One might at first assume that David Denby's short book, Snark, is the latest in the line of anti-Internet polemics, such as Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur or Lee Siegel's Against the Machine, but it really isn't. It's a critique of media discourse more generally, and Denby focuses some of his most withering criticism on such "mainstream" journalists as Joe Queenan and Maureen Dowd. The closest he gets to targeting Internet practices per se is his citation of such gossip-centered sites as Gawker and Wonkette, both of which almost all serious readers can agree are worthy of contempt.
Denby does, however, repeat the mantra by now chanted regularly by print journalism at large that bloggers and other anarchic inhabitants of cyberspace threaten "authority," that "agreed-upon facts and a central narrative" will disappear into the "many niches and bat caves from which highly colored points of view will fly wildly like confused vectors, and in that situation no one will be right, no one will be wrong, and everything will be a matter of opinion." (Denby and his fellow fetishists of "authority" must have an easily provoked fear that "facts," what's "right" and what's "wrong," are pretty unstable concepts to believe that a motley collection of folks publishing their thoughts from basements in Terre Haute or Sioux City could eviscerate them so readily.) More plausibly, he asserts that the Internet has helped to proliferate an already existing tendency:
It turns out that in the wake of the Internet revolution, snark as a style has outgrown its original limited function. The Internet has allowed it to metastasize as a pop writing form. 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.
The metaphorical association of Internet and disease, as well as the assignment of bloggers to their playrooms, certainly betrays a low opinion of online writing habits, but there's probably no point in denying that snark as a rhetorical strategy has gotten more widely dispersed through its use on the Internet, even in particular through its adoption by some bloggers. Here, however, a little care ought to be taken in distinguishing between honest snark--biting words that contain an element of truth and cut through the tangles of false decorum--and what Denby calls "low snark" the latter of which finally degenerates into "bilious, snarling, resentful, other-annihilating rage." The former can ultimately become wearying if such snark is the *only* mode of commentary offered up by the blogger, but the latter doesn't even rise to the level of "snark" in the first place. It's simply biliousness.
I'm not sure I've ever really run across much of this "low snark" on the blogs I read. Like many critics of the blogosphere, Denby seems particularly fixated on the comment threads that develop from many blog posts, where "low snark" perhaps does occasionally slip in. He seems to think that attracting as many comments as possible is the point of most blog posts and assumes most readers of blogs make their way dutifully through the subsequent threads, but in my experience this doesn't usually happen. Blogs that attract a modest number of considered comments (I like to think this is one such blog) can spark worthwhile give-and-take, but posts that result in hundreds of comments, as on most of the prominent political blogs, for example, are just too unwieldy, and I, for one, don't bother with the comments. Denby really gives few examples of bloggers who indulge in "low snark," and it's pretty hard to take seriously as informed criticism an analysis that takes the occasional loud-mouth comment as reason for alarm.
Denby doesn't discuss literary snark per se all that much, so it's hard to know whether he thinks the discussion of books online is as endangered by snark as a cultural style as political debate or personal interactions conducted on social networking sites. I assume he isn't really aware of the hundreds of blogs devoted to the serious consideration of literature, as well as philosophy, history, and film and the other arts (surely he must be generally aware of his own online competition as found in film blogs) and that, far from "ruining our conversation" where literature and art are concerned, are perhaps in the process of renewing it. These blogs aren't necessarily always free from what I've called honest snark, and to this extent they might prompt him to reconsider his blanket assertion that "contemporary snark is postaesthetic. . .produced by people living in the media who know, by the time they are twelve, the mechanics of hype, spin, and big money. Everything that isn't part of the entertainment business cycle seems lifeless and unreal to them." Certainly this description aptly fits many "people living in the media" (including some bloggers), but the sort of snark occasionally to be found in otherwise seriously-intended blog posts is often squarely aesthetic in its attempt to focus attention on issues that aren't "part of the entertainment business cycle." Snarky comment about books clearly intended to find their place in this cycle, or about "criticism" that merely observes its movements, is actually an attempt to identify the Entertainment State itself as "lifeless and unreal."
Denby does devote a couple of paragraphs to the well-known efforts of Heidi Julavits, editor of The Believer, to distinguish between snark and honest critical judgment, wherein, as Denby puts it, "Julavits found it hard to separate justified cruelty in criticism from mere critical showing off." By now one can say that the entire run of issues of The Believer has mostly been an attempt to banish "critical showing off" from its book reviews, which has, in my opinion, resulted in a style of criticism that is uniformly bland and mostly useless. The latest issue I have read (January 09) contains six reviews of 5-7 paragraphs, each of which consists almost entirely of plot summary or cursory description with a few dashes of empty praise. The usual sappy cover accurately enough signals the sort of inflated cheer that characterizes most of The Believer's content. (It is altogether revealing that far and away the best piece in the January issue, Gary Lutz's essay on the art of the sentence, was not commissioned by The Believer but is a lecture reprinted in the magazine.) If what is required to remove snark from critical discourse is the prominence of a publication like The Believer, I'd prefer bile and resentment--or at least more appreciation of "justified cruelty," the systematic exclusion of which only renders literary criticism toothless.