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Hunting snark
April 4, 2004 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Snark. In the newest issue of Bookforum, critic Sven Birkerts ruminates on what he considers to be the regrettable rise of the snarky book review, taking as his starting example Dale Peck's hatchet job on Rick Moody, written in 2002. "Psychologically [the literary] landscape [is one that is] subtly demoralized by the slash-and-burn of bottom-line economics; the modernist/humanist assumption of art and social criticism marching forward, leading the way, has not recovered from the wholesale flight of academia into theory; the publishing world remains tyrannized in acquisition, marketing, and sales by the mentality of the blockbuster; the confident authority of print journalism has been challenged by the proliferation of online alternatives. [...] All of this leads, and not all that circuitously, to the question of snark, the spirit of negativity, the personal animus pushing ahead of the intellectual or critical agenda. Snark is, I believe, prompted by the terrible vacuum feeling of not mattering, not connecting, not being heard; it is fueled by rage at the same."
posted by Prospero (27 comments total)

 
It’s worth noting that Birkerts mentions in the essay that a piece on him is due to be published in Dale Peck’s forthcoming book Hatchet Jobs, and that one might therefore consider Birkerts’s essay to be a pre-emptive strike; nonetheless, it still contains a number of interesting and debatable points.
posted by Prospero at 8:10 AM on April 4, 2004


Old news in the book world. The Believer kicked off last year with a similar essay (Dale Peck is a favorite target). But you reminded me to check in on the Snarkwatch.

The anti-snarkers were pretty soundly spanked by some essays on the NYT op-ed page and elsewhere that pointed out that nasty reviews and literary feuds go back as long as there have been books -- and they are more entertaining for bystanders than the kind of uplifting stuff that is the premise of the believing in The Believer. Though there is room for passionate appreciation, too. The if-you-can't-say-something-nice school also seems to suspiciously defend the same clique of young writers. They can't take the heat. Dave Eggers, this means you.
posted by Slagman at 8:16 AM on April 4, 2004


The real conspiracy is all these flip-floppers who surround Bush. Is there anybody who has worked with him who isn't a flippety floppety person?
posted by Slagman at 8:25 AM on April 4, 2004


Re: Slagman's 1st comment: The second section of Birkerts's essay begins with a concise summary of the recent history of what I suppose one could call the "snark wars," citing the Believer article and the NYT response.

Re: Slagman's 2nd comment: Wha? Wrong thread, maybe?
posted by Prospero at 8:46 AM on April 4, 2004


you reap what you sow
prospero
posted by clavdivs at 9:05 AM on April 4, 2004


In the light of shrinking space for fiction reviews, the snarks do seem of questionable worth. Today's NYT Book Review covers three novels compared to ten non-fiction reviews. Sure, sometimes overrated work needs to be deflated. But wouldn't the available space generally be better used to point out good books? I find it especially troubling when somebody takes it upon themselves to eviscerate first novels. On my movie review site, we have an unwritten rule not to kill struggling first-time filmmakers; it's cruel and pointless. Why not let them go quitely into the night (or try again) and write about something worthwhile instead?
posted by muckster at 11:06 AM on April 4, 2004


Muckster, you don't let them go quietly because your role as a reviewer is to serve the audience, not the artist.

As to the rise of the snark - remind me when Dorothy Parker died again?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:10 PM on April 4, 2004


To begin with, this isn't so new: Birkets is part of the Believer coterie that's been the source of this whole business from the beginning.

And while I can see an objection to negativity for negativity's sake, I find far more concerning this group's tendency to overprotect themselves and one another through preemptory denunciations of "meanness" (Julavits's original essay debuted just before her novel) and friendship-based puffery (see Egger's glitch-revealed Amazon head pats). This does a disservice to everyone: it both protects writers from the friendly prodding that makes any endeavor better and invites Peckian overreaction.

But instead of considering that he may be wrong, Birkets prefers to dismiss any arguments related to the benefits of negative reviews. ("Taken to task by readers, critics, and other writers, as of course he knew he would be, Peck insisted not only that he was defending the sacred honor of Literature but that he was flaying Moody for the author's own good—because he had betrayed his considerable gift.... A good trick, that, holding fast to the moral high ground even while twisting the blade for maximal damage.")

