasts in ancient Athens. He bestows on Latin poet Juvenal the dubious epithet "snark's greatest talent," and he sniffs out contemporary snarkiness in a precipitous line descending from the English magazine Private Eye to Tom Wolfe, Spy, Karl Rove, Camille Paglia, Gawker and anonymous cyberbullies. He unaccountably passes over Oscar Wilde, who said of George Bernard Shaw, "He has no enemies, and none of his friends like him," and Dorothy Parker, who wrote: "This is not a novel to be tossed lightly. It should be thrown with great force." Offering an anatomy of Maureen Dowd's humor, Denby concludes that it lacks a heart. "Despite all her larks and inventions, she's essentially sour and without hope," he says of the New York Times columnist. "In brief, she's the most gifted writer of snark in the country."

If snark is a gift, it would be wise to request a lump of coal instead. Though snark is by definition unscrupulous, Denby attempts to ascribe nine -- overlapping -- principles to it. What is clear, without analyzing his arithmetic, is that snark is an expression of contempt that is contemptuous not only of its target but of standards of logic, evidence, and decency. "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?" asked John McCain at a Washington dinner in 1998. "Because Janet Reno is her father." The quip is not only factually inaccurate on two counts -- Clinton's appearance and her paternity. It is gratuitously cruel. Snark presupposes a secret society of shared disdain. It preens, reveling in its own cleverness. It says: "You and I are so far superior to this wretch that anything I devise is acceptable as long as it is droll." Snark is conspiratorial; as soon as the listener or reader refuses to suspend disbelief, the snarker is left alone, naked, oozing bile.

To be appalled by snark does not mean renouncing all invective. Cicero's tirades against Mark Antony are classics in the art of insult, and one might sooner ask an Italian to speak with hands tied as expect an NBA playoff without some trash talk. Denby praises Jonathan Swift as the greatest practitioner in English of satire, which he is careful to distinguish from snark. Other satirists he admires are H. L. Mencken, Keith Olbermann, and Stephen Colbert. Satire, according to Denby, "requires the dramatized or implied belief in some outraged ideal, some better way of life or art than the fallen and degraded versions that the satirist attacks." Snark, by contrast, is nihilistic. Despairing of rescue, it gets its kicks by placing thumbtacks on the deck chairs of the Titanic. Abandoning all hope, it is as nasty as it wants to be, for the hell of it. It is attitude without content or aspiration.

The left can be every bit as malicious and cynical, but, even though his book manages to mention Rush Limbaugh in only one paragraph, most of Denby's examples of political snark are drawn from the right. Continuing innuendoes about Barack Obama's race, religion, and nationality demonstrate that reactionary snark thrives beyond Election Day. American conservatives like to emulate the English aristocracy, fancying themselves as beleaguered patricians. William F. Buckley, Jr. specialized in sesquipedalian derision. As the rhetoric of resentment, snark is a socially acceptable way to sneer at multiculturalism, progressive taxation, environmental protection, and other developments one feels powerless to rescind.

The spread of snark is symptomatic of the erosion of civility at a time in which road rage, shriek shows, and litigious neighbors are commonplace. A creature of envy, snark sets out to shrink the ambitious to our own puny dimensions. Those who are always looking down never see the stars.