Trolls



At Booksale I came across Snark by The New Yorker film critic David Denby. As is expected from a critic, it's nonfiction--I didn't have to skim past the cover to consider it as interesting. What it's about, I'm not sure (no idea about snark as a concept, honestly) but I rarely spot good nonfiction, and the last time I read one was in 2012, upon chancing Zombification by NPR's Andrei Codrescu which I bought because it stupidly reminds me of The Death of Dr. Lazarescu. No regrets, as it's a good read as well.

Subtitled It's mean, it's Personal, and it's destroying our conversation, Denby starts Snark in his most personal tone. He hates snark both as a writer and as someone who admires Obama and considers free speech and democracy his advocacies. The way he defines it, snark is a kind of language that's "lazy and parasitic", in that it only reuses terminologies and references snuffed out by exhausted readers, flavors it with the juiciest of rumors, in order to fulfill its purpose of misleading everyone. (Just like Buzzfeed and Gawker is!)

In a gist, his point: it's fine to talk about something that everyone else is talking about, as long as you say something novel about it. Denby is all for writing that's fresh and creative, characteristics that snark will never have. If anything, snark wants to distract us from the relevant matters, destroying what he calls in later chapters as "the national conversation" (or in social media, the trending hashtag).

He extensively compares snark with satire and irony, and he goes the whole nine yards, back to ancient times (Archilochus and Hipponax, Juvenal) and contrasts this to what snark is in the modern times (Tom Wolfe, Private Eye, Spy). Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark proved to be a good introduction, inspiration and springboard all at once, with the line "For the snark is a boojum, you see" the chorus, the concept binding the Greeks to the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and to Stephen Colbert. In his personal reading of nonsense poetry, Snark, Denby points out, wants its target to vanish into thin air.

I started reading it during the holidays, and was startled that my wife found the book as refreshing. She said it's different (as a work of nonfiction) in the sense that its language is light but witty. True, and it's commendable in that department. It's a good way to start the conversation about a language that, well, ruins the conversation.

The more I read the book, the more I get the feeling that snark is the unofficial language of forums and comments sections and Reddit threads. Snark, I'd like to think, is the air online trolls breathe. It fits the bill, actually: trolls are committed to play around, mess around with straight-faced commenters, and shift the conversation with recycled GIFs and meme. Trolls spit snark on the comments section, oftentimes aimlessly and anonymously, and it's as nasty as a hate crime. Denby chants this all throughout the book: what separates snark from satire, irony and other forms is that it's never creative unlike the latter--which gives us the discerning eye to weed out trolls from harsh but well-intentioned pundits. Snark has zero literary merits. Trolls, armed with their unoriginal language, have to be ignored.