It is clear that the Birkets and Julavits and even Pecks want the same worthwhile thing: a serious literary culture. But self-protective whining about the mean people out there and the imagined loss of the serious culture they dreamed about as kids distracts them from the task of creating what they want.

And it pisses me off because I want that too. I want the Beliver to be what it thinks it is, but all that look out for Snark seems to leave it too sloppy and twee for me to gag down.
posted by dame at 1:12 PM on April 4, 2004


Joe's spleen, I see your point when it comes to warning your audience of bad work that a large number of people are at risk of seeing or reading. A major new work should be reviewed either way, no doubt. But how is the audience served by a review that draws attention to an inferior work that they might well have missed in the first place? There's only a limited amount of attention and space to go around, but a continuous torrent of new books (and new movies) released. I've written my share of bad reviews, but unless it's an overrated turd like "Whale Rider," why waste everybody's time on the bad stuff? If the Times only has three fiction slots a week, I would rather see them used to point out three great new books rather than for rants about whatever they didn't like.
posted by muckster at 1:22 PM on April 4, 2004


I don't think snarkiness has ANYTHING to do with consumer protection. There's nothing wrong with saying you dislike a book and explaining why. That's not snark. Snark is personally attacking the author. What purpose does that serve, other than to show how clever and biting the reviewer is?

The difficulty with discussions like this always lies with the fact that different people have differing amounts of backbone.

I guess I have none. I HATE insults and rudeness. I'm not so much personally hurt by such behaviour as I am offended by crassness of it. It's ugly.

But if you take a quick look at MeFi, you learn that many people enjoy slinging muck at each other. That's fine I guess. The trouble comes when we mix the dissers and the polite people in one big pot -- which is called planet Earth.

I find it fascinating how each group portrays the other. The dissers think of the polites as being spineless. It rarely occurs to them that they may very well be able to tolorate the snark -- they may just not find it enjoyable. The polites think of the dissers as horrible, mean people. It never occurs to them that the dissers might (a) just be having a bit of fun, and (b) might think of themselves as giving out "tough love."

My guess is that some of these critics not only think they are helping the public, they probably also think they are helping the AUTHORS. "I'm being hard on them so that they'll improve next time!"

Trouble is, if you're not oriented to see the world this way -- if you're a polite person -- you won't hear the "improving message." You'll just hear someone dissing you.
posted by grumblebee at 1:54 PM on April 4, 2004


Grumblebee: I see how snark can be defined as personal attack, and that's how I would normally define it, but in this ongoing snark debate, the anti-snarkers seem to define any negativity as snark. To an extent, yeah, attacking anyone's book will appear personal because it's her baby, but most of the discussion around snark implies that anything but fluff is meeeeaaaaaannnnn.

Also, one thing you leave out in the polite (spineless) v. meanies (well-spined) consideration: To the "mean," politeness is dishonest and therefore rude. I would far rather know what someone thinks, even if it hurts my feelings, than have this sheen of politeness behind which any sorts of thoughts may lurk *cue ominous music*. You know, people are ugly sometimes. Maybe it's better just to admit it.
posted by dame at 2:21 PM on April 4, 2004


You know, people are ugly sometimes. Maybe it's better just to admit it.

It's one thing to admit it, another to wallow in it. I've done my share of it over the years, but generally speaking it's much more enjoyable (for me, anyway) to write about things I enjoy and explain why than to engage in snark and killjoyism as a recreational sport.

On top of which, snark has become so prevalent that it's not exactly revolutionary, in fact it's boring.
posted by jonmc at 2:33 PM on April 4, 2004


Short Visual History of the Squirt Gun
posted by clavdivs at 2:40 PM on April 4, 2004


jonmc: It's one thing to admit it, another to wallow in it. I've done my share of it over the years, but generally speaking it's much more enjoyable (for me, anyway) to write about things I enjoy and explain why than to engage in snark and killjoyism as a recreational sport.

