Snarking Towards Bethlehem: The Gawker Manifesto That Wasn’t
A specter is haunting the World Wide Web—the specter of smarm.
Or so Tom Scocca, features editor at Gawker, would have it. His bombastic opinion piece “On Smarm” took the online literary world by storm last December, drawing not just affirming nods from fellow smarm-conspiracy theorists but replies from big names like Maureen Dowd and Malcolm Gladwell as well. (It also drew a fair number of unique page views: more than “I Can’t Stop Looking At This Weird Chinese Goat,” but less than “Two Minutes Of Nothing But Goats Yelling Like Humans,” which is fairly strong on the Gawker scale of buzz).
In Scocca’s view, the proliferating complaints about snark and its dominance have got the whole thing upside down. We do not live in an age of snark, he says. We live instead in an age of smarm— and here, Scocca argues, in a succinct eight and a half thousand words, be the real dragons. Scocca is reluctant to explain just what he means by snark. He would rather talk about smarm, which he defines like this:
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.
The real danger of smarm, Scocca writes, is that it lets people off the hook: It uses niceness as a cover for evasion. Faced with any kind of criticism, the “smarmer” tries to silence the critic without addressing the content of the objection.
Armed with this exciting new term, Scocca’s essay assembles a formidable parade of smarmers for us to scrutinize—smarmers in literature, smarmers in journalism, smarmers in politics. Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of the newly created BuzzFeed Books section, cops a particular bruising for his determination to publish only positive book reviews, in adherence to the “Bambi rule”—If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. The “no haters” ethos of BuzzFeed, Scocca claims, has allowed that website to thrive in the “online sharing economy,” where agreeability leads to popularity and popularity leads to value. Other so-called smarmers are called out, as well: Joe Lieberman, Niall Ferguson, and Jonah Lehrer— Mayor Bloomberg even gets a look-in—not to mention Malcolm Gladwell, and from there, naturally, the whole political discourse of Bush-era foreign policy.
Special attention is reserved for Dave Eggers, the “most significant explicator of the niceness rule,” the “true prophetic voice of anti-negativity,” whose by-now half-famous “sell-out” rant in an interview with The Harvard Advocate in 2000 culminated in a feverish invocation to create rather than dismiss: “Do not be critics, you people,” Eggers fumed. “Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.”
Scocca uses Eggers as his point of entry and exit in the piece. Eggers’s rant must surely be the epitome of smarm. Don’t call me a sell-out, Scocca’s puppet-Eggers seems to say. You have no right, because I am out here doing real work, whereas you are simply sniping from the sidelines. Such a glass-jawed refusal to be criticized must no doubt be an act of bad faith. And surely, if the world is run on smarm, then the only right response is to rebel—to defend at all costs the right to criticize and interrogate.
Except that Scocca doesn’t really make this case in his article. For one thing, he is wrong about Dave Eggers. (For another, he seems to misrepresent most of his sources.) Scocca’s essay is strongest where it critiques the ways in which the politically powerful make appeals to niceness as a way to silence debate. But only very few of his examples fit this framework. Throughout the majority of his piece, Scocca is actually on the defensive: He conceptualizes snark and smarm as opposing forces, hoping to use the ubiquity of smarm as a justification for snark. By stretching smarm so thin, however, Scocca fails to articulate a useful or coherent sense of the concept.
I found Scocca’s essay to be rather appealing when I first read it through, and this appeal is what makes “On Smarm” worth returning to—the article has the potential to operate quite forcefully, as long as its sources are not double-checked and as long as its rhetorical tricks remain unexamined. Scocca earns his supporters through an extensive use of double-negative: Anti-negativity is smarm, which is bad (because Bush!), so we must prefer its opposite—negativity, and therefore snark. But this double-negative hinges on a false set of alternatives. One can refuse smarm and refuse snark as well. In fact, snark and smarm are not so incompatible, as Tom Scocca’s lengthy screed confirms. “On Smarm” reveals itself to be a botched manifesto for snark—and in its dreary and self-interested botching, it begins to take the form of Scoccan smarm.
One must argue back against Scocca’s piece, not for the sake of positivity, but for the sake of the real casualty of Scocca’s argument: all the useful and productive forms of negative speech.
“On Smarm” was met by an odd reception. Malcolm Gladwell posted a reply that insisted on the value of “niceness.” Maureen Dowd affirmed her conviction of the need for negativity. Ryan Kearney at The New Republic, meanwhile, jumped in to defend Scocca’s pillorying of Dave Eggers. A strange ambiguity characterized the whole debate, propelling it ever further into abstraction. This unease was neatly captured by Dylan Matthews, Tom Scocca’s interviewer at the Washington Post, who confessed that he “kind of” sympathized with one of his readers who complained that he or she was “completely unable to construct ideas out of those words” that had been published.
If the categories at play in Scocca’s argument—snark and smarm, negativity and criticism—are proving difficult to mobilize in the snarknado’s aftermath, then this is not because they are overly intellectual or remarkably intricate. It is because they are bullshit categories, or at least poorly defined ones. This vagueness in terms is not incidental to the thrust of “On Smarm.” It is integral to the logic of the piece, and to the scope of its ambition.
