It's not big and it's not clever


War Hero
Book Reviewer
It is sly, knowing and often downright nasty. Politicians and celebrities are its prey. And it attacks, under the guise of wit, without proof or reason. David Denby goes on the hunt for snark, which is invading all modern discourse from gossip sites to newspapers.

What is snark? Abuse in a public forum of a particular kind - personal, low, teasing, rug-pulling, finger-pointing, snide, obvious, and knowing.

How does snark work? Snark is hazing on the page. It prides itself on wit, but it's closer to a leg stuck out in a school corridor that sends some kid flying. It pretends to be all in fun, and anyone who's annoyed by it will be greeted with the retort, "How can you take this seriously? What's wrong with you?" - which has the doubly aggressive effect of putting the victim on the defensive. No one wants to argue with a joke, so this is shrewd as far as it goes. But some of these funsters are mean little toughs. Snark seizes on any vulnerability or weakness it can find - a slip of the tongue, a sentence not quite up to date, a bit of flab, an exposed boob, a blotch, a blemish, a wrinkle, an open fly, an open mouth, a closed mouth. It exploits - slyly, teasingly - race and gender prejudice. When there are no vulnerabilities, it makes them up. Snark razzes pomp, but it razzes certain kinds of strength, too - people who are unaffectedly serious. Snarky writers can't bear being outclassed by anyone, and snark becomes the vehicle of their resentment and contempt.

Actual comedy is hard work - harder than dying, according to the actor Sir Donald Wolfit, who remarkably announced this truth while lying on his deathbed. But snark, eschewing work, adopts the mere manner of wit, as if manner were enough.

How does snark operate these days? Let me count the ways.

The first principle of snark: the "whatever" principle. Attack without reason. What, for instance, is the point of this January 2008 post from the popular political-gossip blog Wonkette, which covers goings-on in Washington, DC?


Give credit to the Clintons for the job they've done raising Chelsea. Chelsea was born deaf and dumb, a veritable "wild child" who the schoolteachers couldn't tame. But after 20-odd years, through Bill and Hillary's tutelage, she now speaks "words". And since she's young, she can use this new talent to talk to other young people about her struggle with muteness. It wasn't an ordinary job, getting this demon to speak like a person. But Bill and Hillary aren't ordinary people.

This is low snark - obscure rage and sheer ineptitude choke any possibility of laughter. You could dismiss it as inane, but the malice of it - the free-floating contempt in a void - gets to you. And the three-dimensional opportunism of it, too. Why not simply ignore it? Well, many people do, but the gas of snark enters the air around us as a corrosive sense that cynicism is hip and everyone is vulnerable. Even the mother of Michael Phelps gets her picture posted on the web looking a little funny, with an accompanying jibe. Isn't she fair game? And Tom Cruise's two-year-old daughter? Sure, why not? "Tiny mind-controller Suri Cruise decided that she wanted parental units Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to meet up with Ben Stiller and his wife Christine Taylor for dinner. I'm not sure why Suri was so hell bent on meeting up with them, but I don't question her ways." This text, which appeared on a number of celebrity websites in August 2008, accompanied a photograph of Suri carried by her mother as the two couples and their children were fighting their way out of a restaurant. The baby's face was scrunched up, her hands raised high to block out the paparazzi flashguns.

The second principle of snark: the white-man's-last-stand principle. Appeal to common, hackneyed prejudices, the more common and hackneyed the better. But disguise the appeal a little, if you can. Race, it turns out, is snark's very heaven. The knowingness that racial snark appeals to is usually concealed backstairs somewhere in the commodious house of unconscious fear, intolerance and distrust. Consider the following examples. They are all old news, familiar from the 2008 election season, but listen to the teasing appeal of snark running through them:

Outraged liberals: 'Stop picking on Obama's baby mama!' (Headline running during a discussion of Michelle Obama on Fox News, 11 June 2008.)

