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On Smarm
December 5, 2013 9:43 AM   Subscribe

"Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed's Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: 'If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all.'"
posted by josher71 (106 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
At the risk of sounding snarky, this article is WAY too good to merely be on Gawker.
posted by chimaera at 10:01 AM on December 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


Metafilter: That's it. You're getting it. That's smarm.
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 10:04 AM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


"If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." Oh my god is there a better possible invitation to a blistering tirade of obscenity, profanity, and vulgarity? I think not. This sentence has always been my cue to create and deploy my most inventive invective.

Let us loathe both snark and smarm, and then adjourn for meatball subs.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 10:10 AM on December 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


Scocca is a gem when he has something to be righteously outraged about.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 10:10 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


“If you can’t say anything nice, then sit next to me.”

--Dorothy Parker
posted by chavenet at 10:14 AM on December 5, 2013 [29 favorites]


At the risk of sounding snarky, this article is WAY too good to merely be on Gawker.

Not trying to manage my own thread, but I think that the general long form stuff Gawker publishes is pretty great.
posted by josher71 at 10:17 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


chavenet while Dorothy Parker might have said something similar, that quote is usually attributed to Alice Roosevelt. Unless you were being meta about all this by citing Uncyclopedia?
posted by Wretch729 at 10:22 AM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Never criticize, condemn, or complain.
Dale Carnegie
posted by bukvich at 10:23 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would ask that if you criticize, condemn, or complain you at least know what the fuck you are talking about and have some kind of point. That's the problem with snark: it's too easily a cover for lazy incuriousity.
posted by Artw at 10:26 AM on December 5, 2013 [45 favorites]


Wretch729: "chavenet while Dorothy Parker might have said something similar, that quote is usually attributed to Alice Roosevelt. Unless you were being meta about all this by citing Uncyclopedia?"

Thank you for that; I always believed that was Dorothy Parker and cited Uncyclopedia just because it reinforced my belief. Which is ironic in its own way, if not smarmy.
posted by chavenet at 10:27 AM on December 5, 2013


"As the Bush administration went on," David Denby writes, "the insufficiencies of snark became mortifyingly obvious."

LOL.

Irony of course had been killed on 9/11, as everyone recalls. The thing that people were calling "irony," that is. Obviously the other kind of irony, the kind that left stage blood all over the ancient Greek orchestra floors, was just getting started. A tsunami of smarm was rolling across the planet: "our freedoms" ... "an axis of evil" ... "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" ... "enhanced interrogation techniques" ... "ticking time bombs" ... "the Patriot Act" ... "the Protect America Act" ... "unlawful enemy combatants" ... "asymmetric warfare."

"Dangerous lies and irresponsible snark were part of the same despairing mood," Denby writes.

Part of the same... mood, you say. Basically organically connected and mutually reinforcing and jointly culpable. It was snark—the "impotent nihilism" of Maureen Dowd—that made Gitmo happen, when you get right down to it.

Maybe the more earnest and deeply committed protesters could have done something about it all, if Bloomberg hadn't locked them up in advance?

But mostly: ROTFL, motherfucker.
Man, I have rarely wanted this much to frame a piece of writing and hang it up on a wall somewhere.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:29 AM on December 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


Man, some of that article just felt like looking in an unflattering mirror. If there was anything I could change about myself, I'd remove the smarm. You'd think having a characteristic compared to Joe Lieberman would do that pretty easily, but yet...
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:30 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


So basically, smarm is like the defensive version of the tone argument? In the sense that, instead of engaging with actual problems, smarm is saying, "My tone is such that I am above directly speak about the down-low-and-dirty-problems and in order to conform to the ritual of civility, yours should be too"? That make a lot of sense to me.

Great read.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:37 AM on December 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


It's nearly impossible to keep smarm values at bay, though. Even well-meaning people fall into them. Publish a long, serious article and wait for the discomfiting benedictions to roll in from Longform and Longreads: Here is a piece of writing that has attained a certain length—a form that you can read, secure in the knowledge that someone did a lot of typing, and that you are doing a lot of reading. Everyone recognizes that there is virtue, or an approximation of virtue, in doing a lot of reading. Share it, this quantity of reading.
YES
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:38 AM on December 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


I'll admit I just skimmed the article, but it sounds like they're defining "smarm" as the flipside of "snark" - both of which are just lazy.

As I understand it - "snark" is the lazy way of critique, where you pick on something just because it's "lame" or "Uncool" or whatever. It's stupid, whatever, don't look at it. Dismissing something as "lame" or whatever saves you the trouble of actually looking closer and thinking about it, and maybe risking finding something you actually like in it after all.

And smarm sounds like the flip side of that- supporting things simply because they exist. It's like the ugly-ass ash tray you make for your mom in third grade that she keeps and praises you for the effort, even though it actually sucks as an ash tray. You support a thing simply because it exists, and you don't take the time to look closer and think about it, and maybe risking finding something about it that you don't like after all.

