Jaye Wells

Craft Thursday: Snark

Hi! I’m Jaye Wells. I like a little sarcasm with my blood. I like making fun of the things that scare me. And there’s nothing I love better than some seriously twisted humor.

But while I aspire to the love child of threesome between Janet Evanovich, Chuck Palahniuk and Christopher Moore, I get that not everyone laughs at the same things I do. Whether you like your humor subtle, sarcastic or slapstick, there’s an author out there writing it. So I thought I’d cover one of my favorite kinds of humor today: Snark.

First, can we agree the term is overused? These days, pretty much anything anyone says that’s the least bit sarcastic is labeled snark. But, in my opinion, true snark is an art form. In fact, I prefer the term “sardonica” but so far no one else is biting on that term. So snark it is. Now, what the heck is it?

At its best, snark is witty cynicism with a heavy dose of sarcasm. At its worst, snark comes off as snotty and, well, let’s face it, douche-y. Especially when wielded by blog trolls, obnoxious radio personalities and pseudo-intellectuals.

It’s also often confused for other common comedic devices: repartee, satire, gallows humor, farce, irony, parody. The confusion often comes from the fact that snark blends so well with these other devices and is even combined with them to great effect by skilled comedic writers. But in my opinion, snark is really just a preemptive offensive defense.

All humor is rooted in pain.–Richard Pryor

Bear with me while I get a little deep for a moment. Often the most effective wielders of snark are highly intelligent people who spent at least part of their childhoods being punched by metaphorical or literal bullies. In other words, they developed verbal weapons where they did not have physical ones. In addition, these same people probably spent a large part of their teen years observing their peers to try and figure out why everyone else seemed to fit in while they did not. Thus, a snarkist was born: a keen observer of human nature that wields words like weapons to cut down opponents before they themselves can be cut down.

I should also point out that these same breeding grounds can also give birth to writers and serial killers, but that’s another blog post altogether.

In fiction, snark is often used by characters who have built thick walls around themselves. That’s probably why so many urban fantasy heroines (and Sabina Kane is no exception) wield both snark and literal weapons. The guns kill enemies and the words keep potential allies at bay, but both types of weapons are meant to disguise vulnerabilities.

But given snark’s somewhat regrettable reasons for existing, why do we find it so freaking funny? Again, this is only my opinion, but I think we all have an inner snarkist. It’s just that snarky characters in books actually say what they’re thinking. They flaunt the polite rules of society that demand that if we don’t have anything nice to say, we don’t say it at all. And how many of us haven’t wanted to speak our minds more often? To be able to say just the right cut down at the exact right moment (instead of thinking of it two hours later when you’re halfway into a gallon of Chunky Monkey).

As an author, writing snark can be incredibly cathartic. First of all, I get to say things in print I might never say in public. If you read my twitter feed it might surprise you to know I actually do censor myself. But Giguhl, the hairless cat/Mischief demon from my Sabina Kane series, says all sorts of things I’d be embarrassed to say in polite company. Second, it’s really fun to see how a character’s use of snark changes as they grow through a series. As a character becomes more open to relationships with other characters, their humor tends to get less caustic and defensive and more driven by camaraderie and good-natured ribbing.

In the end, good snark is hard to define. It’s kind of like pornography–we know it when we see it.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my definition of snark? Who do you think uses it well in fiction?

Note: Most of this entry was reposted from a series of blogs I did for Babel Clash, Border’s now-defunct science fiction and fantasy blog.

4 Thoughts on “Craft Thursday: Snark

  1. Benjamin on March 1, 2012 at 11:36 am said:

    Lol yes, I think you described it perfectly, clear down to those of us that can’t think of what to say until hours afterwards. (especially since the typical snark artist describes my childhood perfectly)

    I think most current authors (at least the ones I read) show some degree of ability to use a well placed snark. Probably almost all humans have the ability to some degree… However, unlike authors who can go back and edit or take some time writing their first drafts (and second/third/fourth etc), there are only a select few of us that can think as quickly on our feet as our favourite characters do.

    I also think that is the big draw for most readers… Not only are they plunged into a fantasy world that allows them escape of some sort, but the main characters from a good author most often say the kinds of things we imagine ourselves saying (or hope we would be able to say if in that situation).

    So to you, Ms Wells (and any other current/future authors who may read this) please keep up with the well timed perfect snarks!

  2. Yes I also think your definition is accurate. I sometimes wonder if we would define the famous mumblings of Dorothy Parker as snarky? She was clearly a wit, but she was also clearly someone who was going to get everyone before they got her. I do believe she was the first sharp tongued woman I remember wanting to emulate. As for current UF characters…I am very fond of your Sabina as well as Kate Daniels by Ilona Andrews. Quite specifically because they are smart, strong, independent women who walk through their lives with a mouth full of wise ass.

  3. Andrew McQueen on March 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm said:

    Ha! This post makes me think about UF characters that have snark as their forte. I’m thinking of the following dudes and dudettes that have snark:

    Zoe Martinique
    Harry Dresden
    Hawkeye (Marvel Comics)
    Sirantha Jax
    Dean Winchester

    Oh, and Giguhl too.

  4. wilson on March 4, 2012 at 1:39 pm said:

    i’ve been newly introduce to your work. it’s great! your definition of snark is accurate and refreshing; there’s a long tradition, and that’s why i love your novel’s so much, it’s like reading Chandler or Hammett, it’s what “noir” looks like today. i want to share this blog entry, giving you the most praise i can, everyone i know would love this. thanks for keeping it up.

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