It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him ... The One. (Opening words of McCain ad attacking Barack Obama.)

Even if you never met [Obama], you know this guy. He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by. (Words spoken by Karl Rove to Republican insiders at a Washington political club, 23 June 2008.)

Ah, Fox News. The first example, a clumsy attempt to shove Michelle Obama into the class of unwed black teen mothers, was so bizarrely inappropriate that the network quickly withdrew it. The second example, part of an elaborately facetious McCain attack ad, with Obama surrounded in halos, had two audiences. To anyone above the Mason-Dixon Line, it seemed nothing more than a sour reference to Keanu Reeves's saviour character in the Matrix movies. In the south, however, it may have functioned at another level: "The One", according to southerners, is a put-down of someone getting above himself and is likely, in this context, to be taken as derision of an "uppity" black. The third example, Karl Rove's debonair moment could be interpreted as a coded put-down of uppity blacks (it turns out that when a black man gets a college education, he's an "elitist"). At the literal level, it's nonsense. Obama, whatever his faults, isn't snide, and his beautiful date could only be his wife. The most generous interpretation of the remark is that Rove has been snarking for so long that he simply slipped into stupidity.

Throughout the presidential campaign, groups of Obama haters attempted, as Nicholas D Kristof of the New York Times put it, to "otherise" the Democratic candidate by insisting in email campaigns that he was a Muslim, had taken his oath of the office on the Qur'an, had spent time with terrorists and had performed many other un-American activities. I'm not speaking of the crazies who genuinely thought Obama was the Antichrist, but of conscious political people who spread around joking nonsense because they knew it was likely to be believed by the gullible, the frightened and the ignorant. The attacks on Obama were more virulent than against other candidates precisely because race was explicitly unmentionable; the excess was provided by frustration. Snark was the preferred mode of expression in this de-Americanising project, the juice that shined up the smear.

Misogyny is so lame that you would think no one would dare pull it out of the trunk of properties, but it keeps popping up and grinning at the audience. Snark appeals to a layer of knowingness, as follows:

When [Hillary Clinton] reacts the way she reacts to Obama with just the look, the look toward him, looking like everyone's first wife standing outside a probate court, OK? (Mike Barnicle on MSNBC, 23 January 2008.)

As Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, once told me: '[Clinton's] never going to get out of our faces ... She's like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won't stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be the damn president, just leave me alone.' (Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.)

[Sarah Palin's] primary qualification seems to be that she hasn't had an abortion. (Carol Fowler, South Carolina Democratic chairwoman, 10 September 2008.)

Barnicle is a veteran Boston journalist with plenty of salt in his talk, and if only he had said "like my first wife", his joke, partly about himself, would at least have sounded the authentic note of white-guy sourness. By making it "everyone's first wife", Barnicle, reaching out to men in general as a knowing audience, turned insult into snark. Like Barnicle, Wieseltier also appealed to the anguished legions of the henpecked. As it happens, Clinton's refusal to give up her drive for the presidency made her seem more like a Masada warrior than a housewife. But snark doesn't make its way in the world by overestimating anyone, as Carol Fowler's comment on Palin suggests.

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. Snarking writers try desperately to scrape the rust off a hand buzzer. Housewife from hell - badda-bing! After Hillary Clinton lost the nomination, Camille Paglia wrote (on 11 June 2008) in the online magazine Salon as follows: "Hillary for veep? Are you mad? What party nominee worth his salt would chain himself to a travelling circus like the Bill and Hillary Show? If the sulky bearded lady wasn't biting the new president's leg, the oafish carnival barker would be sending in the clowns to lure all the young ladies into back-of-the-tent sword-swallowing." The geography of Paglia's circus is a little confusing but, to get to the point: one of snark's habits - not quite a principle - is to pretend to be shocked by sexual misbehaviour in order to appeal to an audience's supposed distaste for it (the pretence is a mild form of demagoguery). Paglia has in fact been a noisy champion of sexual liberties for decades. In a 2005 documentary devoted to the wretched porn movie Deep Throat, she said that the movie marked "an epochal moment in the history of modern sexuality". What, then, changed her position on sword swallowing except for the desire to commit snark? And is Paglia actually opposed to an aggressive woman who goes after what she wants? Her strenuous metaphors can't hide the fatigue and incoherence of the old taunts.

