Defence of ‘snarky’ criticism becomes viral hit
Frustrated by the growth of media websites which ban ‘haters’, a writer’s call for ‘more snark, less smarm’ went viral. Does relentless positivity obscure too many interesting points of view?
They’re calling it ‘the great snark-smarm war’: critics, writers and thinkers are taking sides to debate whether the greatest cultural problem of our age is too much negativity, or an overdose of exhortations to accentuate the positive.
It all started when a senior editor on the news website BuzzFeed vowed to ‘ban haters’. Then a journalist on the Gawker website decided to defend ruthless criticism of everything from books and films to politicians: his tirade became an internet sensation. This writer, Tom Scocca, believes that the search for truth should be central to all forms of writing. To him, critical discernment, and the chance of being well served by our politicians, are being sacrificed to a dubious idea that commentators should be kind.
Scocca’s main target was the novelist and former critic Dave Eggers, who a few years ago told students he regretted his criticism because it ‘came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy.’
Anton Ego, the cartoon restaurant critic in the animated film Ratatouille, may have provided the best description of this jaundiced view of his profession ‘We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.’ In other words, it is snarky.
Politicians tend to have a similar-sounding complaint about the journalists and interviewers they see as rude and lacking in respect for those who have stood in – and won – an election.
But these ‘snarky’ members of the media argue that far from being meaninglessly hostile and negative ‘haters’, they are insisting on high standards. If that means skewering a few reputations and hurting some feelings, then so be it. They, and Scocca, argue that the opposite phenomenon, which he calls ‘smarm’, is far more dangerous.
The smarmy ones are those who gush and fawn over powerful or creative people: the interviewers on television and in magazines who give celebrities an easy ride, the journalists who fail to challenge politicians on their failures.
Far from being the refuge of the cynic, Scocca suggests in his essay that snark is a way of disciplining a person’s critical faculties to ensure they remain capable of objectivity and discernment.
So is smarm, the niceness which sells itself as the enemy of cynicism, actually its ally? Is it the chat show hosts and the promoters of positive messages, rather than the shock jocks and controversialist commentators, who are the morally feeble ones endangering the quality of public debate?
- Is BuzzFeed’s ‘no haters’ rule a good one?
- ‘On Twitter, the only answer to “Do you know who I am?” is “One more person with 140 characters to use.”’ Are social media sites levellers or do they reinforce status?
- Make a short speech to the class based on this Dave Eggers quote: ‘Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.’
- Write a 250 word review of something you loved: a movie, book, TV show or performance. Then of something you thought was no good. Which article is better? And which was more fun to write?
Some People Say...
“If you haven’t got anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me.’Eleanor Roosevelt”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What is this all about?
- Well, as in the media, so in life. Each of us has to choose whether we prefer to be stimulated by critical points of view, some of which may be harsh and condemnatory, or whether we want only to hear positive opinions and praise. Probably most of us would like a balance of the two to get our information.
- Well, professional critics are there to guide the ordinary reader about which new books are good, or the theatre-goer or music fan about which performances to buy tickets for, and so on. They perform a useful function and are often extremely knowledgeable and discerning. If you are a music fan, for example, there are probably people whose judgement you trust. Those enthusiasts might choose to become specialists and ‘an authority’ on what they love.
- In the UK the adjective ‘snarky’ is more common, but like this abstract noun it is almost always used perjoratively to mean bitchy, hostile, overly critical and negative. So Scocca is trying to reclaim the word to represent something of value.
- In this case, Scocca defines it as a word originating in the older word ‘smalm’ which he says means ‘to smooth something down with grease, and by extension to be unctuous or flattering, or smug. Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.’
- Founded in 2003, this successful New York blog is a mix of gossip and commentary on celebrity, art and society.
- Dave Eggers
- The American novelist and screenwriter, born in 1970, first found fame with his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But as well as his work as a writer he is involved with projects to promote literacy and education.