Snark vs Smarm, Ctd

Richard Lea contributes to the debate spurred by Tom Scocca’s essay:

Not even Scocca is really arguing for snark. Instead he’s arguing for the licence to adopt a negative tone when you confront “smarm”, which he defines as a “kind of performance” that takes on “the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance”. Scocca assembles examples from literature and politics of smarmy doublespeak – and who could possibly be in favour of that? – where practitioners short-circuit dispute about real issues by claiming any criticism is merely personal attack and suggests that those who argue against snark are really concerned about preserving their own status.

But he’s not really arguing about snark at all, as becomes clear when he admits that “the complaints against snark are not entirely without merit”.

Some snark is harmful and rotten and stupid. Just as, to various degrees, some poems and page-one newspaper stories and sermons and football gambling advice columns are harmful and rotten and stupid. Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes. …

Instead we need to steer a course between snark and smarm, to remember that it is enormously hard to write a good book, and to engage with the book, which has eventually been written on its own terms. Those terms are, of course, subject to criticism themselves, but we have to remember that we’re not in Hollywood. In a world where US publishers produce more than 300,000 titles a year – not to mention the 390,000 US titles published directly by their authors – the duty to “review books negatively” that Dowd upholds is constrained by limits of time and space. Confronted with a bad book, we should say it’s bad, of course, and how and why, but unless it is important or dangerous, why bother to confront it at all? Why not find something better to review? If we renounce snark, then the negativity we permit ourselves must have a point, and must be balanced with generous explorations of those few books that aspire to something interesting and manage to match those aspirations with at least a little success. Otherwise we’re not really talking about literature at all.