And hey, for most purposes that's okay. It can be okay for someone to not really be able to articulate why they do or don't like a thing. What scares me is that it sounds like Gawker is talking about a no-snark policy when it comes to literary criticism, without taking the time to also establish a no-smarm policy - and that has me uneasy. Because it's that kind of deeper look at a work that helps an artist grow. I worked on a movie with a friend in high school, and we showed it to a few local bigwigs when we made it - and I wanted to spit tacks over how many "reviews" we got from people who were praising us simply for having done the thing - "wow, you made a whole movie all by yourselves!" Yeah, I know I did, now tell me whether it was any good. Somehow the arts and entertainment editor of our local paper got a copy and wrote a review - and he actually pulled no punches, and pointed out some of the weak spots in the dialogue and the lack of action in places. And I was thrilled, because not only did it give me things to think about, it was a sign that he took me seriously rather than making me feel like I was a kid who made a poopy or whatever.

Snark and Smarm are both cheap and lazy, and neither one helps an artist or a writer. Or a person who appreciates art or literature.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:42 AM on December 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


Came for the snark, stayed for the...

Na, not gonna stay.

From the comments: In my opinion, snark has no place on the Internet, period

Between snark and trolling, if both were removed, would there be an internet left?
posted by BlueHorse at 10:43 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


This was a fun rant, but I didn't think it was an insightful or useful article. Both extremes, snark and smarm, are bad. Snark is a way of criticizing that is based on ridicule not critique. Smarm is a way of fending off criticism by implying no criticism should be allowed. What we need MORE of is thoughtful, insightful cultural and artistic criticism, not either of these extremes.
posted by twsf at 10:44 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


I believe there would be GIFs of cats, yes.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:44 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


That was unbearably, unfinishably, awful. Perhaps I'm just reacting to the framing, but anything that appears to start out as a defence of snark is on a loser with me.

Snark is the cancer of discourse. Yes, perhaps there's a case to be made against smarm, but smarm is at worst the diabetes of discourse. Find better ways to react to it than snark and then come back.

And fire the boss who restrained the editor who was dying to hack these 10,000 words into the 1000 they're worth.
posted by bonaldi at 10:47 AM on December 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


Snark and Smarm are both cheap and lazy, and neither one helps an artist or a writer. Or a person who appreciates art or literature.

Respectfully, it's pretty ballsy to call anything cheap and lazy when you start your comment by admitting to not having read the article.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 10:48 AM on December 5, 2013 [25 favorites]


I'm having trouble understanding how people are understanding his definition of "snark" as exclusively lazy, cheap potshots on the web. He explicitly says that snark can generate that and it can be a bad thing, but ultimately he appears to be talking about a trend towards positive-attitude-no-criticism-allowed-let's-bring-the-discourse-back-to-civility demands that are much more about power struggles and space for criticism that doesn't have to be nice when it's pointing out a major omission. Not, like, just calling each other names on the Internet.

I thought the part where he talks about the journalist who suggests to young writers what journalists should do and then accused Socca of low down and dirty tactics when the journalist was confronted with the fact that he did not, in fact, do any of those things was a really good example of the disconnect.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:52 AM on December 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


SNARK SMASH SMARM, BUT SNARK NOT ABLE TELL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SMARM AND SINCERITY. SNARK NOW SORRY.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:54 AM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


The word, as used now, is a fairly recent addition to the language, and it is not always entirely clear what "snark" may be. But it's an attitude, and a negative attitude—a "hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt," is how Heidi Julavits described it in 2003, while formally bestowing the name of "snark" on it, in the inaugural issue of The Believer.


I may be snarky, but the OED has this from their
Snark (v.) 2. intr. and trans. To find fault (with), to nag.

1882 J. Longmuir & D. Donaldson Jamieson's Etymol. Dict. Sc. Lang. (rev. ed.) IV. 314/2 To Snark,..to fret, grumble, or find fault with one.
and
Etymology: Corresponds to Middle Low German and Low German snarken (North Frisian snarke , Swedish and Norwegian snarka ), Middle High German snarchen (German schnarchen , †schnarken ), of imitative origin: compare snork v.
So Julavits needs to get in line behind the Frisians, at least.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:55 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm a sucker for anyone who launches a well-written attack on David Denby.
posted by COBRA! at 10:55 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


SNARK SMASH SMARM, BUT SNARK NOT ABLE TELL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SMARM AND SINCERITY. SNARK NOW SORRY.

The difference is substance. Thank you for playing, you can read the article now.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:56 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


SNARK SMASH SMARM, BUT SNARK NOT ABLE TELL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SMARM AND SINCERITY. SNARK NOW SORRY.

Possibly relevant to the conversation: Film Crit Hulk has just released a book.
posted by Artw at 10:57 AM on December 5, 2013


So much of this is eminently quotable.
There are no depths that political smarm cannot plumb. In 2000, at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, I witnessed an unforgettable performance: Windy Smith, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome, was brought out onstage before the cameras to tell the American public that she, personally, wanted George W. Bush to become the next president. A Bush presidency, she said, "will be a happy time for America."

Was it? Did it turn out to be a happy time for America? Is that a mean or disrespectful question? If it is, whose fault is that?

