Snark vs Smarm

Tom Scocca defends the former against the latter:

If there is a defining document of contemporary literary smarm, it is an interview Eggers did via email with the Harvard Advocate in 2000, in which a college student had the poor manners to ask the literary celebrity about “selling out.” In reply to the question, Eggers told the Advocate that yes, he was what people call a sellout, that he had been paid $12,000 for a single magazine article, that he had taken the chance to hang out with Puffy, and that he had said yes to all these opportunities because “No is for pussies.” His response builds to a frenzied peroration:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. 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.

Here we have the major themes or attitudes of smarm: the scolding, the gestures at inclusiveness, the appeal to virtue and maturity. Eggers used to be a critic, but he has grown out of childish things. Eggers has done the work – the book publishing, the Hollywood deal-making – that makes his opinions (unlike those of his audience) earned and valid opinions. … Do not dismiss – a movie? Unless you have made one? Any movie? The InternshipThe Lone Ranger? Kirk Cameron’s Unstoppable?

Maria Bustillos quotes Scocca:

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.

The form of virtue, without the substance. There are whole worlds to unpack in that idea. Can we ever be sure that someone else’s assumption of virtue is fake? If so, how? If calls for civility, for integrity—for feeling and for sympathy—are to be considered suspect (“smarmy”), in and of themselves, what is to become of us? Specifically, what is to become of the poet, who approaches us with no critical armor, no theory, no formula—who demands this very absolution from us in advance?

Joe Nunweek remains skeptical of Scocca’s diatribe:

Leaving aside leading snark proponent Gawker’s backing by a modest community co-op media company worth $300 million – leaving aside the fact that I can’t stand glib clickbait positivity anymore than the next broke writer – I just don’t believe snark and smarm don’t have the particular couplings to prestige and privilege that Scocca says they do. You can heap venom on low-level offenders, beneficiaries and the undeserving poor with a bile that could corrode titanium, you can smarm at the top of the Twitter heap about a ‘highly problematic’ turn of phrase with the best of them. There’s a whole bunch of different power relations in which these tonal devices are interchangeable, but with both, it often comes back to serving the writer or speaker and his or her own, rather than the subject.

Snark or smarm – they’re both ultimately a failure to put ego aside, and they usually imply a disregard or lack of consideration for a work, an argument, whatever – because it’s more important to get in first and get in fatally. The framing device of ‘On Smarm’ is the Anakin Skywalker-like figure of Dave Eggers, who abdicated a life of ‘incredibly snotty, hostile articles attacking big name, non-fiction journalists’ to become an insufferable Zen-like figure of moderation who sagely counsels our youth not to discuss a book until they’ve written one. But really, he just proves a more basic reality – that a pathological egotist will eventually find the right tool to get himself success and attention, whether it’s more vinegar or more honey.