The Hunting of the Snark

So this morning I went looking for the article by Heidi Julavits lamenting snarky book reviewing in the first issue of The Believer — the magazine has started a feature called Snarkwatch and I wanted to refresh my memory on just what exactly snark is supposed to be. And lo and behold, once I got to the page for the first issue, I saw that all the articles from that issue are now online. This makes me very happy, especially since the magazine costs nearly twenty bucks here in Nova Scotia. Back when I first got my copy, I was particularly taken with this interview with philosopher Galen Strawson.

Now about the snark. I think a lot of people who haven’t read the article assume that Julavits is railing against negative book reviews in general, that her entire article is a roundabout way of saying “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” But that isn’t her intent:

To be perfectly clear—I am not espousing a feel-good, criticism-free climate,

where all ambitious literary books receive special treatment just because they’re “literary” (I acknowledge the dubiousness of the term)—I’m simply asking that we read between the lines, and see what value systems these reviews are really espousing.

only calling for more thoughtful and more rigorous book reviewing, book reviewing that contributes to literary culture by engaging readers and writers in intelligent dialogue. She suggests that book reviews should be written by people who take reading seriously, not people who read books only when they’ve been assigned to review them. And she asks that reviewers respect ambitious books rather than dismissing them offhand:

…at worst, I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. This hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt is, I suspect, a bastard offspring of Orwell’s flea-weighers. I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community, infiltrating the pages of many publications…

I wish, though, that Julavits had written a little bit more about something she just touches on when she discusses Trilling:

If a review serves a reader, a culture (no matter how marginally or nostalgically), it might also serve an artist—and not always in a beneficial manner. Trilling’s Hemingway essay cautions against the negative effect that reviewers can have on the artists whom they assess. Hemingway, Trilling notes, was a writer who “more than any writer of our time has been under glass, watched, checked up on predicted, suspected, warned,” embraced by some, but criticized by others for work “made up of cruelty, religion, anti-intellectualism, even basic fascism.” Because, as Trilling points out, these critics continually failed to distinguish “the artist” Hemingway from “the man” Hemingway, these slights hit a rather personal nerve with “the man” Hemingway.

I think that too often the media and the publishing houses themselves direct our attention as readers toward the person rather than the writing. (The media does it because it’s easier, I suppose, and the publishing houses must do it for marketing purposes.) When a writer is young and attractive, when he or she can perform in person (at a reading, on the radio, or on TV) as well as on the page, this mix-up between the person’s writing and the person’s… personality tends to become almost inevitable. And so, instead of thoughtful book criticism, we get Entertainment Weekly articles about, say, Zadie Smith’s expensive new hat. I don’t know if this has always happened to successful writers — I’d guess that it has to some extent — but I suspect it’s been intensified by our Hollywood celebrity culture. I think that, for writers who want to be taken seriously as writers, it is a mistake to let this happen. When you want to sell books, it’s probably almost impossible not to. But when it does happen, writers are opening themselves up to the kind of gossip usually reserved for Paris Hilton, Brad Pitt, and Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s probably fun for a time and while it probably — initially — makes a writer rich by boosting sales, in the end it takes the focus away from his or her work. I’m not saying that every writer should pull a Pynchon or go all JD Salinger but they might want to think carefully about the reasons those guys chose to do that. I don’t know. Maybe this is hopelessly old-fashioned of me. Maybe a writer’s performance as a public personality is as important as his or her writing.

But back to snark, the topic at hand. Today on Salon, Laura Miller attacks Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel. Her tone is perhaps unnecessarily harsh and yet I think she makes some good points about Palahniuk’s work. Does this kind of thing qualify as snark? Or is it valid criticism? I don’t think that anyone would argue that Palahniuk’s work is particularly ambitious — or would they? If Palahniuk’s intent is to simply to entertain his readers, then is Miller holding him to an unfairly high standard? Maybe this is a case of a reviewer taking a certain kind of writing a little too seriously…or is that not possible? Email me at stephka at eastlink dot ca with your thoughts and I’ll post them here. (If you don’t have a subscription, scroll down and click on the day pass.)


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