[...]
Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says "Don't Be Evil," rather than making sure it does not do evil.
[...]
We all live our lives, we're told, on these terms. If people really wanted a better world—what you might foolishly regard as a better world—they would have it already. So what if you signed up to use Facebook as a social network, and Facebook changed the terms of service to reverse your privacy settings and mine your data? So what if you would rather see poor people housed than billionaires' investment apartments blotting out the sun? Some people have gone ahead and made the reality they wanted. Immense fortunes have bloomed in Silicon Valley on the most ephemeral and stupid windborne seeds of concepts, friends funding friends, apps copying apps, and the winners proclaiming themselves the elite of the newest of meritocracies. What's was wrong with you, that you didn't get a piece of it?

Of course this is tyrannical. Of course this is false. Everyone is aware that market judgments are foolish and unfair. But what can you do about it?
posted by pmv at 10:57 AM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's an unfocused piece, that's why we are having trouble nailing it down. He strikes some good (and funny) notes, and seems to be working towards a sort of expansion on the idea that what is called "snark" is actually justified criticism a lot of the time, and that "smarm" is tone-policing attempts to pooh-pooh all criticism as jealous carping or uncivil statements by low-class nobodies trying to start trouble.

I think if he worked on it some more, it might make a better long piece, maybe a book. But it's not there yet.

One of the interesting bits is saying that snark is not cynicism (which I think most people assume) and that smarm is actually much more cynical. But he doesn't explore that enough, either.

It's possible his thesis doesn't actually hold together that well; are Snark and Smarm actually two opposed forces in our culture? He wants that to be true, but I'm not sure it is.
posted by emjaybee at 11:00 AM on December 5, 2013 [20 favorites]


Wasn't it the great Jesus "two-fists" Christ who said: "Three things will last forever--snark, smarm, and spork --and the greatest of these is spork."-?
posted by the quidnunc kid at 11:01 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Respectfully, it's pretty ballsy to call anything cheap and lazy when you start your comment by admitting to not having read the article.

I didn't say I didn't read it, but I did say I skimmed it, so this is still a fair point....

(In my defense - I read as far as the first few examples of what "smarm" was, then nodded in recognition, then started getting distracted and that's when the skimming started.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:03 AM on December 5, 2013


I'm having trouble understanding how people are understanding his definition of "snark" as exclusively lazy, cheap potshots on the web.

'Cos you guys idolize that shit, to be snarky.

And the opposite of it isn't really smarm, it's "ROCKS!", as in "THIS ROCKS, THAT SUCKS, NOTHING IN BETWEEN."

Enthusiasm is fine but unrestrained enthusiasm amd corresponding lows gets a little wearing. "JOSS WHEDON ROCKS! AGENTS OF SHIELD IS JOSS WHEDON, THEREFORE IT ROCKS! NO, ACTUALLY IT SUCKS! JOSS WHEDON SUCKS NOW!"

Smarm, is that a real problem? I suspect what most of what would-be snarksters define as smarm is just restraint or failing to be a fashionable kind of jerk.
posted by Artw at 11:03 AM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


On the other hand, Dorothy Parker did write the all-time-great snarky review of A House at Pooh Corner in her Constant Reader column: "Tonstant Weader fwowed up."
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:03 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Smarm, is that a real problem? I suspect what most of what would-be snarksters define as smarm is just restraint or failing to be a fashionable kind of jerk.

oh man, dude
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:05 AM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]




Ooh, I loves me some Dorothy Parker criticism...I occasionally write reviews for a theater web site, and the editor has a pretty strict no-snark policy - not that we're not allowed to get negative, but we should strive to make our critique constructive. Which, honestly, is fair - "the people who did this play did not do it to personally annoy you," he reminds us, and it's true. And there's a way to give constructive critique in such a way that the potential audience knows what to skip and the artists in question also know what maybe could have worked better so they can try again next time.

But dammit there were a couple shows that I wished I could have gone full-on Dorothy Parker on because oh my god
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:07 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's possibly a mark of greatness that it's really obvious who bothered to read the article before commenting.
posted by pmv at 11:10 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


That was unbearably, unfinishably, awful [...] And fire the boss who restrained the editor who was dying to hack these 10,000 words into the 1000 they're worth.

I literally de-lurked and bought an account just to give you a +1.

A friend posted this article right before it went up on MeFi and as I read the article I was struck with increasing incredulity as I went from cherry picked tweets to straw-man arguments to hypocritical us vs. them hipsterism. Oh, yes, Eggers, the Romney campaign, buzzfeed and upworthy. All rendered impotent somehow because the author could twist of an arbitrary neologism to suit his perception of the *tone* of one set of circumstances. Who Cares.

(Well, I do, because I like talking about things on the internet)
posted by young_son at 11:10 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read it, I just wasn't very impressed by it.
posted by Artw at 11:11 AM on December 5, 2013


Between snark and trolling, if both were removed, would there be an internet left?

It would be wall to wall glurge.

Smarm, is that a real problem?

Is it a problem when politicians deflect attacks on their misdeeds by proclaiming them uncivil? Is it a problem that there are people defending a crack-smoking, heroin-taking, drunk-driving buffoon of a mayor on the grounds that noting that he is those things is "hounding" him?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:12 AM on December 5, 2013


I would define those as ridiculous strawmen and orthogonal to anything we are discussing here.
posted by Artw at 11:15 AM on December 5, 2013


Well, given that things that like that primary examples of smarm as given in the essay, you're just wrong about that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:18 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


I thought the part where he talks about the journalist who suggests to young writers what journalists should do and then accused Socca of low down and dirty tactics when the journalist was confronted with the fact that he did not, in fact, do any of those things was a really good example of the disconnect.

