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Snark: Joe Hagan on ‘haute zoologist’ Heidi Julavits

So what if this is old. It’s good:

Heidi Julavits, the 35-year-old co-editor of The Believer , the new Dave Eggers–sponsored literary magazine, arrived for her interview dressed in a style that might be called haute zoologist: angular tortoise-shell glasses, khaki zip-front jacket over a white polo shirt, and a denim skirt. And on Friday, May 2, Ms.Julavits acted like she was stepping into a cage with a dangerous beast.

"I definitely felt that by agreeing to do this, I was putting my head in the lion’s mouth," said Ms. Julavits with a nervous laugh-and all her laughs were nervous-as she nursed a Coca-Cola at Sebastian Junger’s bar, Half King, on 23rd Street. Ms. Julavits was self-conscious because she recently named The Observer one of the "laboratories" of a nefarious "disorder": "I call it Snark," she wrote in an essay of some 10,000 words, "The Snarky, Dumbed-Down World of Book Reviewing," which appeared in The Believer ‘s premiere issue in March [2003]. In it, she earnestly chides the literary-industrial complex of book reviewers for succumbing to a "hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt" that is suffocating the creative lives of the literati."


Snark: exhibiting the lowest levels of anti-intellectualism or an admirable passion for literature? I’m examining this question in an essay on negative criticism currently under construction .

Any thoughts?


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5 Responses to “Snark: Joe Hagan on ‘haute zoologist’ Heidi Julavits”

  1. Art Durkee Says:

    I assume you’ll refer to David Denby’s recent book, then, and it’s aftermath. There are some interesting reviews and discussions on various blogs.

    I think the real issue is that snark is a tone of voice, even more than a critical stance. It’s postmodernist irony taken to its extreme: everything sucks, and you do too. That sort of thing. It’s the end result of a critical climate in which people think that only bad reviews are honest, and good reviews must be PR spin at best. Negative assumptions. The problem with online criticism is that it suffers from being too instantaneous: people knee-jerk reply rather than taking time to think about it.

    Snark is a matter of holier-than-thou tone. It presumes insider knowledge that the unwashed masses don’t have and never will. And snark frequently crosses the line between discussing the text at hand and going for the throats of those somebody disagrees with. In my view the line gets crossed when the commentary becomes ad hominem, attacking a person because one cannot demolish their argument’s logic. That’s usually a clear indicator that nothing of substance is being said anymore.

    The same climate now dominates the only poetry workshop and critique boards. There’s a long discussion thread going on at:

    This essay was written to address some of these issues. It’s interesting how the comments thread that follows it, which may be a record for length, is dominated by two or three voices that exemplify snark (probably unconsciously) because they are impervious to anyone’s viewpoint but their own, but feel free to call others idiots. The voices of reason that occasionally speak up are in the minority, but sometimes have very relevant points to make. I admit I participated on that thread a few times, although not recently. I also wrote about the issue on a blog post of mine that looked at Deborah Tannen’s ideas about argument culture. When I read the comments around Denby’s book, I was reminded very strongly of Tannen’s points. Here’s what I wrote, if it’s of any use to you:

    I look forward to reading your essay when you post it. I think snark is a real issue that ought to be examined from many different angles. Thanks.

  2. Nigel Beale Says:

    Thanks Arthur as always for your contribution. I’ll read your post with interest.

    I listened recently to Ed Champion’s interview with Denby,

    in which the latter suggested that snark was, as you say, a sort of embittered, smug, dismissive response to a perceived ‘corrupt, dishonourable world.’ Denby proffered that the best response to such a world is not lazy, ignorant, haughty opinion, but rather, considered sarcasm…such as that provided by John Stewart and Steve Colbert.

    What I’m interested in considering is whether or not snark, or invective, or insult, is ever justified…perhaps it is, after adequate thought has been expended…and put into a critique…and where those critiqued deserve chastisement…over and above cold logic.

    Nothing speaks louder than sound argument…but, as Denby points out, how does one address slander when it comes anonymously… when doing so only perpetuates and spreads the original lie…

  3. L Says:

    Art Durkee’s point is well made, and I hope he will forgive my own response, which I suspect is in part the sort of “knee-jerk” reaction he describes.

    While I do think that a snarky tone used to perpetuate elitism should be discouraged, I cringe at the idea of abandoning snark completely. Not all critics can be as considerate as Wilson, who was practically wringing his hands even as he was trashing Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa. He may have moaned about his book reviews, but Hemingway was far more worried about competing with contemporaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot. Why the need to be genteel?

    And what’s wrong with setting James Wood up with Zadie Smith? She herself seemed to appreciate his comments on hysterical realism, and London was already talking about her so much that readers of The Review probably wanted to hear a different perspective. It’s entertaining precisely because it is sensationalist, and it certainly hasn’t kept Smith from writing.

