Critic David Denby on Public Conversation

Critic David Denby was sick of the insidious, sarcastic discourse that he found online. So he did what any other New Yorker writer might do (see Malcolm Gladwell) and wrote a book with a vague, one-word title. "Snark" (Simon and Schuster), an extended essay that analyzes our conversations and all the insults buried within them, builds a timeline that spans from the Roman poet Juvenal up through the gossip Web site and finds Denby arguing that the need to be seen as funny or clever is ruining our conversation. He sat down with NEWSWEEK's Kurt Soller to discuss his theory. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What drew you to writing about snark?
David Denby: I'm a journalist, and with so many print publications starting to subside, there's this aggression where sarcastic, low, teasing, undermining remarks were driving out more sensible kinds of writing. Snark is becoming the universal, and older people are afraid they're going to be left out of the party.

As a man of a certain age, are you afraid?
I'm not going to be hurt at my age at what anyone says about me. I'm 65. But if you're young and you sleep around or do some cocaine at a party in college, it's going to show up on Google 10 years later. I'm sure these snarky insults have an inhibiting effect on people's behavior.

So the Internet is ruining all the fun.
This book isn't an attack on the Internet. But a lot of people have become snoopy busybodies and the vehicle of that is snark. You don't go on JuicyCampus or other Web sites to solemnly complain, you try to make a joke. Somebody who used to be stuck muttering to himself can now shout out loud.

How does this affect our right to privacy?
Privacy is one of the great triumphs of bourgeoisie, where one can have a space where he can act responsibly, or irresponsibly. If we can't go somewhere without someone taking our pictures, then we're inviting ourselves to be snarked.

That's even worse if you're already in the public eye. Can we talk about Obama?
In the book, I discuss how when people spoke about him during the campaign, I felt like much of the conversation was in coded racist insults. When people said he was Muslim, people were really talking about race. But racial prejudice is not something anyone can openly admit anymore. Snark is the antidote for "We don't want black people here, but we're not going to say that." I was worried he wouldn't win, and it turned out I was wrong. So many people protected our Democratic prince.

Certainly not Maureen Dowd, though. You devote the entirety of chapter 6 to tearing her—and her Obama remarks—down. Have you heard back yet?
The book just came out, but people don't answer attacks. But listen, I think she's brilliant ... but irresponsible. She casually destroyed Al Gore eight years ago. Things have gotten more serious, and I think she knows that, but as long as she's funny, she thinks it's OK that she repeats or contradicts herself. She's so eager to criticize that she actually misreads people.

Meanwhile, you support Keith Olbermann, saying that his show isn't snarky, just satirical. What's the difference?
Olbermann is a passionate liberal and extremely well-informed. There are certainly some snarky elements to his show. The ["Worst Person in the World"] segment has got to go: we all understand that Bill O'Reilly is a right-wing blowhard that can't get anything right. But Olbermann is very logical and engaged. That's the antidote to snark.

Speaking of that, how did you keep snark out of your own book?
I'm not sure I did. I've had practice, though, because it's pretty damn hard to get it into The New Yorker. God knows I've tried.

High standards, eh? Do you think it's the same for other publications?
No. There's going to be a lot of it going forward. As publications clamor to be noticed, that will be one way you're going to be noticed. By coming up with the smartest, nastiest cracks. On the Internet, we need moderators. When conversational threads collapse into racism, misogyny and Holocaust denial, that ruins the conversation for those people that are in it.

So do you hope your book will eliminate this behavior?
It would be arrogant to say that. Suddenly, there's an enormous explosion of exuberance, wildness and pent-up energy. And I don't think we should have a total snark-free zone. It would be a little dull. But the country is in terrible shape. So if we're not going to be terribly witty, which is hard, then we should at least talk sense to each other.