Snark is a Dead Scene: Why It's Time For Writers to Try Something New
Illustration by Henry Holiday is public domain
For those of you who read a column's title and sprint for the comments, pants around your ankles in anticipation of the self-righteous hot and coily you intend to deposit, let me preface this by saying I'm guilty of everything I'm about to address. So save the figurative unleashing of your bowels for someone else. This isn't the proper forum for such leavings, and you risk leaving skidmarks on the underwear of your reputation.
That being said...
I think it's time we as writers gave the snark a rest.
I know, I know. It's part of who you are. You tell it like it is. It's what makes you unique.
Well, actually, no. No it's not. It's a telegraphed punch of your influences, which just so happen to be everyone elses' influences, so you can stop your protests right there.
These days, just about anyone who's "hip" and has a blog, or writes for a more reputable website devoted to dissecting one of the major disciplines of pop culture, relies a little too heavily on the crutch of snark. It's as if we can't have opinions anymore without being assholes. And even though the two have been forever linked due to their mutual lack of uniqueness, it doesn't mean you can't have one without being the other.
Part of the problem is, we're all (self-appointed) experts in the same few fields. So we feel the need to tear each other down to build ourselves up, make ourselves stand out. And it may have worked, at first. Once upon a time, when the Internet was young. But now that we're all "standing out" in the same way, it's in danger of becoming a homogenized parody of itself. We're like a bunch of lemmings, staring over each others' shoulders, asking, "Where are we going?" And by the time we realize it's into a giant ditch filled with our collective festering snark, we've already swan-dived and commenced the wallowing. We've turned into that amorphous mass of flesh from Brian Yuzna's Society, unable to decipher where one of us ends and the other begins. Sure, it feels good, but it's just so fucking ugly.
This idea occurred to me as I was writing a column whose subject I couldn't have cared less about. I was just putting words on the page. I had nothing meaningful to say. So I figured I'd quote a few stats, crack a few snarky jokes, and be on my merry way. Usually my snark amuses at least me, but when you can't even make yourself laugh, you know your jokes are t-i-r-e-d tired. You know that line in Fight Club about not being a beautiful and unique snowflake? That's how I felt. I realized I wasn't doing anything special. And if I'm doing the same exact thing as everyone else, what's the point?
That's not to say snark can't be done well. Kurt Vonnegut could be a pretty snarky motherfucker. But snark was just a single tool in his well-furnished kit. And let's not kid ourselves with comparisons to a master. Just because you've punched a few keys and pushed a few buttons doesn't elevate you to that level.
So how can you stand out without putting others down? In a 2009 journal entry, Roger Ebert wrote that snarking was "cultural vandalism," and that it "functions as a device to punish human spontaneity, eccentricity, non-conformity and simple error." He went on to say, and I believe this is the crux of the argument, that "It is easy to snark, and I am a clever writer." In other words, being snarky is lazy. Good writing speaks for itself. Irony, sarcasm, cynicism—it's a dead scene, man. If you want to make a name for yourself, write well, about interesting topics. Don't confuse being an asshole with having personality. Even though the internet tells us different, they're not the same thing.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than on social media. Snark seems to be the default voice for writers on Facebook and Twitter. Even "respected" authors such as Bret Easton Ellis can't help unleashing their inner eight year-old when confined to 140 characters. Is it because the medium is inherently flawed, and doesn't lend itself to meaningful discourse? That seems to be the perception, what with people shooting off their mouths like it was the Wild Wild West.
Obviously no one is looking to these platforms for Pulitzer-worthy writing, but the constant barrage of poison-tongued witticisms gets tiresome after a while. And the disease seems to be spreading. People's social media personas are bleeding into real life. Snark is like your favorite pair of jeans. It's so easy to slip into them. Eventually you don't even bother to look at what else is in your closet. And if you pretend to be a jerk for too long, it ceases to be an act. Fiction, thankfully, seems to have remained unscathed thus far, but imagine what it would be like if everyone started using snarky third-person narrators? What if the unspecified entity telling every story ever was an obnoxious dick? No one would want to read anymore. Talk about counterproductive.
So do your writing and everyone else a favor: ease up on the snark. You'll force yourself to be more creative and your writing will improve as a result. Plus, you won't come off as an assembly line jerk, identical to all the other jerks. If anything, snark should be used sparingly to enhance your writing. You can't make an entire meal of the stuff.
Maybe that's why Snarksters are always shitting all over everything. They've gorged themselves on too much snark. Let's not perpetuate the cycle.
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Great colummn. Now then, what the holy fuck is that picture stuck right in the middle?