That's Chris Jones for the morbidly curious. A perfectly good magazine writer but basically the epitome of what Scocca is talking about.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:19 AM on December 5, 2013


So, okay, it's a piece of cultural criticism and his argument could be more air tight. Pop culture criticism is the cotton candy of writing. But emotionally it struck a deep chord.

It's basically a long, angry rant against how we've been reduced to either aggressively cheerleading the status-quo or be deemed uncivil irrespective of how right or wrong you are.

It's about bullshit being more well tolerated - encouraged, even - than discourse.

This is definitely something that I've felt, as a member of the technololcracy, and it's tapping this rich vein of resentment.
posted by pmv at 11:20 AM on December 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


I liked this a lot but then there was the expression on my face when I realized "You're right but it was mean and hurt my feelings for you to be right so you are now Enemy Number One" was actually how people conducted themselves in the workplace.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:21 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Meh. 3/5, needs work.
posted by aramaic at 11:21 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


This piece is ludicrously all over the place, but a whole lot of its drive-by quips are very well placed. Sad it didn't take the form of a series of articles on different forms of smarm rather than lumping political campaign speeches right in with book reviews and losing any semblance of a focused critical point in the urge to lump everything in American culture under the same heading.
posted by RogerB at 11:21 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Harry Frankfurt did it better (and more coherently).
posted by Wretch729 at 11:23 AM on December 5, 2013


technololcracy

What a perfect word!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:23 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pop culture criticism is the cotton candy of writing.

I know what you mean by this, but even cotton candy is putting on airs nowadays.

And, since my probably is that I am twee instead of smarmy, I LOVE IT.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:24 AM on December 5, 2013


Yeah, I feel like it's more a scattered collection of good points than a unified theory. He's conflating some things that aren't really the same thing. But still. The individual points are worth it.*

*as is every word aimed at that chickenfucker Denby.
posted by COBRA! at 11:25 AM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Harry Frankfurt did it better (and more coherently).

give ya one guess who gets cited in the article
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:25 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's got it's hyperbolic examples touching on politics, but it's general thrust is "VENT YOUR ID 24/7, BE AS MUCH AS A DICK ABOUT IT AS POSSIBLE, ANYTHING THAT GETS IN THE WAY IS "SMARM" AND THEREFORE WORTHLESS."

The guy is calling for more ego-stroking for lame Hunter S. Thompson knockoffs, not changing the world.
posted by Artw at 11:25 AM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh, I thought this post would be interesting.
posted by Lleyam at 11:27 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are parts of it that are really fun to read, but I'm kind of amazed by his crystal-clear belief that this is brave truth-telling that desperately needs saying. "Fuck Malcolm Gladwell! Fuck Dave Eggers! Fuck that Julia Child movie! Fuck Upworthy!" These things are all utter cliches of the parts of the internet in which I, at least, operate, to the point where they're pretty much received wisdom that you can expect to encounter every time you post anything about any of those things. There's nothing wrong with a particularly artful sermon delivered directly to the choir that is most eager to hear someone say back to them what they already believe only in sharper and more quotable language, but that's all this is, to me.

In other words, I've seen all this in Facebook comments four billion times, but he did make it sound better.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:29 AM on December 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


The problem with snark isn't the negativity, it's the defeatism. Snark says, "the world is going to Hell but you shouldn't really care because the only thing you can do is snark about it." Snark is how you get those folks who are all like, "I'm not racist because I make jokes about all races equally, just like on South Park."

Snark is the rationalization for being a passive observer instead of an activist. Authenticity is as lucrative a target for snark as hypocrisy.

Snark sees no difference between the person who studies astrology as a silly hobby and makes charts for friends and the person who gouges misfortunate and ignorant people with a multi-million dollar 1-900 huckster scheme. In fact, snark sees no difference between the huckster and the victim so long as snark can claim aloof superiority.

I've been smarming a lot lately, but only to people who deserve it, I swear. For instance, my underlying motivation, that motivation lying under the proverbial grease, when I smarm on reddit default subs is to make those places ever-so-slightly less vile.
posted by Skwirl at 11:31 AM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


God, I felt like it was seventh period Social Studies with Mr. Anderson going on and on and I just wanted to get home in time to watch Robotech.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:32 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


give ya one guess who gets cited in the article
posted by Rustic Etruscan


Aww shoot. I read it too, I remember the bit about Ari Fleischer. Fiddlesticks. I still think the piece is unfocused.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:32 AM on December 5, 2013


it's general thrust is "VENT YOUR ID 24/7, BE AS MUCH AS A DICK ABOUT IT AS POSSIBLE

Oh, come on. The piece is a mess, but its general thrust is clearly recognizable and it's nowhere near that: it basically argues that a journalistic culture of "sincerity," backpatting, normative positivity, and friendly civility is a bankrupt one, a conducive environment to hucksters and mediocrities, and ends up favoring only complacent cheerleading for the status quo and hostility to change. It's not about manners on the Internet, it's about (well, a million other things and) journalism and media culture.

