Longtime film critic David Denby is torn between two journalistic worlds, as many of his (and my) generation of ink-stained wretches are, and probably will be, for the rest of their days. Yes, he mourns the loss of authority of the printed form, and yes, the Internet is fabulous. These are the pillar-to-post sentiments that many of us 40-and-ups grapple with, and they can fluctuate wildly from day to day.
In Denby’s case, his agonizing moved him to write about what he thinks is the culprit, and he entitled his polemic simply enough — “Snark.”
In a Q and A posted this week on the business and technology blog at latimes.com, Denby takes aim at snark and its impact on Web journalism. It’s easily Kvetch of the Week material, but there’s also quite a bit of food for thought as so many of us take our journo-gigs online for good:
“Everyone I know in journalism is in a panic at all levels. Old media types like me are worried that our beloved publications are going to subside into just electronic versions. And they’ll have much less authority than they do in hard copy. In other words, once they’re only on the Web, they’ll just seem like a point of view rather than an authority.”
Snark wasn’t invented on the Web, of course. But its proliferation there has dovetailed with ease, along with its successful unleashing in at least one very prominent online media conglomeration. Even as its influence may be on the wane:
“The Internet is the greatest revolution in democratic practice since popular suffrage. Everyone knows that, and I am just as dependent on the Internet as anyone else. In the wake of a democratic revolution like that, there’s both an enormous explosion of information and expression, much of it useful or fun, and also an explosion of pent-up rage, social anguish, resentment, bilious, other-annihilating nastiness, prejudice and all the rest of the dark side. If that stuff is destroying conversation threads, screwing up people’s reputations, spreading around unchecked rumor or just snark, it’s worth pointing to it and saying, ‘Stop lousing up my revolution.’ The point of the book is to protect the best kind of humor by criticizing the worst.”
Enough general kvetching about snark. Here’s Denby’s real beef:
“The trouble with snark is that it doesn’t engage. It’s almost bulimic: It takes something into its mouth and then regurgitates it. So that’s something you can ask yourself: Am I really engaging with the subject or am I just trying to show off and be clever?”
Bravo! Readers guffaw, cackle, shake their heads and surf on, amused and only briefly entertained, taking it all as passively as the old media would dish it out. Snark, at its root, has no purpose. (Unlike, say, kvetching!)
Not only is snark not clever, it fails badly in its attempt to be witty. There’s little insight or intellectual stimulation or usefulness, components that new media evangelists — even the snarky ones — insist must be part of the Web ethos.
So it’s good to see Denby, in the middle of some rather polished kvetching, point (indirectly) to one of my favorite literary figures as an antidote to the snark disease. I do think he wrings his hands too much about the Web, as so many baby boomers do, but when he name-drops Dorothy Parker (alas, no relation), it warms my heart. However, I’m wondering if the woman who memorably sassed that “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised“ also may have served up an invitation to snark with this piece of brilliance:
“In the morning I brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
Here’s more Denby kvetching on his favorite new subject. He even admits to being guilty of practicing it himself. Aren’t we all?