    I do think there is a certain snobbery, especially in American literary criticism, that leads to the promotion of bloated, weak fiction, and that should be rightly condemned. But snark? I’ll refrain from a tempting metaphor about salt and pepper, but a little bit of snark can go a long way. Apart from entertaining, it forces the reader to participate more in his or her reading of the original text. While I may not read a lot of contemporary fiction, I know about hysterical realism. I can accept or reject the term as I choose, but it’s controversial enough to provoke me into making a decision.

    I’m also looking forward to reading your essay about negative criticism. It’s a delicate subject and there are a lot of factors to consider.

  4. Art Durkee Says:

    Isn’t that rather the point, though, that HOW you say something negative matters? I mean, assuming we want anyone to listen?

    This has nothing to do with being reluctant to pan something in a review. It has everything to do with making a pan deliberately vilifying versus making it intentionally constructive. Doing a clear-headed assessment of what’s wrong, being specific and surgical about pointing out why it fails, and being blunt—those are all possible to do in a negative review *without* turning it into a deliberately nasty attack-fest. So this isn’t about avoiding saying something harsh and negative, but it IS about saying it objectively, even prophetically, rather than as a personal attack. You see the difference? “This novel is extremely badly written” versus “the author is an idiot who should have known better.” From a blunt and honest negative review, even a bad author can derive some benefit and learn to do better next time; from a snark attack, all you do is provoke a defensive reaction, and no message gets through because they’ve already stopped listening.

    I’m all for attacking ideas that don’t work, or aren’t worked out well enough, or as just plain unconvincing; I’m quite skeptical of both Woods’ and Smith’s ideas at times; but when the person rather than the idea gets attacked, it’s often because the attack on the argument isn’t strong enough. So going too quickly to ad hominem makes me question whether the attack was ever anything more than personal taste; perhaps it never had an actual critical leg to stand on. A lot of literary criticism is rationalized personal taste; which is fine as far as it goes, although many critics would deny how much personal taste rules their assessments. (Which I mostly view as lack of self-awareness rather than maliciousness.) I do believe it’s possible to be more objective than many critics do. Going directly for the jugular has all the appearances of extreme subjectivity, and none of the appearance of actual critical apparatus.

    As the saying goes, “Never attribute to maliciousness that which can be adequately explained by ignorance, or stupidity.”

    Deliberate sensationalism; being provocative for its own sake rather than as a product of simply being honest; setting out on the deliberate attack even when it isn’t necessary to make one’s point; provoking to provoke rather than because it’s necessary—these all get at what Deborah Tannen was analyzing in here piece on argument culture. it’s a very different thing to say things that need to be said, honestly and sincerely no matter unpopular or contra they are, then it is to say things simply because one wants to be nasty and argumentative.

    That’s rather the whole problem, ennit?

    It’s about civility in one’s discourse. Civility doesn’t equate with snobbery, but rather with effective communication.

    Of course there’s a time and a place for being snarky—when it’s the right tool for the job. The problem is when it becomes the dominant discourse, the dominant tone, and therefore gets used even when it doesn’t need to be. We all have bad days—but to turn snark into a normative critical stance? What can possibly justify that? Why is snark essential? To whom is it entertaining, and why? Those are questions that are more often stifled, rather than contemplated, when it’s all snark all the time. Whenever one starts to assume that a given mode is normal, usual, typical, people stop thinking about alternative modes. Perhaps snark culture is rebelling against the perceived over-politeness that seemed to dominate criticism not very long ago. But perhaps it’s an over-reaction, too.

    Just thinking out loud in response here. Sorry if I droned on a bit long again. :)

  5. Nigel Beale Says:

    Not at all Arthur; obviously a topic with some juice for you…and many others given how much coverage it’s receiving.

    As to tone: a bit like someone who swears all the time; crying wolf. When the time comes for a truly forceful response…what are they left with.

    I really enjoyed your post btw. Particularly this part of the Tannen quote:

    “This aggressive intellectual style is cultivated and rewarded in our colleges and universities. The standard way to write an academic paper is to position your work in opposition to someone else’s. This creates a need to prove others wrong, which is quite different from reading something with an open mind and discovering that you disagree with it. Graduate students learn that they must disprove others’ arguments in order to be original, make a contribution and demonstrate intellectual ability. The temptation is great to oversimplify at best, and at worst to distort or even misrepresent other positions, the better to refute them.

    But when opposition and fights overwhelmingly predominate, only those who enjoy verbal sparring are likely to take part. Those who cannot comfortably take part in oppositional discourse—or choose not to—are likely to opt out.

    But perhaps the most dangerous harvest of the ethic of aggression and ritual fighting is . . . an atmosphere of animosity that spreads like a fever. In extreme forms, it rears its head in road rage and workplace shooting sprees. In more common forms, it leads to what is being decried everywhere as a lack of civility. It erodes our sense of human connection to those in public life—and to the strangers who cross our paths and people our private lives.”

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