Exclusive: Hunting the Snark with David Denby


David Denby is a film critic for the New Yorker; he’s also the author of the recently published book Snark, an important essay which traces the evolution of snark from ancient Athens to Gossip Girl, loosely defining it in its ideal form as so: “Two girls are sitting in a high-school cafeteria putting down a third, who’s sitting on the other side of the room. What’s peculiar about this event is that the girl on the other side of the room is their best friend. In that scenario, snark is abusive or sarcastic speech that operates like poisoned arrows within a closed space. Its intention is to offer solidarity between two or more parties and to exclude someone from the same group.”

In this same scenario we imagine that Denby would be the head of the judiciary society. Not because it looks good on his transcript, but because it’s the right thing to do and he doesn’t care what the cool kids think of him. It’s important to have people like that around. It keeps us honest.

While his argument is not without flaws (as Sarah Weinman notes here), we ripped through the extremely yellow book in a single evening and we haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since — especially when we’re sitting at the keyboard. And without a few holes to pick at, where would the interesting conversation start? (Generating a discussion about style, Denby explains, was his goal in writing Snark.)

Our own conversation with the writer after the jump.

Flavorwire: As a film critic, does it bother you that we live in an age when everyone can be a public critic?

David Denby: No. There are two parts to the answer. First of all, the profession is sort of dying in newspapers because most newspapers are owned by chains. And the owners of McClatchys or Knight Ridder, or any of those chains — reason follows that if Iron Man is opening in 3,800 theaters at 11 a.m. on Friday morning they might say why do I need 22 critics covering it? Why not just get by with one or two and syndicate them around to all the papers? Now the problem with that reasoning is that some of the movies that we care about the most — whether it’s Slumdog Millionaire right now or Sideways a few years ago or Brokeback Mountain or No Country for Old Men — don’t open wide in that way, they open in maybe five theatres — New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston, Chicago — and then they slowly spread out. So who’s to say the original review will be reprinted six weeks down the line in Omaha, Phoenix, and Buffalo? It may or may not. They don’t do much advertising for some of these smaller movies, so the publisher may just shrug his shoulders. Now the original review will be online and there may be some note at the bottom of the page that says it’s there. But I don’t know whether people will necessarily go read the review online — I mean, younger viewers, who are very much at ease with the Internet and read things online all the time anyway. But anyone over 40 may not, and that’s the audience for these films. So I think it’s a very serious situation.

Now, there are tons of reviews out there on the Internet but it’s a bit of a Tower of Babel at the moment. There are a lot of wonderful sites that do very special interests — like film noir or French film or documentary and that’s the place for film nuts to gather and to exchange opinions — often very smart and erudite ones. What you don’t have is a site where really good critics gather and talk about the kind of movies that I’m talking about — There Will Be Blood and so on. I think that it will happen eventually that a great critic like Pauline Kael or someone like that will emerge from the Internet because you have unlimited space and the freedom to develop your own voice, if you find someone who can edit you — even a tough friend. But it hasn’t happened yet.

So no, I don’t mind it that there are all of these voices out there because movies have always been the democratic art form and it’s all about conversation. But there are different levels of conversation. I mean, you don’t make any friends in a democratic country by saying everyone’s opinion is equal to everyone else’s — because they’re not. But yes, it’s certainly OK, of course, and great — some really terrific writers will eventually emerge. The problem is — how do you make a living out of it? That’s what I don’t know. Not now anyway. You have to do it for love. I don’t see any of these places paying people more than a pittance…

FW: You mention in the first chapter of Snark that the Internet cannot create its own narrative — do you mean at this point in time or do you think that it will always be a Wild West of bat caves without “Authority”?

DD: At this point in time, it’s very good at adding to the narrative, at filling in the holes, and overturning parts or even the entire narrative maybe, but it cannot generate it itself, because by its very nature it’s decentered. I think all of these new media types who are so gleeful about the prospect of the New York Times simply subsiding into the Web in a few years are really going to be shocked by how un-housed and undirected they feel when there’s no New York Times hard copy. Because whatever is wrong with the Times, it sets the table for discussion of politics, economics and culture. And you need that table setting.

Once everything is only on the Web, everything is someone’s point of view. There’s no longer any attempt to get the story straight necessarily. That may not be true, but that’s the way we’re going to feel about it. And I think that’s bad, I think it’s really bad. Everything is someone’s point of view, then nothing is given granted any greater authority than anything else. I don’t think that is a good situation at all. I don’t think we’ll know where we are, where we’re going. You know, I attack some things from the Times in this book, but in fact, the Times is completely important to me. And the Washington Post, as well.

FW: When you wake up, what are the things you pick up to read?

DD: Well, I read the Times and the Post online the night before. But you read much more when you have the paper on your breakfast table — in that case, it’s the New York Times. You can’t fit that much information on the homepage of any publication, whereas if I turn to the first section, there’s all sort of riches there that are buried on page 12 and 14. And I think if it’s online, you just look at the headlines or maybe you go to a columnist that you like or look up a movie review if you know it’s opening that day. But by turning through the paper, I learn much more and see much more. My wife sometimes will spend two hours on a weekday night just reading the paper and she’s better informed than me — when I’m not working, I’m jumping around on the Internet all over the place. There’s still an extraordinary amount of good stuff in there that you’re not necessarily going to see from a homepage.

FW: Is your issue with snark something that you think has increased as you’ve grown older?