Are these snarky phrases, and the hundreds like them, abominable, the end of civilization? Mainly they're examples of terrible writing and thinking, spiked by malice afore-thought. But they're bad in a peculiar way. They have a definite tone, and, for a large audience, they scratch a recurring itch. They draw on what might be called superfluous anger, which presents itself to the snarker and his fans as entirely justified nastiness. The joke - attempted joke - disguises the bizarre rancour from both parties. By saying this, I don't mean to separate wit from anger.

Some of the funniest tirades have been inspired by rage (see Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper's "Literary Offenses", or Philip Roth's early novels). But snark is failed wit. It tries to resolve criticism into a phrase, satire into an attitude. It stinks up the air without liberating any laughter. Since the early 19th century, the colloquial ease and play of America's banter, at its best, has been shrewd and funny in a way unknown anywhere else. Later on, Charlie Chaplin's Tramp wanted civility and decency in personal relations, only to have the entire world intervene; Groucho and the other Marx brothers overthrew pomposity and sham while trying to succeed themselves through some piece of shameless trickery; WC Fields's was the solitary and selfish individual whose enjoyment of bodily comforts was disrupted by children, shrews and idiots. What united these wildly diverse men was a sense of the individual making his way, or failing to make his way, in a hostile society. There was no club of the knowing, only the great audience. They invited everyone to join in their emotions.

The depression was a great source of humour as well as woe, with people trading stories of hardship in a raucous spirit of companionship. My own youth, in the 50s, was galvanised in fantasy by the smart-talking broads in 30s movies - Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, Rosalind Russell - and also by the male journalists who appeared in such newspaper comedies as The Front Page, in which the reporter was a cynical rowdy at ease in the city, a bottle in his hand, his hat back on his head, talking at a speed that almost defied auditory comprehension. In the 40s, there was the foul-mouthed GI and Rosie the Riveter, defiant, wrench in hand. Whatever its miseries, the country in the 30s and 40s was at peace with itself spiritually: we were all in the same boat. But at the moment, the attitude is that there is no common boat, and that, if there were one, other people should be thrown out of it. Income inequalities and Rovian tactics that exacerbate ethnic and class differences have made for sandpapery relations or blank indifference, and snark serves not to break down the walls of loneliness and fear but to solidify them by servicing communities held together by resentment.

The fourth principle of snark: the throw-some-mud principle. Assume anything negative said about someone with power is true - or at least usable. The powerful, of course, should be constantly monitored and unmasked, and no one in a democracy expects everything said about them to be fair. "It is an extreme rudeness to tax any man in public with an untruth," Sir Walter Raleigh said. "But all that is rude ought not to be civilised with death." Raleigh, an actual wit, meant that not every slander should lead to a duel. No, and not every insult should be withdrawn or, once given, avenged. We can all toughen up a bit and forbear. But snarking writers regularly ignore even the pretence of truthfulness, and silence in the face of near libel may allow trash, through repetition, to attain the solidity of truth.

When writers of snark turn their attention to anyone even slightly well known, they choose to regard rumour as fact, accusation as proof, gossip as news. Once something negative is said, snark repeats and pumps up the remark, with nasty commentary added as a tweak.