The critique of the self-congratulation of Longreads and the "New Sincerity" ethos (which the Believer never fully followed through on, thankfully) is especially nicely placed, and needed. And I liked that he was willing to draw a clear line between the positivity crowd and simple fraud:

Smarm is particularly well-suited, as a rhetorical and emotional register, to outright frauds—James Frey, Jonah Lehrer, Mike Daisey, David Sedaris—with their appeals to "emotional truth" or humorism or sheer artistic ambition too large to be contained by mere dumb lowly fact.
posted by RogerB at 11:33 AM on December 5, 2013 [16 favorites]


Aww shoot. I read it too, I remember the bit about Ari Fleischer. Fiddlesticks. I still think the piece is unfocused.

Oh, yeah, it's totally unfocused. I'm with RogerB: It's obviously more about quotation than coherence. And like Linda_Holmes said, it's also basically red meat for baying dogs. But hell if I'm not a dog and hell if I don't like good red meat from time to time.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:40 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: I've seen all this in Facebook comments four billion times, but he did make it sound better.
posted by crayz at 11:45 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


God, I felt like it was seventh period Social Studies with Mr. Anderson going on and on and I just wanted to get home in time to watch Robotech.

To clarify, it's not that I mind long pieces, but in this day and age, when there's so many other things one can read, 10K words ought to be great. Not just the author droning on and amusing themselves and occasionally us with their sharp humor and witty observations.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:45 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." Oh my god is there a better possible invitation to a blistering tirade
> of obscenity, profanity, and vulgarity? I think not. This sentence has always been my cue to create and deploy my most inventive invective.

FULLER SITS ON HANDS
posted by jfuller at 11:49 AM on December 5, 2013


I wonder how you could get the message to the folks that aren't already in the choir.

Maybe it could be posted to Upworthy. "These 9,251 Words Will Change The Way You React to The World."
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:49 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hmm. I think there's a big difference between an opinion of "I feel this is bad" and stating "this is bad" as a fact, and I can't help but think this article is blurring the lines between those two, specifically around the Eggers stuff. For instance, I don't feel qualified saying "David Eggers is a bad writer", because who am I to make that definitive judgment? I haven't written a novel, I don't have the knowledge or experience to determine what a bad or good writer is objectively. Nevertheless, I feel perfectly fine saying that I don't enjoy David Eggers' books, because I don't enjoy David Eggers' books, and I'm entitled to my opinion.

I have snarky acquaintances, and I call them that because they confuse the two: they have a negative opinion, and they have decided that it represents the fact. I have snobbish acquaintances, and I call them that because they confuse the two (in the other direction): they have a positive opinion, and they have decided that it represents the fact. For me personally, normal people are capable of having a positive or negative opinion of something, yet still be capable of acknowledging that others feel differently without dismissing those people's opinions outright, which is what I feel snarky and snobby people do.

Having said all that: I think there are things in the world that are just bad, but to take the step of calling it factually bad, you should definitely have some perspective and experience. If you bite a poorly-prepared brussel sprout and decide brussel sprouts are bad and can never be anything else, then you probably don't have the perspective and experience to understand that the preparation and freshness are as important as the brussel sprout itself, and so you can't differentiate between an intrinsically "bad" food and a potentially delightful food that simply suffers from poor preparation, say.

And that is what a critic has, the perspective and knowledge to make that differentiation, or at least that's what a critic should have. From that perspective, suggesting that people should get perspective and knowledge before acting as a critic -- and that doing so by trying to prepare brussel sprouts yourself, and by experiencing many other preparations of brussel sprouts -- is completely reasonable.

Meanwhile, a person (not a critic) should still feel comfortable saying "ugh, this tastes terrible, I don't like this at all" after trying a poorly-prepared -- or even well-prepared -- brussel sprout. They just probably shouldn't run around telling everyone (based on that limited experience) that brussel sprouts are always terrible, can never taste good, and anyone who says they like brussel sprouts has bad taste (pun intended.) That's snark. Just like the person who likes brussel sprouts shouldn't run around telling people that brussel sprouts are wonderful, and anyone who doesn't like them is an uncultured peon with an uneducated palette. That's snobbery. Two sides of the same coin, I think.
posted by davejay at 11:51 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


On thinking about this piece, I think the problem isn't so much snark or smarm, I think it's hyperbole. The culture of the internet encourages over-the-top emotional expressions, be they "Worst. Episode. EVER." or be they "This one link will change your life...forever." And so what you get is either the snark-drenched hyperbole of "Everything is terrible and your favorite band sucks" or the glurge-drenched hyperbole where people think saying "This video made me feel things" is a poignant, potentially world-shattering statement.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:56 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Possibly relevant to the conversation: Film Crit Hulk has just released a book.

HUNDREDS OF PAGES OF UPPERCASE WRITING THAT DOESN'T SOUND LIKE HULK AT ALL DOES NOT MAKE HULK HAPPY.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:59 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is a sentence case option. And still...
posted by Artw at 12:00 PM on December 5, 2013


I think this article mischaracterizes snark. It's not merely contempt; it's more an attitude that if you can dismiss something in a witty manner, not only does that render your target completely invalid, but it also somehow makes you better what you're snarking. Snark is certainly a reaction to the saccharine, go-go positivity prized in mainstream American culture -- what I assume the author is referring to as 'smarm'. However, I would argue that snark is just as destructive as smarm. Whereas an embrace of smarm obviates the need for critical thinking, an embrace of snark absolves oneself of the need to do, create, or accomplish anything at all. Both function as substitutes for actual thought or engagement.

