Missing the Snark

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming

Happy Beaver
Photo Credit: stevehdc/Steve

While working on this piece, I ran across this anecdote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s address to the Princeton graduating class:

The billionaire’s parable centered on a story of himself at ten years old, traveling along on a road trip with his grandparents. Bezos … calculated how many years his grandmother had cut her life short by smoking, and then told her. His grandfather stopped the car, made him get out, and said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

Now I’m sure this is being tweeted as a Pearl of Wisdom, but let’s just back up a bit.

What was 10-year-old Jeff Bezos’s motivation for calculating the toll smoking was taking on his grandmother’s life? Was he, as his grandfather said, trying to show off how clever he was? “Look, Grandma and Grandpa! I’m a math whiz!” I’d hazard a guess he was not. What I think he was doing, in a roundabout 10-year-old way, was saying, “Look, Grandma, smoking has already taken X years off your life. Please stop now. I don’t want you to die.”

It might have been harsh, and Grandma might not have wanted to hear it, but in my opinion, it was also kind. He was telling her how much he cared about her. He was trying to be helpful by offering her some information he (at age 10) might have thought she didn’t have.

Kindness isn’t always a warm fuzzy.

Nearly ten years ago, the founding editors of Toasted Cheese wrote a mission statement that read in part:

Our primary reason for creating Toasted Cheese is to provide a place where writers can get honest feedback on their work and honest information about issues important to writers. … Toasted Cheese is committed to being an independent site, where all opinions are free to be expressed, as long as they are expressed in a polite manner. … Snark, aside from being a mythical beast in a Lewis Carroll poem, is what we call all those things in our writing that make it less than its best. Our mission is to hunt it out and get rid of it, and to help other people do the same.

In that statement are the three things I think every good critique needs: honesty, politeness, and, yes, a little snarkiness. Give credit where it’s due, but don’t lie, don’t over-praise. Avoid personal attacks; “you suck” is not a valid critique (nor a valid response to a critique). Be critical, but provide justification—and while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to be funny. Any adult who is reduced to a puddle by a little snark needs to develop a thicker skin.

A good critique is the writing-world equivalent of saying to a friend, “Hey, you know I love you and the outfit’s great, but that hat? It looks like it ate your head.” In a sane world, friend laughs and says, “Thanks for telling me. I had a feeling it was too much. What do you think of this one instead?” Friend is spared embarrassment, the two of you share a laugh, friend picks out a better hat, and all is well.

But these days, it probably wouldn’t be unusual for you to hesitate before saying anything about your friend’s outsized hat, thinking: Will she take offense? Maybe I should not say anything. Well, I have to say something, she’s waiting. “Er, nice shoes!”

Lately I can’t seem to shake the feeling that we’re living in a UPOP (Unqualified Praise Only, Please!) world, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Recent articles note this trend to a world where we can like things but not dislike them, attributing it social media and a generational shift. In a world where friends, or rather “friends,” are currency, the “dry, sarcastic, snarky” wit of Gen X has given way to the inoffensive pleasantries of Gen Y.

These days, if you decide to go ahead with the hat-ate-your-head remark, you take the chance that your friend will react by bursting into tears and sobbing, “You’re just jealous! This is a $3,000 hat. I knew you hated me. You’ll be sorry!” as she tweets and facebooks about your egregiously offensive behavior (you snarked at her hat!), working herself and everyone around her into a frenzy of vitriol that makes “that hat looks like it ate your head” look like a compliment.

Because the flipside of this new mindset is that it’s apparently all right to be vitriolic as long as it’s couched as a defensive maneuver: “She said my hat looked like it ate my head. She’s so mean and also stupid! It’s supposed to look like that. It’s a $4,000 hat. It’s designer!”

The fact people are so quick to take offense at even mild criticism (not to mention leap to the defense of the offended) points to a fundamental misunderstanding of why people critique. Just because someone has some issues with something you wrote doesn’t mean they’re out to get you. Instead of thinking of critiquers as enemies, I think we need to start thinking of them as friends. Real friendships don’t crumble because one friend asks, “So, what you’d think of my story?” and the other replies, “Well, I had a few problems with it. I think it needs some work. Here’s why.”

Sure, maybe your critiquer isn’t actually a friend. Maybe you don’t know them. Maybe they really are your archrival. But if you take the feedback in the spirit of friendship regardless, it shifts the critiquer from “mean person who attacked me” to “a fellow writer who took the time to reflect on something I wrote”—and that makes a huge difference, for both of you.

A defensive response to a thoughtful critique overlooks the fact that a critique is also a piece of writing, a hard kind of writing, and the critiquer probably wrestled over not only what to say and how to say it, but whether to say it at all.

Just as young Jeff Bezos didn’t calculate the effects of his grandmother’s smoking to impress his grandparents with his math skills, you did not tell your friend that her hat looked like it ate her head to dazzle her with your flair for figures of speech. Sure, you might have giggled a bit at the sight of the oversized hat on your friend’s head (who wouldn’t?), but you stood your ground, telling her, “I don’t care if you paid $5,000 for that hat; it isn’t working. You look like the Mad Hatter” because you were looking out for her best interest. Your friend, of course, is free to disregard your opinion. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have offered it.

A couple months ago at Design Observer, Alexandra Lange lamented the lack of critical discourse in the design blogosphere. She wished there could be something like Go Fug Yourself for design rather than the proliferation of blogs that seem to do nothing but admire and fawn and gush. She wrote, “Celebrity chatter is my guilty pleasure, but the Fug Girls call the puffery to account. No, she does not look good. No, American (sic) will never love her. Yes, we can see your Botox. The acid is so refreshing. And yet we know they are still fans.”

And yet we know they are still fans.

Exactly. We don’t spend time dissecting and discussing and critiquing things that we have no interest in. We snark because we care.

There’s not a whole lot of value in engaging in disagreements with people you don’t like or have fundamental value differences with. We know how those kinds of discussions end up. But I see a great deal of value in being able to express your disagreement with people who you like and admire. As Lange says, “[W]hen you are primarily writing a sweet review, it is important to add a dash of pepper. Love doesn’t mean you have to love everything.”

And yet, these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that it does. If you play by the rules, you can like something—without reservations—or you can say nothing. Many book bloggers, for example, only write about books they liked. In a perverse way, it makes sense. In a world where connections are currency, you don’t write a book review to process what you took away from it, or to provide potential readers with an honest evaluation of the book, or even to provide the author with some potentially useful feedback. Rather, by naming a book or an author, you are declaring your fandom. The book review is no longer a critical evaluation, but a device to connect you with other fans of the book/author—and maybe even the author herself:

aspiringwriter @favoriteauthor, I love your books!
favoriteauthor Thanks! RT @aspiringwriter @favoriteauthor, I love your books!

I’m not going to deny that would be a thrill, even if all @favoriteauthor does is thank you for your compliment. But you know what? I believe that in this case you can have your cake and eat it too. Because if @favoriteauthor is worthy of that title, she understands that her truest fans are not the ones who gush uncritically over her work, they’re the ones who dissect and discuss and critique it.

The ones who aren’t afraid to snark.

Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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