On top of which, snark has become so prevalent that it's not exactly revolutionary, in fact it's boring.


In general, I agree. As I said above though, the anti-snark whininess creates its own snark-wallowing opposition. They're part of the problem. It seems doing good work and constructively critiquing those you work with while ignoring the overt personal jabs might be better tack.

I don't want people to be mean; I'm simply not interested in pretending shock or the predicting the destruction of all things great when they are.

If Dale Peck smashes your book in a picture in the Times, laugh and move on.
posted by dame at 2:53 PM on April 4, 2004


The larger problem to my mind (Birkerts touches on this a bit) is that analysis and criticism of criticism as a discipline became a valid full time pursuit somewhere along the way. I knew people in college who barely ever touched a primary source/work of actual literature; instead they read theory, glosses of theory, critiques of theorists, and so on. It's all a little too rarefied for me. Those who can't, redefined the playing field.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 3:08 PM on April 4, 2004


We've got a long way to go before we hit the heights of snark already attained by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, or Richard Polwhele. Here's some Victorian snark from the notoriously vicious Saturday Review (contemporaries dubbed its critics the "Saturday Revilers"). A lengthier and far more famous example of Victorian snarkiness is The Fleshly School of Poetry.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:16 PM on April 4, 2004


Dale Peck's hatchet job was not only a great read and accurate, but underlines what sucks most about postmodern relativist nonsense.
posted by hama7 at 3:19 PM on April 4, 2004


For what it's worth--I've met Dale Peck, once, about a year ago, when I was at a dinner in NYC with a few young novelists, agents, and editors. During the conversation of which I was a small part, he trashed such books as Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow ("no heart in it," I think he said), Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ("Now that is a book I give to my students as a perfect example of how not to write"), most of the works of Toni Morrison in an extended monologue, and, if I remember correctly, Proust's In Search of Lost Time (which led another person at the table to say, "The thing I like about you is that you hate books that everyone else likes"). In all fairness, he did finally have very good things to say about Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated.

This raises the question of whether snarkiness is just a symptom of a modern climate of incivility (which is what most of the causes that Birkerts lists boil down to in the end--now that the thread's begun properly, I'll say that I myself am not entirely satisfied with his reasoning, and do think that his motives for writing the article are primarily partisan and expedient), whether some people have figured out that there's actually good money in snarkiness and have decided to make a career out of it, or whether it's a combination of both. Snarkiness directed toward a newly released book may be petty, but at least that pettiness can be clothed in the pretense that the reviewer is trying to warn the reader off from buying it. Snarkiness toward canonized works, or the back catalogs of well-established or successful authors, however, doesn't serve any real purpose that I can see, other than its own dubious and arguably unethical entertainment value. (Here I mean to distinguish between the singularly venomous nature of snark, and a merely negative opinion. I hate the works of Jane Austen, for example, but I don't snark about it--there's no point, and no profit to be gained by it.)

This somewhat snarky review of William Vollmann's new book in the NYT (which I posted as part of an earlier thread) is a good example of what I mean by this--it purports to be about the book on offer, but it's not so much interested in that as in what the reviewer considers to be the flaws in the author's entire body of work. (Now that I'm well into reading it, I'm almost convinced that the reviewer didn't get past the first fifty pages before writing his review, by the way.) That kind of reviewing, that disguises ideological differences with entire literary movements as analyses of specific texts, does its audience a disservice, and that's primarily what the snarkiest pieces of book reviewing tend to do.
posted by Prospero at 3:42 PM on April 4, 2004


In all fairness, he did finally have very good things to say about Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated.

Why exactly? I'm not a big fan of Peck, but it seems that Everything is Illuminated (which I'm also not a big fan of) is exactly the kind of book he was railing against. Praising it seems inconsistent.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 3:56 PM on April 4, 2004


Why exactly? I'm not a big fan of Peck, but it seems that Everything is Illuminated (which I'm also not a big fan of) is exactly the kind of book he was railing against. Praising it seems inconsistent.