The habit of snarking your enemies could move into websites devoted to any kind of public event - a business conference, say, or a town council meeting. You give a speech at a PTA meeting, and someone takes your picture, or notices a small error or a maladroit remark, or just doesn't like something you said, and he posts your picture on a community website with anonymous nasty commentary. Paranoid? It's already happening. We know about Big Brother - the government listening in on phone conversations as it hunts for terrorists - but it's Little Brother, the neighbour with the iPhone, who may be the scariest monitor in the future. I don't believe, as the culture critic Lee Siegel insists in his handwringing 2008 tract, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, that the internet is stealing our souls. But I'm not crazy about it stealing my likeness on a routine occasion and assigning someone else's meaning to it. Digital technology makes such monitoring easily possible. Small communities post photographs of undesirables with prison records or men who make derogatory remarks to women on the street. Do we really want cybercops everywhere, snarking away at neighbours? Some of them may be properly enforcing community norms, like school crossing guards, but others could be just malicious busybodies and snoops, gleefully mucking up other people's lives in a righteous spirit. Snark covering itself in morality is uniquely nauseating.

The fifth principle of snark: the reckless-disregard principle. Ignore the routine responsibilities of journalism. The more flagrantly you ignore them the better. In the internet age, the rumour, the smear or the taunt, if it's pungently phrased, spreads instantly through the web; and from thence into the mainstream press. The internet will quickly turn snark into meme. And once the item appears, its truth or falsity is irrelevant. The phrase, the insult, has an existence in the media (someone said it, didn't he?), so it can be referred to, combined with other items, revived, denounced, dismissed as old news, and so on. The false item, made memorable by snark, passes through the entire cycle of media life. This is known as "the national conversation".

Why take back anything that might get at someone? Both journalistic irresponsibility and the appeal to backstairs prejudice came into play in the rumour that there was a videotape in which Michelle Obama used the term "whitey". The rumour was mentioned again and again on cable news in the spring of 2008, even though no such tape showed up. The denials issued by the Obama campaign themselves made a story, so "whitey" got mentioned yet again. This is journalism practised along snarkist lines. The internet satisfies snark's need for instant circulation; snark satisfies the internet's need for attention-getting semi-libel. If you're never going to check anything, why not post it?

The sixth principle of snark: the hobbyhorse principle. Reduce all human complexity to caricature. Then repeat the caricature. Genuine seriousness, when it turns up (say, in a man like Al Gore), disgusts snarky writers - they refashion it into stiffness or pretension. The mystery of personality bores them into silence.

Snark "reads" people on sight often by reducing them to a trait, a label, a moniker denoting failure; then, in a sly (and sometimes funny) tautological process, it may institutionalise the caricature it has itself created. Celeb sites find an epithet for someone - "homewrecker Sienna Miller" - and then repeat it, until it becomes a meme. Private Eye referred for years to the English (now US-based) editor Harold Evans as "small but perfectly formed". No one unacquainted with Evans had any idea what this meant, but the mere repetition of it was funny. The hope of American snarkers, in imitation of Private Eye, is that persistence in using epithets will turn a joke into a kind of cult. Spy magazine had an obsession with short men that was initially funny precisely because it was meaningless. "Back in the good old days, Runts were discreet, deferential. The New Short, however, have dispensed with such social mores and can be seen shamelessly flaunting their puniness in public." This isn't bad as a spoof of the clichés of trend journalism, but the magazine kept at it; the editors really had a thing about short men. They made lists of fallen short celebrities, short billionaires, short editors at the Condé Nast media company, sometimes accompanied by photos of them with their taller wives. They tried hard to build a mock prejudice, but, a few years later, when it was clear that a cult of insulting the short had not developed, this bit of snark just seemed bizarre, and it fell away. Today, it would become a meme; shortness would prevail as an insult.

The seventh principle of snark: the you-suck principle. Grab hold of celebrities in an attitude of adoration and loathing; first adoration, then loathing. The celebrity culture has now engulfed politics, sports, business; it has engulfed culture. Kids grow up in it, taking it for a natural environment, and even to speak of it seems odd, since naming it implies some distance from it or control over it. But distance or control are impossible, since virtually everyone lives in it, breathes it, is fascinated and disgusted by it. Snark is central to its workings.