Maybe a way out of the snark/smarm trap is to apply an 'attitude filter' to the world and our interactions with it. Asking ourselves, "If I subtract attitude from this conversation, is anyone actually saying anything at all?"
posted by evil otto at 12:43 PM on December 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


Smarm is snark: Snark of snark.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:45 PM on December 5, 2013


Snark and smarm may be opposite sides of the same coin, but the fatal flaw is the assumption that there's just the one coin.
posted by pardonyou? at 12:53 PM on December 5, 2013


Smarm is snark: Snark of snark.

Nah, smarm is basically the internet equivalent of "Well, bless your heart!"
posted by mstokes650 at 1:04 PM on December 5, 2013


(makes you better than what you're snarking)
posted by evil otto at 1:18 PM on December 5, 2013


I liked the article on the whole, though I agree it drifted in and out of focus from time to time. That said, the task of putting what one believes in words is a daunting one, and he did a pretty good job, in my opinion.

My takeaway: Smarm is bullshitting, snark is calling it out.
posted by Mooski at 1:26 PM on December 5, 2013


Metafilter: But hell if I'm not a dog and hell if I don't like good red meat from time to time.





(Really, I tried to resist.)
posted by dogheart at 1:44 PM on December 5, 2013


I see my future in creating artisinal, organic locavore cotton candy. Vegan, raw-vegan and non-vegan versions available. Gluten-free. Offices in Brooklyn and Portland. Ap and Kickstarter project coming soon. #supercottoncandy
posted by ambient2 at 2:20 PM on December 5, 2013


This was a really fantastic article; thanks so much for posting it, josher.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:58 PM on December 5, 2013


The Value of Content
posted by Artw at 3:53 PM on December 5, 2013


This quote by David Denby:

Snark is the expression of the alienated, of the ambitious, of the dispossessed.


...are we supposed to be looking down on these people? Is he really calling out the alienated and dispossessed? Is he thinking they are the shameful ones, rather than the societies and institutions that rely on excluding many in order to lavish the few? That confuses me and has the whiff of evil.

Artw I like that article, why did you post it?
posted by Danila at 4:12 PM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Many of your criticisms of this piece baffle me. They suggest that, rather than the article actually having the faults you claim to find in it, you really just resent that the piece is long and you're trying to find some reason to criticize it.
posted by jayder at 4:23 PM on December 5, 2013


...are we supposed to be looking down on these people? Is he really calling out the alienated and dispossessed? Is he thinking they are the shameful ones, rather than the societies and institutions that rely on excluding many in order to lavish the few? That confuses me and has the whiff of evil.

well, we are talking about the guy who watched Radio Raheem get choked to death and then asked himself But What About The Pizza Shop
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:33 PM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Artw I like that article, why did you post it?

Buzzfeed envy is one of the original essays many concerns.
posted by Artw at 4:53 PM on December 5, 2013


Sorry, unworthy envy.
posted by Artw at 4:55 PM on December 5, 2013


Upworthy?




envy?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:28 PM on December 5, 2013


This is one of the few times I agree with that butthead Dave Eggers.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:50 PM on December 5, 2013


To elaborate, I would posit that the successful people out there in the world, that is, people able to enjoy and exercise personal agency, including painters and filmmakers and mothers and fathers, do not engage in snark. That's not to say they are smarmy, self-delusional idiots.

I think Eggers in his first book remarks that he could not believe all the crap that Bob Dylan endured for daring to produce a record or whatever that did not conform to expectations. If you don't like it, don't listen to it, etc.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:56 PM on December 5, 2013


First, positive thinking by definition is conceptual and generally verbal. And most conceptual or verbal material doesn’t have a lot of impact on how we actually feel or function over the course of the day. I know a lot of people who have this kind of positive, look on the bright side yappity yap, but deep down they’re very frightened, angry, sad, disappointed, hurt, or lonely. It hasn’t sunk in. Think of all the people who tell you why the world is a good place, but they’re still jerks.
posted by Brian B. at 5:58 PM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I always thought of snark as the verb of sarcasm, because 'he sarcasmed it' sounds dumb.
posted by Evilspork at 7:01 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think a whole bunch of you are misreading the article. It's unfortunate that it starts off by suggesting smarm is the opposite of snark because it seems a bunch of readers stop their brains right there, figuring they already understand its target because they understand one valence of that target's supposed opposite.

To pluck out a representative example from this thread:
"Smarm, is that a real problem? I suspect what most of what would-be snarksters define as smarm is just restraint or failing to be a fashionable kind of jerk."
But example after example shows that is not, in fact, the target of this essay. The target of this essay is also not sincerity or kindness, but rather the bad-faith prescription of kindness-like behavior. It's also worth noting that practically all of the examples of smarm are attributed to the powerful (whether politically, financially, or culturally) -- and for the argument the article's actually making that's no accident.