That, my friend, is Society.
haha, too true. everybody wants to be Dorothy Parker (well, I do) except no one comes close and like you say, its a default setting, ubiquitous and boring and worst sin, not very funny. yawn...
Just kidding. Well written, well said and well.... damn true.
People online aren't usually down (up?) for "meaningful" discourse. So crafting a so-called witty remark is one of a few ways to try and say more than you're literally saying. It hints at the depths which will go unplumbed by the online conversation. It's the product of the knowledge that we all could say more but most likely won't.
All of which is not to say it isn't tiresome.
yes, operative word being "witty". all is forgiven if something is funny. it's just it so often isn't. it's just an ego run amok. but it's hard to resist sometimes...
If people will just listen to this instead of thinking this means they need to turn the snark up it will be great.
there's a snark right there!
Other operative word being "so-called." One person's undue snark is another's lulz.
I don't see anything wrong with snarking. I think it's a mode, like all others, that can be used to the writer's advantage. That being said, everything should be used in moderation, and so, supposing some writers don't know that (or haven't considered it concerning snarking), great article.
Joshua's caveat duly noted and ignored, I genuinely believe the article could have been more affecting were it not self-demonstrating, i.e. if he toned down the snark.
Agreed. My biggest problem with snark is that it is someone's attempt at being funny and most of the time that person is not funny (or at least is not a funny writer).
I thought it was a considered piece (and funny and a bit snarky) on the prevalence of snarkiness as the lingua franca of the internet?
Yes, Adam, I already know you don't think I'm funny.
For an example of just the right amount of snark I would suggest you check out Lance Manion's new book "The Trembling Fist". Funny and just the right amount of snark.
Snark is not dead.
I rarely snark - it makes me feel ill. I actually attempt to do the the reverse by compliments and supportive comments. The times that make it rarely and not never are the times I find a blatant hypocracy laying in the folds of some respected personality. So I say this as un snarky as possible. I learned to avoid reading Mr. Ebert writings when I grew tired of his proficiency at snarking.
King of Snark. Charlie Brooker. FUNNY!
I've written and published a fair share of snark, but I've been asking myself a lot lately what it even accomplishes. Many of my favorite writers do use lots of snark, especially on VICE, but it's getting to be a bit much for me. Thanks for the column, Josh.
I dont think many people really know how to discuss things over debating them. I've felt for a long time that people simply ape talking-head episodes of people debating (screaming and insulting) over network news and other outlets of the like. There are very few venues where there is an actual discussion, where people listen and try to understand an issue, propose new ideas and ask how they could be applied.
@Frank, I totally agree. Listening is not a skill we are ever taught and we are all too eager to jump in with our quids worth, to make a splash and be heard. Polticians are the worst for this when they need to be the best. Imagine a world where the people who ran nations listened and discussed..sadly Politics does not allow for this at all by its very nature. Broadcast news and media have become vipers nests for this type of debating. The internet should also be a great forum for considered discussions but it also lends itself to rants and raves and egos and narcissim and screaming and shouting and missing the point etc etc...to get back to the point..great column. Snarking is a bit lazy and unless done well, I am bored with it.
We need "FLAG AS SNARKY" internet buttons.
Also "FLAG AS IRRELEVANT", "FLAG AS STUPID", "FLAG AS UNINTERESTING TO THIS PARTICULAR PERSON", "FLAG AS AN EXAMPLE OF WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE WORLD", etc.
JYH gave me an idea. The ulitmate in lazy snarking would be a "SNARK" buttom similar to the "LIKE" button. Just hit the button and express your disapproval and superiority without having to so much as fire a synapse. Ha. I crack myself up. Wait...isn't that what this article is about? Oops...
Great article, Josh. I keep myself from posting snark by reading all the other snarky comments and reminding myself that the snarker so often sounds like an idiot. I, too, try to say something "nice" if I'm going to say anything at all. --Like our parents taught us, right?
I do appreciate well-timed and well-developed snark. Parker, Sedaris, and many others do it very well. I wouldn't want it to die completely.
I think another article could be written about irony, too. I love irony, but, frankly, pop culture has ruined it. Oh well.
And a "MEH" button, just to let people know you didn't think it was worth pressing either of the other two buttons.
Not too long ago, I bought an anthology of flash stories from China (The Pearl Jacket). As I read it, I realized how snarky so much of our fiction is, from the contrast. The Chinese fiction really didn't have it, it was all earnest and not smart alecky at all. I found it very refreshing. I think sometimes we get so used to the snark that we don't even realize how ugly it is.
The problem to me comes in, when its all to often something that ruins an otherwise decent critique. It tends to come off as, blowing smoke out of your ass.