If you follow any cultural critics on Twitter — and you should, really; I recommend it — you’ll have seen them talking today about Tom Scocca’s anti-anti-snark manifesto “On Smarm.” His argument is too long to summarize or respond to in full — really, just read it; I’ll wait — but broadly speaking it’s a counterattack on those who claim that our culture has been overrun with snide takedown artists, who use half-witty retorts to cut those who actually create things down to size. He begins with BuzzFeed’s incoming books editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, who somewhat infamously told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon that his section would follow “the Bambi rule: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” He spends a good amount of time railing against Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell and various political figures, but directs the brunt of his ire towards the New Yorker‘s David Denby and his 2009 book, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. (Scocca proudly — snarkily, even — says he bought his copy used so Denby wouldn’t get a cent.)
The real danger, Scocca argues, comes not from snark but smarm, to which snark is an inevitable and necessary reaction. (There’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum here, but let’s breeze past that.) In his formulation, smarm is a kind of all-purpose armor against criticism — or negativity, or, worst of all, “hating” — which takes as an inviolable postulate that criticism stems from jealousy or pettiness or other unseemly emotions. He writes:
Smarm offers a quick schema of superiority. The authority that smarm invokes is an ersatz one, but the appearance of authority is usually enough to get by with. Without that protection, to hold an opinion is to feel bare and alone, one voice among a cacophony of millions.
The evasion of disputes is a defining tactic of smarm. Smarm, whether political or literary, insists that the audience accept the priors it has been given. Debate begins where the important parts of the debate have ended.
Fitzgerald’s Disney-esque approach to books coverage seems, among other things, fundamentally unworkable: Who could trust a writer, or a section, who never seems to dislike anything, or any part of anything? Loving the best and hating the worst are two sides of the same coin, or, to quote an X-Men graphic novel I read once, “If not for the depths of grief, how truly could we measure the heights of joy?” (My memory’s fuzzy; there might have been a “tovarisch” in there somewhere.)
That said, and precisely because Fitzgerald’s “Bambi Rule” seems more like a mission statement than a business plan, it’s grown somewhat tiresome to read people pouncing on it for weeks on end. Maybe save some of that energy for when he actually starts posting? Scocca quotes the “No haters” mantra that has appeared in some of BuzzFeed’s job postings, but ignores the fact the site posts fine long-form journalistic and critical pieces in addition to its iconic lists. He derides Denby, in particular, for monolithically characterizing Gawker as a den of snark, but does the inverse for a competitor who’s explicitly cited Gawker as an example of what they don’t want to do. Can you leave us out of the online-journalism wars, please?
It’s truly insufferable to dismiss legitimate, or even illegitimate, criticisms as mere snark, which as Scocca points out is an insidious and cynical device used to place those criticisms beneath contempt and, therefore, obviate the need to respond to them. It has its most serious consequences, perhaps, in the political realm, where it’s a short leap from “negative” to “cynical” to, why not, “un-American.” But it has consequences for culture as well, although the movies Scocca picks to make his case don’t really get the job done.
Whether a work is true or lasting or any good is beside the point; smarm makes sure to put it beside the point. So we have an entire class of art or entertainment that relies on other art, parasitically, for its protection or certification. Julia Child, through decades of hard work, became a beloved and admired figure, so how could Julie & Julia be greeted with anything but love and admiration? “Swan Lake” is essential to the classical canon, so Black Swan must be taken seriously (and Natalie Portman, having let it be known that she put herself through ballet training, is essentially a prima ballerina). Where the Wild Things Are is a supreme masterpiece of children’s literature, so your children will certainly be enriched by exposure to Dave Eggers’ screenplay and YA-novel adaptations of it.
When we detach ourselves from the logic of smarm, it becomes possible instead to read Julie & Julia as a chilling portrait of sociopathy, and Black Swan as hysterical junk, and Eggers’s Wild Things as a false and creepy enactment of somebody’s idea of what childhood ought to be about. (I’m relying on the New Yorker excerpt on that last one, because God knows I’m not reading or watching the whole thing.)
I’m not aware of anyone who’s made any of those arguments. They seem especially trumped-up when it comes to Black Swan, whose proponents might even embrace the phrase “hysterical junk.” David Denby might have warmed to Julie & Julia, but plenty of other critics went after the Julia scenes, which presumably is where the sociopathy charge comes from. Scocca’s essentially committing the same sin with which he charges the anti-snark brigade: attributing motivation to a nameless group without providing a shred of evidence. In truth, though there may be a few dyed-in-the-wool snarkers and smarmers, snark and smarm are voices, and vices, available to any and all. It’s not safe for anyone to occupy one or the other for too long, lest you wind up manning barricades you’d be better off tearing down.