I kind of wish it had been published someplace like The Atlantic, because he would have been forced to craft it into a better essay. Its central thesis ought to have been made more clear: Smarm is the early 21st Century's rhetoric of Power, through which the contradictions inherent in the status quo -- political, financial, and/or cultural -- are papered over by wholly cynical calls for "civility."
posted by nobody at 7:11 PM on December 5, 2013 [25 favorites]


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.


I disagree with his entire premise. The practice of cynicism is neither snark nor smarm. The practice of the extremes of cynicism is either snark or smarm.


I think this article mischaracterizes snark. It's not merely contempt; it's more an attitude that if you can dismiss something in a witty manner, not only does that render your target completely invalid, but it also somehow makes you better what you're snarking. Snark is certainly a reaction to the saccharine, go-go positivity prized in mainstream American culture -- what I assume the author is referring to as 'smarm'. However, I would argue that snark is just as destructive as smarm. Whereas an embrace of smarm obviates the need for critical thinking, an embrace of snark absolves oneself of the need to do, create, or accomplish anything at all. Both function as substitutes for actual thought or engagement.

Maybe a way out of the snark/smarm trap is to apply an 'attitude filter' to the world and our interactions with it. Asking ourselves, "If I subtract attitude from this conversation, is anyone actually saying anything at all?"


Absolutely agree with this.

The trend is to snark on everything. It's a self-involved and abrasive attempt at status gain that does not require the production of anything of merit. Mostly, though, it's knocking down for the sake of knocking down. Like the author's takedown of the critic's assessment of Juvenal.
posted by GrapeApiary at 7:19 PM on December 5, 2013


Beginning to think the article never should have mentioned snark in the first place. It's proving to be wholly a distraction from its better points.

"The practice of cynicism is smarm," in context, is pretty clearly a sloppy/flashy way of saying "Smarm is one form of cynicism in practice," not actually implying that smarm is the only way that cynicism can show up in speech. Cynicism is being staked out as a constituent element of smarm, not the other way around.

These are rhetorical acts. Obviously a cynic can make use of both smarm and snark and use both of them cynically. Sarah Palin's a prime example of that overlap, right?
posted by nobody at 7:46 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


This active rang very true with me. It reads more like a Baffler piece than something I would expect to see on Gawker.

Smarm as I infer from the article is a rhetorical device meaning "it is horribly impolite of you to call me on my bullshit." And if you should call bullshit, it means you are somehow not a nice or kind person. At its worst, it is used by some people who shall remain nameless to squelch any voicing of critical thought.

I have no problem with anybody who calls bullshit on bullshit. Thanks for posting this.
posted by borges at 8:36 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think the author is trying to contrast snark, an empty offense, with smarm, an empty defense.
posted by borges at 8:38 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The most irritating snark I have encountered recently were the online comments following a Guardian profile of King Krule.

It's quite obvious that most of the snark came from people who had never listened to his music.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:41 PM on December 5, 2013


It's a bit jarring to read this thread immediately after the RIP Nelson Mandela thread.
posted by ZeusHumms at 6:55 AM on December 6, 2013


Useful essay. I've been fighting to expunge snark from my own communication (unsuccessfully), and I've never put a name to the equally uninformative rhetorical position on the other side.

Reading this reminds me of the era of intellectuals like Gore Vidal or William F. Buckley, an era when deeper intellectual criticism had a place in popular media. They certainly have their snarky and smarmy moments too, but I think they aspired to something a bit more thoughtful.
posted by Nelson at 11:18 AM on December 6, 2013


It's a bit jarring to read this thread immediately after the RIP Nelson Mandela thread.

"Nelson Mandela’s Death Should Breathe New Life into PR"
posted by neroli at 11:57 AM on December 6, 2013


Smarmy describes someone who is overly flattering and fake. Kinda of how I learned it from my dad.
posted by judson at 12:10 PM on December 6, 2013


Yeah, using "smarm" to describe knee-jerk defensiveness is kind of odd.

If I hadn't read the article and just encountered the term "internet smarm" in the wild, I would figure more like this:

Internet smarm is:
- "liking" the page for Coca Cola on Facebook.
- inspirational posters forwarded to you by a family member
- unboxing videos
- a youtube video that ends with a request that you subscribe to the channel
- a Kickstarter for something that they could have funded out of pocket but decided a Kickstarter would get them publicity
- trying to invent a hashtag
- UpWorthy telling you how you will feel after watching something
posted by RobotHero at 10:21 AM on December 8, 2013


No, I think that stuff's internet smeg.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:57 AM on December 8, 2013


Malcolm Gladwell posts a pretty lackluster response.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:10 AM on December 11, 2013


"The Circle,” it should be pointed out, is a work of fiction about an imaginary company, based in the future.
Is this how he defended his favorite bad science fiction novels as a kid? I bet this is how he defended his favorite bad science fiction novels as a kid.

