Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly stated that Keith Olbermann described Karl Rove as having "a head like a lump of unbaked bread dough." That comment was made by Jon Stewart.

'Snark' Author Scowls at America's Web-Inspired Mean Streak

On David Denby's list of snark attack victims: Hillary Clinton, Ashley Tisdale and Al Gore.
On David Denby's list of snark attack victims: Hillary Clinton, Ashley Tisdale and Al Gore. (Washington Post Photo Illustration)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Must. Resist. Snark.

But when writing about "Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation," one's inner voice develops the tone of Nelson from "The Simpsons." One wants to perform the literary equivalent of some vulgar schoolyard cruelty -- to depants, to wet-willie. One wants -- No! Resist! -- to snark.

This is a book claiming that abusive snideness has caused everything from the demise of journalism to Al Gore's failed 2000 election. Snideness like Maureen Dowd calling Hillary Clinton a "hellish housewife" in her New York Times column. Or like the takedown of Ashley Tisdale by gossip maven Perez Hilton. Or like pretty much everything posted on Gawker.

The urge is to snark the book, because the alternative brings risks. Praising the book could mean coming across as too earnest (Perez Hilton is a meanie). Or naive (golly, anonymous people online say nasty things). This alternative admits that words hurt. Who wants to look vulnerable? Disdain can be a protective cloak.

Snark -- the vitriolic practice, not the book -- doesn't engage issues so much as it extinguishes discussion.

"It's bulimic in that it doesn't digest," says "Snark" author David Denby, who was in Washington recently to discuss the book. "It just coughs it back up." Denby is a film critic for the New Yorker. He sees the Internet-enhanced snark of the masses as an affront to both the future of media and the future of civilized conversation. Bloggers snark because they don't do hard reporting, then reporters snark to keep up with bloggers, and pretty soon every smile looks like a sneer.

"Snark," a 128-page essay that jumps from Lewis Carroll to Tom Cruise to Roman poet Juvenal, traces the spotty origin of the word, the elements of its usage, and also harangues some of its worst online and televised practitioners.

It verbalizes essentially everything you are thinking when you find yourself watching TMZ TV: Goodbye, brain cells, goodbye!

Denby is tapping into something -- and some of his points are praiseworthy:

1) Gossip site (which shut down recently) was probably inspired by the devil.

2) People who upload pictures on probably will end up learning they are Not. (Note: They also probably live in 2001, because we don't know anyone who has visited the site since then.)

3) Some people made veiled sexist or racist remarks about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries. Those people were bad.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company