Hunting for the Snark in Sarcasm and Anonymous Expression on the Web

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER, we talk with David Denby. He's a film critic for the New Yorker magazine and author of a new book. In it, he attacks a form of expression used increasingly in public discourse in the United States and other countries.

RS: We're talking about snark. Denby defines snark as an anti-creative "strain of nasty, knowing abuse ... provoked and encouraged by the new hybrid world of print, television, radio and the Internet."

AA: The title of his book says it all: "Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining the Conversation."

David Denby
DAVID DENBY: "I'm not against satire or angry wit. On the contrary, I think it's great and we have a lot of it. But we also have a lot of lazy second-rate, third-rate writing and anonymous expression also on the Web that I would call snark that doesn't make that effort to create something new. And the awful thing, guys, about this -- I mean if, you know, if you're well-established in life, you just shrug it off or you don't even know about it, right? But kids can be hurt by this.

"In Japan this is a serious enough problem that the government is considering intervening at the high school level. Or if you go for a job interview when you're let's say twenty-six, twenty-seven and this nasty thing that has been posted about you will Google up. And that could hurt your employment possibilities. It's a serious issue that legal scholars in this country are beginning to worry about."

RS: "What is this saying about who we are, taking us as Americans -- the American snark, if you can separate that out -- what is this saying about who we are and our level of public discourse?"

DAVID DENBY: "You know, we've had a democratic revolution here in the Internet, and in the wake of it there's been an enormous amount of real generous sharing of information and opinion. But there's also been, as de Tocqueville said in 'Democracy in America,' in the wake of a democratic revolution you also get an explosion of anger, egotism, and everything that's been suppressed jumps out there.

"So part of it is, I think, the economic difficulties we're having. Part of it is the jostling in a country with many different ethnic groups, accounting for some of this anger. And a third thing is that everyone wants to be funny. Comics are cultural heroes. But professional comedians work extremely hard to get that feeling of spontaneity. So the rest of us who aren't naturally witty in that way, we can easily fall into a kind of low, mean sarcasm because that's easy."

AA: "One thing, where did the term come from?"

DAVID DENBY: "Lewis Carroll, a wonderful children's book writer -- wrote 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking-Glass' -- wrote a nonsense poem in eighteen seventy-six about the hunt for the snark, 'The Hunting of the Snark.' And he just made it up, and the snark is a mythical beast and all the representatives of Victorian society gather on a ship and hunt it.  

"By around nineteen-oh-four or five the meaning had migrated to something closer to what it means now in the work of another children's book writer, E. Nesbit. And she used it to mean when you're ragging at someone, when you're criticizing someone, when you're trying to get at them for something they've done. But the word wasn't active in the United States certainly until recently, until maybe the last ten years."

RS: "How can we get above it and beyond it and not get hurt by it?"

DAVID DENBY: "I think you have to tell your kids that it's a lousy tone and it's unacceptable and they certainly can't snark people anonymously. I mean I tell my boys 'Say whatever you want, but at least sign your name.' Admit responsibility. I think that alone would sober up people quite a lot."

AA: "And one last question: Have you ever been snarked?"

DAVID DENBY: "Oh, of course. And the book 'Snark' has been snarked, particularly in New York. I mean I called out people on what I think is the lousy way they write, and some of them have hit back very hard. And that, I expected. Around the rest of the country the response has been very good, and I've been all over National Public Radio."

AA: "So New Yorkers are more snarky by nature, you're saying?"

DAVID DENBY: "Well, it's the center of journalism and it's the center of ambition for young writers who want to be noticed, and it's a kind of way of making your mark. The trouble is that editors can be very ruthless and get rid of you once styles in comedy change -- and they tend to change very rapidly. If you're still doing last year's style as a writer, you're not going to make it. So, in other words, you have to 'up your game' and say something more serious at some point if you're going to survive and prosper."

RS: David Denby is author of the new book "Snark." And that's WORDMASTER for this week.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.