Have you ever wondered how modern society has become so mean-spirited, jaded and hurtful? Have you ever been trolling an Internet message board and felt a twinge of sympathy for, say, Jennifer Love Hewitt or any other celebrity who’d been excoriated on the Web for having cellulite or a muffin-top?
I’ve just finished reading the book Snark by David Denby and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love the way that it examines the culture of snark from its classical Greek roots with Juvenal and Hipponax to its more modern incarnation with the advent of the Internet and snarky gossip mavens like Perez Hilton.
One of the aims of this book is to explore the nature, the functions and the hazards of snark. The seven chapters of this snappy yet insightful read are called “fits”–the inspiration for which is drawn from Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of The Snark” a poem in eight cantos or “fits”–and the Fifth Fit intrigues me the most. In this chapter Denby distinguishes between the art of ribald and witty verbal sparring versus the low-art of snark. There are many names for a hearty bout of verbal fisticuffs: “flyting” when practiced by 16th century Scottish poets, “trash talking” when it takes place on any sporting field, “battling” when opposing hip-hop artists duke it out on a stage, “joning” when you’re a grade school kid in the late 80s who has to defend against a “Yo Mama” diss. The art of the face-to-face battle of wits is as old as written history (if not older).
Snark, unlike any of the aforementioned, relies on anonymity and shuns hand-to-hand or wit-to-wit combat. According to Denby, snark seeks to “get into [its victim’s] face without presenting a face of its own”. It’s like posting an ugly message board comment about your least favorite reality show star anonymously. It’s easy and sometimes irresistible but, as the cover of this book exclaims, it’s also “mean, it’s personal and it’s ruining our conversation”.
This book struck a chord with me because lately I’ve been growing deeply concerned with US Weekly’s obsession with The Gosselin Family, the unfettered nastiness of your average Internet message board and other instances of snarkiness in today’s society. Is there a cure? I’m not so hopeful but at the very least Snark is a relief and, for me, kind of a revelation to read.