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On Snark and Smarm

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Tom Scocca’s defense of snark as a justified response to smarm is, you know, brilliant, necessary, stuff like that there. A teaser:

Over the past year or two, on the way to writing this essay, I’ve accumulated dozens of emails and IM conversations from friends and colleagues. They send links to articles, essays, Tumblr posts, online comments, tweets—the shared attitude transcending any platform or format or subject matter.

What is this defining feature of our times? What is snark reacting to?

It is reacting to smarm.

What is smarm, exactly? 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.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?

And, crucially, in response to David Eggers’s silly proposition that you can’t criticize any work of art before you’ve created one of the same kind yourself:

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.

It is no accident that he is addressing undergraduates here; he tells the Advocate that before he sent back his reply to its questions, he had already delivered a version of the text as a speech at Yale. He is explicitly performing, for an audience of his inferiors. (“The rant is directed to myself, age 20, as much as it is to you, so remember that if you ever want to take much offense.”)

It is also no accident that Eggers is full of shit. He is so passionate, and his passion has such rhetorical momentum, that it is almost possible to overlook the fact that the literal proposition he’s putting forward, in the name of large-heartedness and honesty, is bogus and insulting. Do not dismiss … a movie? Unless you have made one? Any movie? The Internship? The Lone Ranger? Kirk Cameron’s Unstoppable? Movie criticism, Eggers is saying, should be reserved for those wise and discerning souls who have access to a few tens of millions of dollars of entertainment-industry capital. One or two hundred million, if you wish to have an opinion about the works of Michael Bay.

As Pauline Kael used to say, you don’t need to be able to lay eggs to know that an omelet tastes good. That a movement based on that obvious logical fallacy has become more and more influential would be remarkable if a lot of people didn’t stand to make money from critics acting as publicists instead.  Anyway, really, read the whole etc.

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