Saturday, November 28, 2009

Further Comments on Snark

I was rather naive on the meaning of the word "snark". I'd thought it was a short, dismissive review or comment, extremely negative in tone. In other words, an honest, damning comment on what one has engaged with. But I haven't given myself enough credit. Since my several dictionaries, including the on-line versions, either have no entries, or the lone meaning is pertaining to Lewis Carroll's animal, I had to go to the "source", as it were, and discovered that it was coined (from Paul Vermeersch's link) by Heidi Julavits in her March 2003 essay. The essay itself is very unfocussed, but towards the end comes the vague, theoretical definition. Not much to base a definitive understanding on, and the subsequent discussion of the word's meaning, and hence its more serious ramifications, are problematic, and need to be entertained with a preamble on how the word is to be employed for purposes of a particular conversational framework. Those later definitions will be outlined perhaps in a later blog post, but for now let's focus on Julavits. (Bolding is mine.)

"I don't know what many critics believe when it comes to literature; 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...."(Julavits)

The bolded qualifiers shift the emphasis away from unsubstantiated emotional reaction to a hoped-for rarified aura, a virtue self-placed by easy, cherry-picked quotes and anecdotes. She ushers in this line by a fallacious and rather unseemly guise of falsely planed contrasts, the reviewers who fail to emulate Edmund Wilson, James Wood, and Lionel Trilling all made to look feeble by the logical fallacy of the call to authority. But "snark", so-called, is, even by the definition of anti-snarkers David Denby and Julavits, exclusively negative and sarcastic. The two lamentable reviewers currently under the gun from the "Save Canadian Poets From Hurt Feelings" campaign (last one in the pool is the most oppressed!) have, on more than one occasion, championed not only many individuals and many individual books of poetry, but furthermore have championed the rationale behind those positive reviews, and have even spoken in specific poetics of how and why those books made the grade while others fell short.

That's strike one, against just the definition of snark, and how it's made up from vague notions, changeably conducive to one's emotional predilection. To go on, in this vein, with more Julavistas:

"I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community, infiltrating the pages of many publications, and not only the The New York Observer, or the The New York Press, the possible laboratories of this disorder."(Julavits)

Now I realize that New Yawkers think their city's the centre of the universe, but has Julavits perused widely-known poetry and the canonical crit issueing from those books' immediate publication, as well as reaction to those (early) books centuries later? Horace, Catullus, Pope, Shakespeare (that canny Bard-- just who was Timon?), Layton, generated proof of the physics law of equal reaction to every action with those authors' critical counterparts.

David Denby (I haven't read his book, so I won't respond to its larger argument) bases his anti-snark views largely on Teh Internets and on pop-culture snipes, but of course Banks and Vermeersch are talking not only of CanLit "culture", in general, but to the specific reviewing style of Zach Wells and of this writer. This is strike two, and is a clear example of another popularly deployed logical fallacy:

a) reviewers these days write a lot of snark (however that's defined-- see strike #1)

b) Palmu and Wells write reviews expressing negative opinions

c) therefore, Palmu and Wells are snarkists

"If snark is a reaction to this sheer and insulting level of hyperbole, fine; but should the writer, who is a pawn in this system"(Julavits)

What system? Julavits has set up her strawperson with detailed cheerleading blurbs, but it has nothing to do with the motivations of her supposedly unfair snarkists. As in:

"who is a pawn in this system, who has negligible say over the design of his book jacket or even his title, who would never be so presumptuous to compare himself to Dickens, should this disdain be delivered unto him?"(Julavits)

I quoted Emily Schultz giving what I thought to be ridiculous claims for Banks' books; that's a reflection on Schultz, not Banks. Of course the author isn't responsible for blurbs, but it's useful to point out (where necessary) the discrepancy between a blurb's specific attributes for the book under review and what the reviewer's experiences of that book were. After all, many a time a reader's first found commentary on what a book might contain is on that very book-flap, and certainly not on what a relatively obscure blogger has said about it.

"(Writers also become pawns of the “call and response” reviewing that occurs between competing publications; Time magazine runs a glowing review, and Newsweek answers with a pan.)"(Julavits)

Ah, yes. Or to tweak the conspiracy just a bit: Internet "warriors" are the hoi polloi, the great unwashed plebs just trying to get a break through (over?) the walls of academe, and the publishing levers they control. (Vermeersch publishes, Banks teaches -- we're just competing for their positions. Isn't that just answering the reviewers' obvious intentions, objectively?)

"Here’s another theory about snark. Maybe snark was a critical attempt to compete, on an entertainment level."(Julavits)[bolding mine]

Objectivity. I love well-researched essays. I have a theory, too. Has Julavits perhaps been given a .... "snarky" review, too? And we can't have entertainment! (And I love the very subtle Queen's put-down-- entertainment level!)

"the giggling, minuscule minority. We also see those movies. Book reviewers who adopt this tone when reviewing literary fiction are about as humorous as cow tippers"(Julavits)

Which is it? For objectively subjective theory-based, emotionally driven disingenuous-linked argument, this is further richness. Are we bitter and angry, or just having some sporting fun? Or both? Or have those on the receiving end of this nebulous term also been by turns bitter and reactively sarcastic?