He knew Foer personally (though Foer wasn't present at the dinner, and I initially left that out in order to not totally demonize Peck). He also claimed (I'm paraphrasing from memory now) that Foer took elements of Pynchon's style and made them accessible to the general public (which would be in line with what I consider to be Peck's willful misreading of high modernism and postmodernism).

I haven't read Foer's book myself, so I can't comment on the accuracy of that statement.
posted by Prospero at 4:03 PM on April 4, 2004


This raises the question of whether snarkiness is just a symptom of a modern climate of incivility

How does this assumption of modern incivility square with the examples of historical snarkiness as cited above?
posted by dame at 4:23 PM on April 4, 2004


Peck is the Ann Coulter of the book world, trying so hard to substitute brains (and talent) with flaky, childish (as in problem child) statements.

also, "Hatchet Jobs"? With this cover?
how lowbrow
posted by matteo at 5:38 PM on April 4, 2004


also, "Hatchet Jobs"? With this cover?
how lowbrow


Agreed.

For some older history of this sort of unabashedly vigorous criticism, some of you may want to look at some of the criticism Oscar Wilde received in the late 19th century when Dorian Gray was published.

It's one thing to admit it, another to wallow in it. I've done my share of it over the years, but generally speaking it's much more enjoyable (for me, anyway) to write about things I enjoy and explain why than to engage in snark and killjoyism as a recreational sport.

On top of which, snark has become so prevalent that it's not exactly revolutionary, in fact it's boring.


I'm fully with you on that one, Jon, especially the first bit about wallowing in it. I always find it useful when a reviewer I trust points out what they didn't like about a text and explains why, but when it turns into some scathing dismissal of the work as complete rubbish it becomes almost intolerable to read.
posted by The God Complex at 6:57 PM on April 4, 2004


The most interesting thing in the "Snark Wars" (what? is the ghost of Alec Guiness going to come down and tell Believer writers to "use the force?") has been reading Nick Hornby's column in the Believer. It's only decent, but it's fun watching Nick Hornby sneak snarks into it and his poking fun at the entire concept of "non-negative reviews."

Anyway, forget about Snark. I wanna see some art riots again. When Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" first played, there was a brawl. Nowadays people sit through dreck like Brown Bunny and don't get upset. I can't understand it.
posted by thecaddy at 8:08 PM on April 4, 2004


I always find it useful when a reviewer I trust points out what they didn't like about a text and explains why, but when it turns into some scathing dismissal of the work as complete rubbish it becomes almost intolerable to read.

NTM, everybody's tastes seem to be so predictable and rote, especially in music criticism, which is my line (at least in amateur sense). I'd just about kill for a new perspective.

Plus the irony and sarcasm is so thick you'd think they'd rather be doing something else half the time. It's so bad that I've been thinking of writing a peice for a month or so now, but I'm hesitant to do it because I have a feeling people would think I'm being sarcastic when in fact I'm completely serious. The working title: "A History of Seventies Rock Through The Eyes Of One Song-"Since You've Been Gone" and the Meaning Of Life."

or something. it needs work
posted by jonmc at 8:53 PM on April 4, 2004


How does this assumption of modern incivility square with the examples of historical snarkiness as cited above?

I'm not making that assumption, but alleging that Birkerts is, and that I don't entirely agree with that line of reasoning (as I said in my post above). However, I do think that Birkerts's question of whether the rapidly multiplying number of online alternatives to print reviews have somehow contributed to snarkiness is valid. One of the first things that one learns from the Internet is that it's far easier and more permissible to say rude things to people online than it is in any other medium.

The problem with that question is that we don't have any statistical means of measuring the amount and proportion of worldwide snarkiness over time (or whether, during any given time period, snarky negative reviews were the exception rather than the rule). No one would dispute that reviewers have always written vitrolic reviews, but that fact doesn't put to rest the allegations of the anti-snarkists that we're presently in a sort of "culture of snark." However, the only way to determine whether we ourselves are in a particularly snarky culture is through anecdotal evidence.
posted by Prospero at 5:46 AM on April 5, 2004


Snark herself eventually returned to California and ended her days hauled ashore near San Pedro.

The snarky side of soft science
posted by clavdivs at 10:30 AM on April 5, 2004


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