Consider the typical cycle: a young actor, singer, rapper, model, athlete or writer is built up rapidly, and receives our adoration, even awe, becoming the object of a million fantasies of companionship, lust and possession. Everyone wants to be with the fresh stars, talk to them, sleep with them. The new talent, in the beginning, eagerly yields herself to the process. Nothing is more pleasurable than the attention of strangers. Young performers love the excitement of it, and they fall into the hands of managers and publicists who tell them a little scandal won't hurt. You need to get out there, to establish your brand. The publicists tip off the paparazzi, who snap the celebrity's picture as she steps out of a limo, and the tingle on the back of her neck is like the first taste of champagne.

The young stud, the starlet, the athlete - they are all in play. Vanity Fair, in one of its recurring fantasies of great Hollywood stars (Gretchen Mol? Orlando Bloom? Natalie Portman? Jessica Biel?), puts them on the cover in pale, luminescent nakedness or drapes them across five other young things, posed in evening clothes against a white background. Immortal stars! Just like Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner! In Los Angeles and New York, desperate invitations arrive: please, please appear at openings, celebrations, charity events. They are paid serious money - thirty, forty thousand dollars - to go to parties for an hour, often in clothes that are given to them. Strangers take their picture on cellphone cameras and sell them to websites for a few dollars. Their tattoos are a source of wonder. They can easily be seen naked or at least shirtless on the internet.

If a given star slips and falls - has a few flops, a bad season, a drug episode, a poorly received book, a few casual sexual escapades with the wrong person (which may be no more than what a young, good-looking office worker would get away with) - snark swings into action. Adoration is followed by a quick withdrawal of affection and fake expressions of moral disapproval. A magazine that has been publishing pictures of a handsome young actor wearing almost nothing is suddenly shocked to discover that he easily picks up girls on a movie set, on a vacation, at a party. And disapproval is followed in turn, perhaps, by an abrupt shove into the gutter. Suddenly gossip mags and websites are invested in the star's failure; they want her ground down into nothing. It's a deathwatch.

The press and public can't get enough of her atrocities. Drug-dazed screwups such as Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse are pursued until they collapse or throw a punch. A singer may be addressed on the web as "bitch"; her legs, breasts and skin are examined for flaws; she's then criticised for being snippy towards a celebrity press which, in fact, is doing everything it can to kill her. Actors, singers and athletes are pulled out of closets, often by gay fans, or accused of cheating on their girlfriends or wives. Athletes are caught with the wrong women, or just with women. The web pursuit of them turns furious, obscene.

In the feverish cycles of obsession, snark functions as the avant garde of resentment. The best put-down lines are pure snark, which sets and extends the tone of derision. In August 2008, the New York Times ran a page in the Sunday Style section with pictures of ageing actors who have erased their wrinkles with Botox. Fair game, I would say, since Botox makes women look weird, though the movie critic in me would also point out that 59-year-old women who aren't named Streep can't get starring roles in Hollywood. Botox and other forms of "work" are a desperate career move to stay in the game. Anyway, the accompanying text to the Times piece consisted of speculation that the offending celebrities have gone soft in the head. It seems a Botox ingredient - botulinum type A - may have drifted from their skins to "one hemisphere of the brain". That Botox has been around for a long time and has caused no evident outbreaks of stupidity among its users is brushed aside. Snark is in play. The women's real problem, of course, is that they got older.

