Illustration from The Hunting of the Snark

For such a short book, David Denby’s Snark is awfully unfocused. Even the normally useless Amazon customer reviews noticed; given the number of Amazon customers willing to hand five star reviews to any book that didn’t make them physically ill, this book has a peculiarly sparse constellation. (Mind you, some reviews seem to be from the right-wingers who slap one-star reviews on any book whose author isn’t politically correct enough for them. “Why won’t Barack Obama apologize for this horrible book Denby has written?” writes one reviewer, who I hope is kidding.)

Denby can’t keep straight what he’s writing about. “Snark,” it is true, has no single definition. This is not a problem for writers who take care to define their terms. Denby could have written a book titled Woozle-Wozzle: Threat or Menace? and as long as he’d told us what a Woozle-Wozzle was, he’d be okay.

But Denby doesn’t know, and maybe doesn’t care about, the definition of snark. Sometimes Denby draws a bright clear line dividing snark from true humor. Sometimes there’s something called “high snark” which isn’t bad and can be funny, if not as good as satire. Then again, sometimes satire can “use snark as a weapon.” Maybe irony is the highest form of satire (as in the work of Jonathan Swift), maybe irony and snark are the same thing (“David Letterman the ironist is snarky”). Sometimes snark is ineffectual. Sometimes victims of snark “disappear” in shame or embarrassment and sometimes snark needs its victims to survive. Maybe snark is everything to all people. More likely it’s just everything to David Denby.

Snark is not all bad. Denby’s at his most perceptive when he identifies snark with verbal bullying—not satire, not criticism, not even communication, just an expression of power against a momentarily weaker party. On the internet this is usually classed as “flaming” or “trolling” but it’s a bigger problem, older than the internet, and it’s a real threat to discourse. The tough guys stand up and shout, and the quieter voices—usually the people most likely to have something interesting to say—are intimidated into silence.

A book about bullying might have been valuable, but as soon as Denby brings it up he wanders away again. He can’t even decide whether snark is a bad thing; he condemns Spy but gives the British magazine Private Eye a free pass, apparently simply because Denby himself enjoyed Private Eye. Better writers than I have hypothesized that Denby’s opinion of snark depends on whether he feels he’s being snarked with, or at. Private Eye is a bully, and so is Spy, but Private Eye is the big kid who lets Denby hang out with him, and Spy is posting mean stuff on Denby’s Facebook page.

Maybe that’s why Denby can’t bring himself to define snark: a hard-and-fast definition might force him to admit there’s a part of himself that wants to be one of the cool kids, the tough guys, snarkily victorious. So he spends 120 pages in a fog of confusion. You know Denby has travelled irretrievably off into his own little world when the “Ninth Principle of Snark” turns out to be “Attack expensive, underperforming restaurants.” Huh?