Flaubert, his wrists still aching from the notes he took researching Sentimental Education, is coming, Mr. Gladwell, to gouge your eyes out with a fountain pen and give you a stern talking-to.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:50 AM on December 11, 2013


All right, that's out of my system. Gladwell's piece probably deserves a more thoughtful response than that, and it might do me some good to write one.
Eggers, Scocca concludes, is “full of shit,” and with that he is off, for many thousand more words. It is an artful performance, with a number of fine moments. At one point, Scocca quotes me on the deliberate streak of optimism in my work—and he is not wrong in locating in that attitude a subtle self-interest. In being nice to the world, the writer obliges the world to be nice to him. But Scocca has larger ambitions: he wants to argue that the tyranny of niceness is the defining feature of our age, and he wants to make Dave Eggers the poster child for this movement. And it is here, I think, that his essay falters.
As far as Scocca is saying that smarm characterizes our age, so far is he wrong. It's the kind of journalistic generalization that looks good when you sell a piece; it's the kind of rhetorical engine you use when your piece can't get enough real wind to reach the coast it set out for. You might say that there's such a thing as smarm, and you might raise a hundred examples of it, but it wouldn't be enough. No number of examples would suffice to conclude that The Age is Smarmy and the Time Has Come to Fight Back. If Scocca expanded the piece to book length, then as long as he had the same high intentions, the result would probably be the same, no matter how long and exhaustively researched the book.

To put it another way, Gladwell is censuring Scocca here for failing in a project that's doomed to fail anyway. Gladwell then takes a few hundred more words to leave it at that.

But Scocca has another project, less ambitious, but more interesting. He wants to establish that there is such a rhetorical weapon as smarm, give some examples of its use, and show why it drives people crazy. To this end, he identifies a number of varieties in a number of fields. In every case, it either raises something - a person, maybe, or an idea - above criticism, or it lowers its critics beneath concern. This way, the holy object need never be defended. The defense wins by fiat.

The proper response to Scocca's article, for Gladwell, would have been a defense of smarm as a rhetorical technique, much in the same way as Scocca's article is a tacit apology for a certain kind of sharp critique - snark. He certainly couldn't deny its existence. But an outright defense would be pretty difficult, because, as Scocca shows, smarm is usually used either by the powerful, to avoid having to justify the evils they do, or by people like Eggers, to avoid literary criticism, which is hard to deal with, guys.

There's a lot of empty snark, but some of it is not only full, but brimming. There is no such thing as full smarm.

Which brings me to Gladwell's defense of Eggers.

Like the larger argument, it's partly right. Scocca didn't take Eggers's remarks in context. As interesting as his reading is, he forced them to mean a little more than they meant, and tendentious criticism that ignores the work itself really is bad. But check this out:
And as for laying down rules for other people, Eggers has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books and worked on three screenplays. He has started three magazines. When he was unhappy with the publishing world, he went out and started his own publishing company. When he thought that disadvantaged children needed better educational opportunities, he founded two nonprofits. When he tells students that they ought to aspire to a primary relationship to art—to put more energy into making art than into denigrating the art of others—he is speaking from the heart. You have to be running pretty low on ammunition to look at someone like that and call him full of shit.
Gladwell couldn't have written a smarmier paragraph than that one. It's really just an extension of Scocca's (somewhat uncharitable) interpretation of Eggers: Where Scocca read "Don't criticize if you don't make anything of your own," Gladwell writes "Don't criticize him; look at all he's made," as though simple bulk production set that production above criticism. Are the charities good? Yes. But the literary stuff? That's up for debate, and it's gross to shield the latter with the former.

Right after that, Gladwell decides to write about snark and satire for a while, because they're relevant.
Coe and Scocca are both interested in the same phenomenon: how modern cultural forms turn out to have unanticipated—and paradoxical—consequences. But they reach widely divergent conclusions. Scocca thinks that the conventions of civility and seriousness serve the interests of the privileged. Coe says the opposite. Privilege is supported by those who claim to subvert civility and seriousness. It’s not the respectful voice that props up the status quo; it is the mocking one.
Gladwell loves paradox, but this one comes from not understanding that both the respectful voice and the mocking one can prop up the status quo. It just depends on what's being respected and what mocked. And a mocking voice, as often as not, is respectful of something else which is so obviously Good that it goes unmentioned.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:01 PM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]




In a link in that piece, Tom Scocca writes: Malcolm Gladwell deepens our understanding of smarm by explaining that when Dave Eggers wrote the words "Do not be critics," he meant people should be critics.

Bang on. And that isn't even the best part. Gladwell also wrote:
Eggers is not Wittgenstein: his philosophy is not so opaque that it permits many varied interpretations. He says pretty much what he means.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:53 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


From TMOTAT's link:
I am, or at least I feel I am, something of an outsider to both tribes, mainly because I live in Canada and almost never leave my house, and so do not belong to a literary community. Nor do I ever get the chance to hate other literary communities simply because I'm rarely exposed to them. And from the outside of smarm and snark, one vital point missing from Scocca's piece is absolutely clear: The smarmy and the snarky are the same people.

[...]

The idea of success — the hope for success — hangs over the snark industrial complex as well. People do not write hate-pieces for the improvement of society. They write hate-pieces in order to get noticed and to make a little money. The logic of the market has one primary feature: Nobody escapes it. And this logic definitely includes the snarky.

I look forward to Scocca's first column in The New Yorker.
dude

you realize where you're publishing this, right
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:11 PM on December 16, 2013


Positive Book Reviews
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:44 AM on December 18, 2013


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