But enough! To hell with the celebrities, what about us? Initially, we grant that someone is prettier or more talented than we are. The act of giving over part of our self-love and strength to another should be natural, easy, joyous, but it isn't for many. In the common estimation, American life is a viciously competitive race, in which every ego has to fight for a limited amount of oxygen. In that atmosphere, then, adoration of another is experienced as a loss, a wound. Reduced in some way, we want to hit back. But there's no point in going on. We're trapped in this forever. Almost everyone participates in the narrative of ascendancy and decline. The national ritual may lead to recurrent bouts of nausea, but a sick stomach never stopped anyone from consuming for very long. Not just celebrities, but any man or woman who does public work, or performs, or wants fame, enters the realm of snark and gives himself over to a public, large or small, that keeps a kind of stock-market quote in its heads marking the exact value of every player at any given moment. Snark helps set the price, particularly for the short sellers.

The eighth principle of snark: the pacemaker principle. Attack the old. Your editors and Web publishers want young demographics, so they won't mind.

Snark is about punishment. The ambitious, the overweening, the allegedly pretentious, anyone who does anything, anyone who merely exists; they all have to be punished. But the spectacle of age goes beyond mere existence. Age is infuriating, disgusting: the looming winter, the failing body, the terminating scythe. Snark functions as ill humor applied to a universal condition, and the knowing group includes all of us. Which means we might lose whatever good things the old might give us - perspective, depth, gravity, all things anathema to snark. The old - and not just the ones running for president, who deserve it - get their slowness clocked, their verbal flummoxes written down, their sags and humps measured. In the New York Times, on February 17, 2008, Charles McGrath wrote, "Jim Lehrer, 73, has been with 'NewsHour' since 1975, so long that some of his early viewers are now in assisted living." Ka-ching. The sentence has the setup of a good one-liner, but snark pours a drop of poison into the ear of wit, and the punch line dies on its feet.

In an earlier period, we thought that in the free market of ideas and language, the best and most truthful expression would win out and the rest would be forgotten. Now I'm not so sure. During the 2008 election, Barack Obama was subjected to an enormous amount of innuendo, slander and coded racist insult ("Muslim", "terrorist", etc) but, at the same time, myriad defenders in the press and on the internet unmasked or refuted the snark directed at the beloved young Democratic prince. One could say that the enormously expanded communication system attained a kind of equilibrium, in which every powerful untruth was countered by an equally powerful truth. What about everyone else? They will not be defended. There is no inherent reason why a democratic media society has to be stupid. In the past, the snickers of a few journalists have killed lousy practices or stupid phrases in public conversation. It would be a real defeat if we had become too jaded or overwhelmed in the expanded media environment to do nothing about similar things now but shrug them off as inevitable.

(Perhaps there is some "snarking" goiing on in Rum Ration at the moment...) :shock :wink:


War Hero
didn't even make it halfway without getting confused oh well I will try again later and hope it doesn't overload my 2 brain cells too much
I never got past the first chapter.......... :oops:

Could you provide the bone idle amongst us with a Newbie Soundbite version (alias a precis) of less tha 15 words..... I think I can about manage that...... :twisted:


The first principle of snark: the "whatever" principle.

The second principle of snark: the white-man's-last-stand principle

The third principle of snark: the pawnshop principle

The fourth principle of snark: the throw-some-mud principle.

The fifth principle of snark: the reckless-disregard principle.

The sixth principle of snark: the hobbyhorse principle.

The seventh principle of snark: the you-suck principle.

The eighth principle of snark: the pacemaker principle

So that's why there is no 'Snarking' about Gordon Brown - every one of the above are truths, some more so than others.


War Hero
thingy said:
I never got past the first chapter.......... :oops:

Could you provide the bone idle amongst us with a Newbie Soundbite version (alias a precis) of less tha 15 words..... I think I can about manage that...... :twisted:
:geek: And me, oh look a rabbit. :blah5:


War Hero
:hmph: Seriously though, I've been very worried about old Sarge.since the pictures that he posted on the "Why are you boys so obsessional about **** sex" thread :roll:


War Hero
And all these years I thought a Snark was a fictitional Lewis Carrol monster. Twas brillig and the slithy RPO's did geer and gymble on the forum. :wink: :wink:

Very informative though!