"as a result, they guarantee a book that might have sold 4,000 copies, will now sell 800. And nobody will read that book, not even the literary types, who are off watching Titanic with a knowing smirk"(Julavits)

Aha, power to the downtrodden reviewer! But Banks would have it that no one listens to us. Again, I'm confused. Are we two-handedly bringing down the House of CanLit, or are we mere annoyances?

"Most frightening is how easily snark is perpetuated by snark bytes—fragmented portions of essays, articles, interviews, taken out of context in order to make the author appear in the worst possible light— those little bonbons of malice favored by The New York Observer, New York magazine, The New York Post. Unfortunately, most readers don’t return to the source to determine what the article in question was striving to say. The snark byte supplants the original article; the author’s intent is reduced to the periodical equivalent of gossip."(Julavits)

Again, to direct this to the matter at hand (remember, it's fair game since Vermeersch linked to this article to damn Wells' and my own procedures), the opposite is overwhelmingly the reality: positive tidbits in an otherwise negative or at least mixed review will be wrenched out of context or predominant assessment in order to boost a book's perceived reception.

"Wood makes people hopping mad, yes, but despite his grumbly excoriations there’s usually room for a dialogue with Woods, which indicates there’s something to wrangle over, i.e., his claims are based on a strongly-held (and felt) belief system, and he’s an intellectual, which means he likes to be forced to defend that belief system."(Julavits)

Good for Woods. And my comment stream is always open. But when Julavits says "dialogue", I take that word seriously, not interpreted as drive-by smears, back-stage whispers as deflected sniping to "you-know-who", glossing over substantive posts or ignoring them altogether, bringing up repeated arguments to points I've already answered and which haven't been properly and directly refuted or even addressed, original thought in the debaters' own words, not cutting-and-pasting portions (sometimes out of context) of some other authority figure in lieu of the debater's own opinion. You want communication? Go for it. But it takes two.

"snark, I suspect, is a scornful, knowing tone frequently employed to mask an actual lack of information about books."(Julavits)

Scornful and knowing. My, my. And the "lack of knowledge".... yes, of course it's lack of knowledge, I suspect, when the author is getting panned, otherwise the review would have been filled with superlatives, but why is it I've never heard an author complain about a positive review if said review is misinformed or poorly written?

"This is because a lot of books are reviewed by people who don’t read books unless they’re reviewing them."(Julavits)

I wish I had a loonie for every modifier this outer of snark has composed. And a lot (including moi) of people read books because we love books, and because we hope to be surprised and delighted by every book we first encounter. But that's like having season's tickets to the Toronto Maple Leafs: you hope every game is going to be a win, but you know that's not often going to be the case. You can't celebrate, though, unless you're at the game.

"The real question then becomes: If you don’t believe in this, what do you believe in? What do you care about? What is the purpose of this destructive clear-cutting, if you don’t have anything to suggest in its place, save your own career advancement?"(Julavits)

Leaving aside, once again, the repeated ad hominem charge, from Julavits (here at the quote's end) and from others in this internet page-burner, I agree with Sessions here (generally-- again, I haven't read Denby's book)--

"When snarkers do attack, it’s not because they’re purveyors of an angry form of discourse that values cruelty as an end. Rather, it’s a means for expressing defeated idealism, for raving at the absurdity of entrenched institutions that insult our intelligence and sense of fairness."(Sessions)

If you want a positive review, read a review I've done of another's book. Ah, but it's not at all about "objectivity" and the "author's always-to-be-respected intent", is it? It's personal. Are those positive reviews similarly deformed, then , too? And if not, why not, since they issue from the same "snarky" mindset? Am I praising them out of insincerity? Is every motive so suspicious to you? And, if so, isn't that rather a joyless, rather a faithless and emotionally tainted and (wait for it) snarky approach to my work?

To be paradoxical for a moment (though the fundamentalists can't seem to hold two opposing views in mind at the same time-- Blake would have found the views ironical), one of many reasons I snark from time to time is that I agree with D H Lawrence's view that 90% of creation is first concerned with tearing down rotten edifices. Egalitarians often miss that part of the natural world, though. "If we welcome every view, respect everyone's view equally, support each others' efforts, we'll all learn and grow together." No. I'm a Nietzschean, here. As to art, it surprises me that any serious artist would take the communal common denominator view. Or is this view just held for public consumption? For oiling the public connections? Well, Vermeersch's and Banks' hypocrisies have now been exposed, put on record. But, unlike Banks, I wouldn't want to speculate on the answer to that last question above. (If Banks ever decides to post a "negative" review on a specific author on his positive-reviews-only site, someone let me know.)

"Besides, I have that three lousy cents burning a hole in my pocket—and I’m eager to place my bet on the latter horse."(Julavits)

The minimun bet in horse racing is $2. Pony up and name names, Julavits.

(More later.)

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