DD: Absolutely. It is an adolescent tone. I think a lot of it is powerless. I mean, there was a negative review of the book in New York Magazine by Adam Sternbergh, I don’t know if you saw that — like three weeks ago. He says snark is an appropriate response to a corrupt and dishonorable world in which lies have been passed out to us in the past eight years in particular. I wouldn’t quarrel with his description of the world. But the idea that snark is the appropriate response to that is just inane. The appropriate response to it is criticism, analysis and best of all, satire, which is exactly what I’m for — that’s why I keep talking about Stephen Colbert in the book.

There are some heavy hitters of snark like Maureen Dowd, who I go after at some length, but most of it is sort of a confession of impotence and it does seem adolescent and it does seem like kids in a high school cafeteria or sitting around watching TV a lot of the time. But when older people do it, I think it’s because of the panic that’s setting in that we don’t know where journalism is going and we want to sound hip and we want young demographics and panic is not a good mood in which to write anything. You release that and it’s kind of juvenile sarcasm. It signals to readers that you’re up to date. In this period of transition, everyone is terrified that they’re going to appear one step behind, that they’re going to be called clueless or out of it. Journalism creates this continued acceleration of now, now, now, and the Internet has greatly increased that feeling because everything moves around so quickly and there are so many more participants. I think snark has increased because of that anxiety — “oh god, oh god, let me not be three seconds out of date” and that’s not a good mood in which to write. So you pull something rotting off of the media junk heap and just twist it a little with nastiness rather than creating something fresh. Even if it’s just a fresh metaphor, a fresh image, a phrase that’s truly witty.

FW: Were you at all afraid of coming off as kind of a fuddy-duddy?

DD: Well, I think as you get older it’s a good idea to put yourself into danger as a writer and not just sit in a corner with a shawl pulled over your knees and think “thank God I still have a job.” I’m not that old, I’m 65 and I’m not in any real danger. If you actually say something in journalism and don’t just do the old soft shoe dance to the bottom of the column or the page as the writer Wilfrid Sheed once put it, you are going to make people angry somewhere because you are threatening their interests in some way or other. The people who have panned the book — Sternberg in New York Magazine and Alexandra Jacobs in the New York Observer have a vested interest in snark and they don’t like being called out on what they’re doing, as none of us does. So I’m not surprised at all by those responses. And no, I wasn’t afraid, I expected before I begin writing that I’d be attacked.

FW: Your ultimate goal with writing the book… is it intended as call for writers to up their game?

DD: I think it was intended for writers and editors, and one would hope would entertain a large audience — readers who care about writing and who notice something strange about the national tone that has developed. I think I wanted to start a conversation about style. I think we’re entering a different period, the Obama period. I think the president will set a different tone in his discussions and his talk and he’ll sort of impose it on other people because he’s serious and accountable in a way that George Bush wasn’t and couldn’t be — intellectually he was incapable of.

Well, I wrote it actually fearing that Obama would be done in by coded racist insults. That turned out to be wrong, thank god, because everyone stepped forward to protect him. But he is introducing a new tone, because we have tremendous problems. If we’re not going to be truly genuinely witty and funny then we might as well talk sense to each other. I think the book sort of snags into that shift in tone which doesn’t mean that we don’t need as much satire and comedy as we can get. I’m not saying sober up, I’m saying toughen up — that we should have higher standards of wit for ourselves and let’s just not keep falling into kind of lazy, sloppy media humor that doesn’t go anywhere.

You know, if you read Maureen Dowd and you think “this woman is really nasty and there’s something wrong with the way she deals with the world,” I wanted to say what that was. There are a lot of nasty people around, but she’s particularly brilliant and particularly malevolent I think. But she’s running out of gas. She doesn’t know how to handle Obama, she can’t get a handle on it. She’s either got to change her tone or find new targets, one or the other, because he’s not gonna be it.

FW: That’d be interesting if she changed her tone.

DD: Well, it’d be hard because she’s been doing this for 20 years. She has a lot of friends and supporters. There’s been no word from the Times yet. I don’t know how they’re going to deal with this book (laughing). If at all. I can give you one bit of advice. You know, if you’re writing books, don’t set out to attack the New York Times. It’s generally not a good idea. But we’ll see, I mean the Sunday Times is supposed to review it. But we’ll see.

FW: Do you find yourself editing out the snark that creeps into your own writing?

DD: God knows I’ve tried. The New Yorker doesn’t really go for that kind of cheap low shot. It just wouldn’t make it through the editing process. No one takes anything out without asking you. It’s all about persuasion. Your editor will say “You know, this isn’t very good, this is low, it’s too easy. Can’t you come up with something fresher?” The article that I talk about in Snark that was about Ben Stiller, that’s just one sentence from a 1600-word piece — it was when he was way overexposed in movies and everyone that I knew was saying “I can’t stand even looking at this guy anymore.” It was about five years ago. I heard he was’t particularly upset about it; it was his friend Owen Wilson who threatened to punch me out. But he has come roaring back, Ben Stiller, and he’s doing better work so anyway that’s all in the past. But no, I generally don’t write that stuff. And my colleague, Anthony Lane, doesn’t write it either. He’s very, very funny. But if you read those jokes, carefully, there’s a kind of melancholy view of life underneath, a stream running underneath the joking surface. It’s a part of who he is, it’s a part of his background, it’s part of being English, it’s part of believing this is a sinful world — I think he’s a religious person even though it doesn’t come through in his writing overtly. All of those things.