Thursday, December 12, 2013

Snark or Smarm or Neither

Which do you prefer with your morning coffee: snark or smarm?

Gawker’s Tom Scocca has written a rather long essay on snark and smarm. He argues that snark is a reaction to smarm. Presumably, that means that people who indulge in snark should be excused because they are being compelled to do so by the excessive amount of smarm in the culture.

There, that tells you all you want to know, right? 

Scocca has noted that open forums on the internet tend to attract snark, that is, mindless invective directed against the author, not the work. Those who do not know how to engage an idea prefer to assault the author with an ad hominem attack.

As I have had occasion to say: ad hominem attacks are the first recourse of the feeble minded. For today, I would add that, so is snark.

Many people are now up in arms about snark. They believe, rightly, that snark expresses a negative emotion and thus that it prevents people from having what one editor called “a positive community experience.”

One can make a good argument against snark— it’s repugnant and does not contribute to the debate-- but one would be wrong to believe that all negative criticism is snark.

Snark is mean-spirited, personal, nasty… an attack on a person not on a piece of work.

Snark is criticism done by incompetents. Often, those who do it are so incompetent that they refuse to attach their names to it.

Negative criticism is another story. When done well, by a writer who knows what he or she is doing, it might seize precisely what is wrong with a work.

Does anyone believe that all creative work, or any kind of work is of equal value or deserving of equal respect.

Besides, the only person who will love your work no matter what, who will never express any negative criticism is your mother.

When done well, negative critiques can be memorable. Scocca remarks, correctly:

What I have reread is Mencken on the Scopes Trial, Hunter Thompson on Richard Nixon, and Dorothy Parker on most things—to say nothing of Orwell on poverty and Du Bois on racism, or David Foster Wallace on the existential horror of a leisure cruise. This belief that oblivion awaits the naysayers and the snarkers shouldn't survive a glance at the bookshelf.

But these do not count as snark.  People who indulge in snark draw attention to themselves not to the work they are supposed to be addressing.

There’s a fine line between snark and good criticism, but that isn’t an excuse to confuse the two.

To identify a high-concept, biting, even cutting piece of criticism with snark… because it might hurt the feelings of the writer… is an exaggeration.

Scocca is quite right to call out the highly sensitive Dave Eggers for suggesting that if you haven’t written a book yourself or made a movie yourself you have no right to criticize someone else’s book or movie. 

When Eggers made that remark, he was not striking a blow for civility: he was whining. If you put yourself out there, you cannot control what other people think or say about your work. You should not try to shame them into saying something nice. No writer expects that he will only be judged by other writers. No writer writes only for other writers.

Anyway, Scocca wants us to know that snark is reactive. It is reacting against the excessive amount of smarm that is coursing through our culture.

At times, Scocca seems to confuse being smarmy with being nice. He is quite correct to see smarm as something that should be avoided, but he should know that being nice is not the same as being smarmy. And he should know better than to think that pro forma gestures of courtesy are necessarily smarmy.

Smarm is a modern word for what used to be called unctuous.

Unctuousness is neither nice nor kind. A brief glance at the dictionary tells us that it is oily and greasy, excessive in its expression of fake emotion. Being unctuous is effusively insincere, sycophantic, flattering, obsequious and fawning.

If smarm is just a trendy, slangy word for unctuous, Scocca has misunderstood it:

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

Apparently, Scocca has confused smarm with good manners. Being polite and decorous, even when it is not quite authentic, is certainly not unctuous.

Most people learn to follow rules before they understand why they are doing so. To denounce them as inauthentic is to promote a culture where there are no rules. In such a culture people feel obliged to blurt out whatever they feel inside, regardless of whether it is appropriate or sensible… and regardless of whether it makes the individual look and feel like an ass.

In a culture without rules, snark rules. In a culture that makes a fetish of authenticity good manners feel excessive.

Confucius was wont to say that it is better to observe the rites, thus the proprieties even if you do not feel them than to ignore them on the grounds that you are being more authentic.

As I have been wont to say: if you want to build character, it’s better to pretend that you have it than to prove that you don’t.

In a world without manners, courtesy may feel inauthentic. That does not absolve you of your duty to return messages, to show up on time and to keep your word.

Most of your friends would rather you show up feeling grouchy than not show up at all… even when that is your heart's desire.


Sam L. said...

My understanding of snark is humorous (or attempted humorous) takes or disagreements on something said, done, or written, and not an attack on the person what done it.

Mayhap I be wrong.

Lastango said...

Myself, I trace the birth of snark-as-a-cultural-phenomenon to David Letterman.

Early on, it struck me that all he did was get up there and scoff. He legitimized snark, and because snark is effortless and little taxing to the wit, many others became snarky as a form of cheap social bonding. By our snark do we hail one another.

As Samuel Johnson said of a poet in his day, "He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him great."

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I like the Sam Johnson quip-- the British are very good at the biting criticism-- and they are not overly sensitive about the hurt feelings.

David Foster said...

British novelist C P Snow spoke of "people who are both cynical and unworldly, which is one of my least favorite combinations."

Anonymous said...

I didn't have the patience to wade through the original long essay, but appreciate the attempt.

I saw another response a bit similar to Stuart.

I recall the Anaïs Nin quote "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."

My working conclusion is smarm and snark contain the fundamental emotion - contempt, first one covert, and second overt. So the two are in a dance, and perhaps two talented players even switch sides without even noticing.

When I think of Smarm, I think of Lord of the Ring's Wormtongue character, and I see him as something in all of use, who listen to fear, and disarm our inner king from acting on knowledge and risk.

If snark had virtue, perhaps it would be in the court jester, who was considered a fool and didn't know what he was talking about, and therefore he could tell the king the truth, and make the king laugh at his conceits, and so a king with a good jester perhaps might be immune to smarm?

Anyway, whatever the truth of the debate, its good to have some attempt to identify the players, and how to use humor to step out of the games.