What’s Missing From the Smarm vs. Snark Debate: Honesty

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Yesterday, Tom Scocca lit up the ersatz (and real!) cultural-critic Internet with an essay called “On Smarm.” Hooked into the still-bubbling controversy over the appointment of Isaac Fitzgerald as Buzzfeed Books editor — a controversy that, for the record, I’ve already said I don’t think is of itself that big a deal — the piece is really a longer and deeper reflection about the role of snark in the world more generally. I mean, the essay has targets that run the gamut from Dave Eggers to Ari Fleischer to New Yorker film critic David Denby. And it makes many points, but the essential one is this:

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.

Smarm, in the Scocca scheme, is the practice of being self-consciously positive about things, which, he argues, will eventually push even the well-meaning into the realm of the dishonest. Not that he thinks there are that many well-meaning practitioners of the art, of course. And not that sometimes snark doesn’t have its own dishonest uses: “Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes.” But then he goes on to say that smarm lacks any redeeming value, whereas snark, wielded correctly, can pierce a veil of power. And since that power is often shielding either mediocrity or outright evil, that makes snark a necessity whereas smarm is garbage.

Like most people who write any kind of criticism, who are called mean and cruel and haters and the rest of it, I have an inherent sympathy for Scocca’s argument. I might disagree on his occasion for it — as I’ve said before, if we’re going to say that a BuzzFeed books vertical is dictating the policy of every book reviews section in America and the New York Review of Books besides, we have bigger problems than either smarm or snark — but his point is sound. Positivity is just as much of a pose, a style, as negativity, and so just as much of a trap. Although then you can argue that the problem is that we want to stick people in boxes: here’s a “hater” and here’s a “lover.” It’s so stupid.

I say this even though throughout my (brief) writing life I’ve been called more of a snarker than anything else. Some of that has to do with my slightly unorthodox background. What in my prior life in academia and the law would have been called “analysis” is, to a lot of cultural creators, “meanness.” When I’m really, truly lucky, my gender aggravates that perception. My anecdotal observation is that women who don’t like things are generally much more quickly characterized as mean bitches than men who don’t like things, who are more often called “intellectuals.” Or, in another kind of shorthand, “Norman Mailer.” Spend a little while observing that dynamic and it’s hard to avoid knowing that ultimately there’s a fine line between intelligence and cruelty, and vanishingly few people would draw it in the same place twice.

But the thing is, I don’t really think about being “mean” when I write. Occasionally someone will say to me: oh, that was a beautifully vicious line, and I’ll think, really? I was just being honest. I was just saying what I honestly think of this movie or book or television show. I don’t know, I always thought that was the point of this strange job I have of commenting on culture, being honest. Where I land on the snark-or-smarm spectrum isn’t something I’m quite as consciously thinking about. I may enjoy getting off a good Philip Roth joke as much as the next person, but I guess I am disappointed in my work when the whole piece has nothing but a joke to it. Corny though it is to say, my cultural life isn’t a joke, not to me.

I tend to think these debates all reduce to honesty, actually. On this point of the sincerity of smarm, much of Scocca’s analysis starts to peter out. Let’s say you do just genuinely like a lot of books. Let’s also say you like a sufficient number of books to populate a whole book reviews section with positive reviews of them. If you are being honest in your enthusiasm, is that smarm? Because Scocca also says that smarm involves “a kind of moral and ethical misdirection… [whose] genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.”

I am really asking this question; I do not know the answer. But I am curious about what the result is if all those people who just actually, genuinely love something aren’t being smarmy at all. Because people love mediocre things all the time. I love mediocre things, like Reign and Taylor Swift’s last album. And because of that I don’t have the greatest grounds to challenge the sincerity of someone who loved something I didn’t. And I’m saying: if I’m to help in the war against smarm, to aim my snark at the right targets, I need to know.