The key misdirection at the heart of the essay is Scocca’s unwillingness to address the question of snark. At first, he appears to accept the definition he lifts from Heidi Julavits’s essay in The Believer: “a hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt.” But then, without any explicit justification, it becomes clear that defending snark is his real intention. “On Smarm” is even framed around the rhetorical question: “to what is [snark] responding?”
The answer, of course, is smarm. And what makes smarm appealing is the fact that it justifies snark. “Some snark is rotten and harmful and stupid,” Scocca confesses. “Smarm, however, is never a force for good.” Changing the subject to smarm allows Scocca to avoid the task that he seems remarkably eager to avoid: Not once in the over 8,000 words of this snark de triomphe does he give a positive example of snark.
Scocca’s trick lies in suggesting that every one of his critics is necessarily a smarmer. Smarm, then, begins to mean “resistance to snark.” Which Scocca wants to quash, for all of the obvious reasons, but he refuses to do so by arguing directly with his critics—foremost among them David Denby, who wrote a book on the topic called Snark. He does not argue for the merits of snark, nor does he attempt to show a difference between what he and his colleagues do and what Heidi Julavits has identified. Scoccan snark, like Scoccan smarm, would rather talk about anything except itself. And so we are taken on this ponderous journey through time and space-breaks (with, admittedly, a few solid insights along the way), only to find out that the destination is an outdated, indirect justification for what the former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio has decried as “snappy snarky snarking snark-snark shit.”
The double-negative that lends “On Smarm” its rhetrical force is enabled by this cultivated ambiguity of terms. If smarm is anti-negativity, then we should opt for anti-anti-negativity—that is, plain old snarky negativity. So unless you believe that every gesture should always be positive, congratulations! You have just joined Team Snark. No, you don’t get a free t-shirt.
After Scocca’s initial attack on Dave Eggers, he takes a second to anticipate the reader’s objections. His response to these is telling. “That’s it,” Scocca writes. “You’re getting it. That’s smarm.” By insisting on snark as the natural alternative to smarm (and vice versa), and by keeping the argument locked in abstraction, Scocca can claim any ideological ally he likes—and he can smear just about anybody he likes, whether or not he has the necessary evidence.
David Denby’s book on snark, which was one of the inspirations for the essay, is never addressed in the piece. Instead, in a section lumped in near the end, Scocca recounts a review Denby wrote on Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing back in 1989, which (in Scocca’s retelling at least) made a problematic stance on race and violence. “Keep this in mind,” Scocca writes, “when David Denby puts himself forward as an expert on the terms of appropriate and inappropriate response.” Denby on “snark” goes completely unaddressed. Scocca tries to disqualify him by attacking him ad hominem, using a completely tangential point to mobilize the reader’s moral suspicions and to make Denby seem not up- but downworthy. Does this open Scocca up to criticism—for using snideness and suggestiveness instead of actual argument?
That’s it, Tom Scocca might reply. That’s it. You’re getting it. That’s smarm.
Scocca also proposes through a suggestive parenthetical aside, devoid of any context, that Chris Jones—with whom he has previously had a public spat—is a sexist. What if one took Scocca to task for this laziness, as well?
Yes, yes, Tom Scocca cries, triumphant. You’re getting it. These objections are not smarmy at all, however—they are an argument back against poor, unfinished, self-serving criticism. Scocca’s use of “smarm” permits the kind of evasiveness that he associates with smarm in the first place. Stand back, he seems to say, in the pose of the smarmer. What I’m doing is important, and it’s us against them. If you argue with me, then you are part of the problem, not the solution. So hush now, people, hush.
Tom Scocca’s screed feels decidedly out of place on the pages of Gawker.com. It doesn’t fit the web design; it doesn’t fit the tagline Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news. It also sits uncomfortably in Scocca’s own writer’s profile: days before “On Smarm,” he published a literal ranking of the sauces. Such diversity of output is an asset, not a liability, to Scocca and his employer. Still, the curious placement of this essay is part of the story of its production, and there is something to be gained by reading “On Smarm” in the context of Gawker’s current identity crisis—which is also Gawker’s branding crisis, since content and marketing are never too far from each other in the Gawker Media empire.
As Scocca’s argument builds to a crescendo, he connects the alleged smarm of Dave Eggers to the marketing discourse of personal branding. Spuriously linking Eggers’ Advocate rant to an essay called “The Brand Called You” by Tom Peters, Scocca associates the style of smarm with the “credentialism” of the marketer. (Remember that Scocca has linked BuzzFeed to marketing, as well, through the currency of agreeability.) What Scocca brushes aside, however, is the fact that negativity can also be a brand, as long as it works in predictable ways. And he should know, since the best example of this kind of branding happens to be his employer, Gawker Media. In fact, one of the products available on Gawker’s advertising page is something called a “Partner Post,” which offers companies the following proposition: “Your message, our signature tone.” As Chris Matthews at CNET puts it:
Here is a brand that is very open about what it is. And it is very open about where its priorities lie. Every customer of Gawker knows precisely what the product is, why they are using it and what to expect…The relationship between brand and user is clear, consistent and, therefore, functional.
