Snark: Talk of the town

It's bitchy, biting and has taken New York's chattering classes by storm. 'Snark' updates satire for the 21st century – but one critic is fighting back. Tim Walker finds out why
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In his nonsense poem "The Hunting of the Snark", Lewis Carroll sent a group of mismatched Victorian tradesmen in search of a legendary beast. None of them knew what the Snark looked like, they just knew it had no sense of humour. And when they finally confronted it, it turned on them and terminated the unfortunate baker.

In Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal and It's Ruining Our Conversation, David Denby, film writer for the New Yorker, confronts a modern phenomenon with the name of Carroll's creature: "a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through [America's] national conversation – a tone of snarking insult provoked and encouraged by the new hybrid world of print, television, radio, and the internet."

The purveyors of this contagious prose style range from the young, liberal Manhattanites responsible for the media blog, Gawker; via the anonymous contributors to Juicy Campus, a now-defunct US website on which college boys boasted of sexual conquests before caddishly naming the girl and insulting her naked body or sub-duvet prowess; to Sarah Palin and her snide asides about Barack Obama's community organiser past.

"I wrote the book during the election," says Denby, "and I feared a lot of the attacks on Obama were coded racism: Republicans would say 'Barack Hussein Obama' and emphasise 'Hussein'. It was a way of implying, 'He's not one of us, he's Muslim, he's black'. I hoped that Obama's election would defeat the snark of the Bush era, but that was clearly naïve."

Denby defines the phenomenon's nine principles broadly as follows: Snark attacks without reason; it makes subtle appeals to common prejudices; it plumbs the depths of pop reference for cheap gags; it presumes all negative stories about influential figures are true; it thrives on rumour rather than fact; it turns complex people into caricatures; it encourages celebrity backlash; it attacks the old – and it abhors overpriced restaurants.

Like Carroll's snark-hunters, Denby finds it hard to describe exactly what snark looks like, and when Snark was published in the US earlier this year, it sunk its fangs into him like the doomed baker. "I attacked the crappy way some people in New York were writing and they bit back," he says. "The reviews outside New York were really quite pleasant."

Among his critics was Adam Sternbergh, a young snark practitioner reviewing the book for New York Magazine, who championed snark as "a defense against inheriting a two-faced world [where] no one – from politicians to pundits – says what he actually means ... snark is a clarion call of frustrated outrage".

"I don't think it's outrage over politics or culture," Denby responds. "It's outrage over not being sufficiently part of the action. It's career outrage. There's a war between insiders who work for the mainstream media and are well paid enough to live in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, and all the new media kids with no decent way of making a living yet.

"If you work for Gawker six days a week you make $40,000, which isn't going to cut it in New York. I'm sympathetic, but not to the sarcastic, vindictive writing it produces, which plays for temporary advantage, hoping that something it says is witty or mean enough to get picked up and go viral. Some law professors are upset by the lack of protection of reputation, but the last thing I want is legal restriction of the internet. It's got to be about taste, about manners, about style."

Modern snark may be mediocre and ubiquitous, but Denby does appreciate some "high" snark from past centuries, such as the poetry of Juvenal, whose barbed insults delighted first-century Rome; or Alexander Pope's The Dunciad, a satiric denunciation of his creative rivals in 18th century London. Snark may not be so widespread in London as Manhattan nowadays, but it has seeped out from Britain's gossip websites and celebrity magazines into the wider culture – and the political and technological conditions are such that it could easily become endemic here, too.

"What worries me," Denby argues, "is that if great newspapers or magazines become only websites, the level of discourse will decline and snark will take over. Online, there's a tendency toward snappy, short-form commentary. Suddenly everything will be opinion, there'll be no authoritative narrative of what's going on, just a din of voices. The internet is great at challenging parts of the popular narrative, but it's so de-centred that it can't provide that narrative. And if we have a totally de-centred journalistic world it'll just be snark, snark, snark, because everyone will be fighting to be heard."

"Snark" is published by Picador on 4 September. David Denby will appear at the ICA on 10 September. For more information, go to