By David Denby

What is snark? It’s a fitting question to ask considering how it began life as a nonsense word before going on to enjoy a brief moment in the media sun as a critical rallying cry.

David Denby, a professional film critic, seems like a good source to turn to for a definition, especially in a short book concerned with formulating a precise description of the phenomenon. Does he succeed? I’ll try not to be too snarky in my comments.

To begin with, the identification of snark is a value judgment, and like all such judgments much of it lies in the eye of the beholder. We know snark, or like to think we know it, when we see it. We may also be aware of degrees of snarkiness (Denby ranges them from high to low), and the very different personal responses we may have to it. Indeed, our own response may be conflicted. Denby “hates” snark but also finds it “irresistible.” Is it possible to make sense out of such ambivalence?

Given its inherent subjectivity, even the best efforts at nailing some kind of working definition down may come to nought. So in addition to trying to figure out what it is I’d like to go on to ask why we are hunting it down and what’s at stake. But, for the moment, we’ll put those questions to one side.

To begin with first principles: snark is a form of evaluative criticism, which is to say it passes judgment. Seeing as we’re calling it snark, our thumbs will usually be pointing down. In terms of its critical voice, snark may make use of irony, irreverence, or spoof, but, as Denby breaks it down, it is something different than all of these. Perhaps the quality it is most often identified with is sarcasm. It is criticism with bite. But as Clive James wrote, in defense of snark, “all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree.” It’s just a question of how much pepper you like.

To this essentially negative or adverse character Denby would add two other qualities. In the first place, snark is personal. It isn’t just an attack on something but someone: the person (or people) responsible for whatever it is the critic is finding fault with. Extended to the political realm – and this is a direction Denby really wants to take snark, though I’m not sure it’s a wise move – it means going after a politician’s personal qualities, and in particular their race and gender.

The reason I don’t think expanding snark to discussions of politics is a wise move is because I believe a politician’s personal qualities are among the things voters should know about. I’m not talking about jibes at Barack Obama for being black or Hillary Clinton for being a woman – these examples of bigotry and crude insult are only straw men Denby sets up. But surely mocking a politician for personal failings that go to matters of judgment or temperament, in whatever context those qualities express themselves, is fair game.

Political snark, however, does highlight something about snark that is a real problem. One functional definition of snark might simply be the expression of an opinion, often but not always made in a sarcastic tone, that you disagree with. Or, if this isn’t the difference between snark and not-snark, it’s at least the difference between snark to be avoided and snark you like. Criticizing Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton isn’t just snark, it’s hate speech. Criticizing George W. Bush or Donald Trump is an exercise of critical wit or irony. Thus, for Denby: Maureen Dowd bad, Stephen Colbert good. And Keith Olbermann (another liberal commentator) can be excused because “he may use snark as a weapon, but snark is not his general mode.” Which makes no sense at all to me except as partisan positioning.

This business of taking sides is the way that I’ve typically found the label of snark being used in discussions of book and film reviewing. Now I’ll admit labeling snarky reviewing can be difficult. Denby quotes from one of the earliest anti-snark manifestoes, by Heidi Julavits, as finding “it hard to separate justified cruelty in criticism from mere showing off,” and immediately adds “I agree: One can’t make general rules about it; one can only go on a case-by-case basis.” This makes any attempt at definition (which is a “general rule”) kind of pointless, and it also opens the door for that eye-of-the-beholder quality I began by mentioning. Thus the helpfulness of my rule of thumb for identifying snark as the expression of an opinion you disagree with. If you find yourself in sympathy with the negative judgment being passed on a new novel or film then you’ll likely find the review insightful, courageous, important, well-written, clearly argued, cogent, etc. If you disagree with it then you’ll think it’s just a snark attack. It really is that easy.

The other quality Denby uses to characterize snark is that it is criticism without “a coherent view of life” or any vision of what is of value. Snark is nihilistic, tearing down everything indiscriminately, without appeal to any common standards. Here again we are led into danger. What if one’s values are nihilistic? Or what if the vision of what is of value that is being expressed is different than our own? Aren’t we likely to see criticism from any uncongenial perspective as snark?

From my own experience, snarky critics tend to be among the most passionate and even idealistic critics going. So when Denby writes that if you “scratch a writer of snark . . . you find a media-age conformist and an aesthetic nonentity” who recognizes “no standard but celebrity” I have no idea what he’s talking about. Most of the snark I recognize as such is radically opposed to media conformity, and has no greater enemy than celebrity.

All of this is just to point out that definition is pretty much impossible. But, to return to the question I flagged earlier, why are we so intent on calling it out? What’s at stake? Why does Denby care?

That’s another hard question to answer. As noted, Denby doesn’t mind some snark. There is snark he finds enjoyable. But there is something at stake in the hunting of the snark. We have to be concerned at any line being drawn around critical expression and, yes, freedom of speech. Denby is careful to say that he doesn’t want to forbid snark, but at the same time he would clearly like to see the worst examples of it eliminated. This is dangerous territory for anyone, but especially a professional critic, to enter into. Nevertheless, Denby is far from alone in taking his stand among those who have grown tired of an excess of voices and divergent views, particularly on the Internet. And as the trend toward media cocooning continues, insulating ourselves online in a web of self where opinions disagreeing with our own can be safely filtered, this is very much swimming with the tide.

Finally, why does Denby care? I don’t know, but some of his own snarkiness offers some hints. Denby is an older, establishment critic, having been a film reviewer for the New Yorker for over twenty years. Who are the people who really bother him (aside from Maureen Dowd)? Bloggers who are only adept at “schoolyard taunts.” Punks who are dismissed as “today’s snarky pipsqueaks.” “The snarkers,” Denby tells us, “sound like kids – and not like wild, beautiful, and crazy kids, either, but like hoods and brats.”

One gets that Denby wants to defend standards of “intellectual complexity or wit” (domain of the Scriblerian snarkers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift), but those standards, as we’ve seen, remain relative, subjective, and uncertain. Meanwhile, what really upsets him are those critical kids on his lawn, the ones (as his subtitle has it) “ruining our conversation.”

But there is no single conversation, just as there is no single set of critical standards. There are many conversations, taking place in many different rooms. Some of these we may want to join, while others we try to avoid. But any form of criticism, in my opinion, can be good for the soul. And snark, paradoxically, might even teach us to be less judgemental and more tolerant of the views of others, in whatever form they are expressed. The form an idea takes, after all, is an idea or mode of thought itself. And the worst thing we can do is to try to make the world a place that always agrees with us.

Review first published online May 1, 2017.