Thomas Wictor

Smarm versus snark

Smarm versus snark

I followed a series of links in pursuit of the claim that more and more publications and writers have chosen to stop producing negative book reviews. Though I don’t read my reviews, it’s only because they aren’t written for me. I know what’s in the book. If the review is negative, what am I supposed to do about it? Withdraw the book from publication?

No book will receive universal acclaim, so I don’t begrudge reviewers negative reviews. And I don’t think the pledge to not publish any more negative reviews will do us much good. How many times have you been snookered into a theater to see a horrible piece of junk because it got glowing reviews?

Are you aware of press junkets? The studios fly reviewers out to meet the stars and directors, put the reviewers up in a hotels, and ply them with free food and booze. Reviewers who pan movies after being invited on junkets are soon no longer invited. So I stopped reading movie reviews over ten years ago. Every movie was GREAT; I got tired of being lied to.

I don’t think it would be a good idea for book reviewers to stop writing negative reviews of books. The currency of criticism is already suffering enough. It’s possible to write a negative review without being overly cruel, and some books are crap. I’ve written a couple. Every book is going to get savaged at least once. If that bothers you, just don’t read your reviews.

Why all the false choices?

We’re always being presented with false choices now. In the process of reading the three different pieces about publishing only positive book reviews, I came across a gigantic essay titled “On Smarm,” by Tom Scocca. It’s about 9000 words defending snarkiness.

What is this defining feature of our times? What is snark reacting to?
It is reacting to smarm.
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.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?

There’s just one problem. That’s not the definition of smarm. According to The Oxford Dictionary, smarm is “ingratiating behavior.” Merriam-Webster defines smarm as “smarmy language of behavior,” and smarmy is “behaving in a way that seems polite, kind, or pleasing but is not genuine or believable.”

That’s how I always understood the term. Smarmy people were unctuous and phony. They gave you the shudders because they pretended to care. The Diane Sawyer Tented Eyebrows of Compassion™. That’s smarm.

“How did you survive it, you poor, poor fellow? You must’ve suffered so much.

I once interviewed a very famous musician who seemed to open his heart to me. We sat in the restaurant and talked for half an hour after the interview was over. As is often the case, I misread the situation and told him about the time I was nearly murdered and how it had left me in a state of constant PTSD flashbacks.

He clamped his lips, closed his eyes, and shook his head. “Oh, man! That’s rough! Shit! So, are we done here?”

As soon as we were finished talking about him, we were finished. His reaction was smarmy. He was pretending to care.

Tom Scocca made up his own definition of smarm, and he did it to put a gloss of honor and fearlessness on what I’m fairly sure he knows is bad behavior. It’s been my experience that snark is generally directed at earnestness, not phoniness. Snarksters love to rip apart those they know to be sincere, such as Evangelical Christians, members of the military, fervent patriots, and rural whites.

Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.

That’s the rationale for snark. Evangelical Christians, members of the military, fervent patriots, and rural whites try to smother opposition or criticism, so the snarkster is heroically slaughtering diseased sacred cows. Never mind that this is another homemade definition of smarm.

A pause, now, for some inevitable responses:

- What did Dave Eggers ever do to you?

- Surprise, a Gawker blogger who’s never accomplished anything is jealous of Dave Eggers.

- Dave Eggers has inspired more people and done more good than you could possibly dream of.

That’s it. You’re getting it. That’s smarm.

No it’s not! Those responses have nothing whatsoever to do with smarm. I’ve never read anything by Dave Eggers or Tom Scocca (before this piece), so I have no dog in the fight, writer-wise. But those are not smarmy responses. Scocca is on a different planet now in terms of the English language. Calling those responses smarm is like saying John Wayne was girlish.

Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection.

Funnily enough, that’s exactly what I’ve concluded about snarksters. They’re actually nihilists who don’t value anything, even as they tell you that they’re fighting to expose the truth.

Snark is often conflated with cynicism, which is a troublesome misreading. Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism. The practice of cynicism is smarm.

Anyone have any idea what that means? Snark is a theory of cynicism while smarm is the practice? The only way that would be accurate would be if snarksters never actuated their snark by writing it down or speaking it aloud. If it remained only a theoretical construct but was never made into a reality, then that statement would make sense.

Tom Scocca wants you to think that snarksters are the genuine article, while their targets are dishonest poseurs. Yet Scocca isn’t above playing with words himself in service to his own agenda. The Obama administration considered Rebecca M. Blank as head of the Council of Economic Advisers but rejected her because of the following assertion she made nineteen years earlier.

A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system.

Scocca’s reaction to this quote.

This is, of course, a simple—essentially tautological—statement of fact.

No it isn’t. Redistribution does absolutely nothing to address the issue of “economic justice,” which I take to mean the gap between the wealthy and the poor. What raises people out of poverty is a strong economy. From “Poverty Levels and Trends in Comparative Perspective,” by Daniel R. Meyer and Geoffrey L. Wallace.

The poverty level remains the same, except when the economy tanks. It doesn’t matter how much economic redistribution you do. Today, the number of poor Americans is at 15 percent. You can see in this second chart that more people become poor when the economy takes a nosedive.

It isn’t a “simple statement of fact” that economic redistribution will solve the problem of poverty. Also, the term “economic justice” was coined deliberately as a loaded phrase. It’s meant to imply that a crime is being committed against the poor. You all know, of course, that there are poor people even in nations that are based entirely on the philosophy of economic justice.

I was born in Venezuela, a Third World nation. Poverty was the norm for the vast majority of Venezuelans. All the people who came to our house to fix things were Venezuelans. One time an air-conditioner repairman got into it with Dad, because Dad couldn’t help kibitzing, and besides, the repairman was doing a bad job. Finally the man threw down his screwdriver and shouted at my father.

“I have eighteen children! You have only five!”

The question of poverty is far more complex than either Rebecca M. Blank or Tom Scotta would have you believe. Cultural issues are in play, as is bad faith on the part of many who claim to be acting in the interest of the poor. Beware of those peddling simple solutions. It’s almost always snake oil.

In his far-too-long essay, Tom Scocca is talking about a combination of sanctimony and duplicity, not smarm. Personally, I’d rather deal with smarm than snark. A smarmy person didn’t send me this e-mail.

I want to fuck your dead mother. Where’s she buried?

Boy, he showed me, didn’t he? That’ll teach me!

Was I being smarmy by writing about my mother’s death? Of course not. My crime was talking about things that make people feel genuine emotion. Snarksters are just as truncated as the smarmy. The two groups are the yin and yang of the same deficit. Deeply snarky people are as unable to handle emotion as the unctuous, tent-eyebrowed fraudsters. Both are terminally handicapped.

My own philosophy is to avoid a one-size-fits-all philosophy for just about everything. Snark is fine. Negative book reviews are fine. Life can’t be all one thing or all another. The battle isn’t smarm versus snark. There are about fifty billion inhabitable positions between them. The point is to be you, whomever that is.

Scocca (finally) ends his piece with this.

Eggers writes of his former critical self, “I was a complete, weaselly little prick.” He asks: “What kind of small-hearted person wants an artist to adhere to a set of rules, to stay forever within a narrow envelope which we’ve created for them?” He answers, and answers, and answers: “the lazy and small … small and embittered … narrow-hearted … the tiny voices of tiny people.”

The actual answer, and his actual fear—the fear that keeps the smarmers tossing on their bullshit-stuffed mattresses on the beds of bullshit they would have us all sleep in—is this: We are exactly the same size as you are. Everybody is.


There’s your problem, bud.

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