Snark is imperative to the Gawker Media empire; it is the “signature tone” of the Gawker brand. If we are going to accuse Dave Eggers of smarming back at his critics, in the interests of defending his brand, then we might level the same accusation at Tom Scocca.
The Gawker brand is currently faced with a unique set of pressures, a situation which makes Tom Scocca’s screed all the more valuable as a rare moment of insight into the self-understanding and the worldview of a senior Gawker editor. It would be unfair to demand that Scocca be consistent with the priorities of his employer: By no means is “On Smarm” necessarily the Gawker manifesto. Still, we can read it as one possible Gawker manifesto for the moment. Scocca does, after all, refer to his “personal stakes and connections,” and his piece is listed at the top of Gawker’s “The Best Gawker Posts of 2013.”
Gawker’s identity crisis is an enviable one: As the world’s most successful blog over the last decade, it no longer fits its underdog image. Gawker Media (which also owns Deadspin, Lifehacker, Jezebel, and io9, among others) enjoyed over 100 million unique page views in November couldn’t find this. With ultra-low costs and high advertising revenues, the Gawker bloggernaut is one of relatively few consistently profitable media enterprises. An anti-establishment bent gave the cheek of early Gawker a sense of rebellious moral purpose. But the original Gawker concept—snarky, pitiless, shamelessly ratings-driven—is increasingly under pressure from its size and its influence. As Carla Blumenkranz at n+1 has convincingly argued, the sarcasm that is charming from an underdog can seem bullying in the mouth of a top dog. “You could say that as Gawker Media grew, from Gawker’s success,” Blumenkranz wrote, “Gawker outlived the conditions for its existence.”
Another threat to Gawker’s traffic dominance comes in the form of the cat-crazy BuzzFeed and the choir-preaching feelgood factory of Upworthy. Gawker’s dedication to both popularity and seriousness has seen it tugged in two different directions. As Andrew Phelps at the Nieman Lab reports: “Half of people think Gawker is diluting its high-quality material with Chinese goats; the other half think Gawker should stick to Chinese goats and stop trying to do real journalism.”
Last December, after BuzzFeed’s November traffic had surpassed that of Gawker, Gawker’s chief Nick Denton responded with a surprising defense: “The crowd will eventually choose the juicy truth over a heartwarming hoax,” he told the Financial Times. Denton also complained about Upworthy: “even smarmier than BuzzFeed.” The happy union of snarkiness, traffic, and truth-telling appears to be unraveling for Gawker. After years of cultivating snark as a way to keep the bastards honest, what ever is Gawker to do when its editors wake up one morning and realize with a shock that now they are the bastards? Hence Nick Denton’s appeal to the moral high ground— and hence Tom Scocca’s too, perhaps.
Gawker’s proud fixation on page views has an immense influence on its content—which need not pose a problem to a small, snarky gossip blog. But this fixation becomes problematic when Gawker begins to take on real news, and when the interests of virality begin to clash with newfound claims of journalistic responsibility. As Felix Salmon has reported, when a suspicion arose that one of Gawker’s viral posts had linked to a fake (“Grandpa Writes Letter Disowning Daughter After She Disowns Gay Son”), Gawker’s editor John Cook had the following to say:
I’d rather be calling bullshit on stuff like this than calling attention to it...But we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been—ruthless honesty—and be reliably and speedy on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.
Caught between responsible journalism, gossipy snark, and an army of viral cats, the Gawker brand is facing serious pressure. Thankfully, Tom Peters has a pointer for moments of crisis: “Go back to the comparison between brand You and brand X—the approach the corporate biggies take to creating a brand.” For Gawker, there is nothing so priceless as an opportunity to carve out distance from BuzzFeed on the grounds of its own seriousness. At best, Tom Scocca uses Isaac Fitzgerald’s comments at the launch of BuzzFeed Books as a token excuse for timeliness. At worst, it is a cynical tool for defensive self-branding.
But this is snark that we are talking about, here. Snark doesn’t position itself in the marketplace: Snark flips the bird and wanders off. Snark doesn’t respond to David Denby with a many-thousand-word treatise, smarming its way out of real criticism. Snark, at its best, has no time for the moral high ground.
Tom Scocca makes the case that smarm is usually the weapon of the powerful. What would a world look like where the beleaguered Gawker Empire continues to snark but adds smarm to its arsenal? The comments sections for “On Smarm” gives some indication. When one commenter objects that the problem of snark in reviews has not been addressed in Scocca’s essay—and adds that the affected world-weariness of young Gawker writers seems “unearned, and cheap”—he is met with the following reply from Scocca: “‘Unearned’ is on the Smarm Bingo card.”
In reply to Malcolm Gladwell’s rather dashed-off response, which challenged Scocca’s selective use of quotations from the Eggers interview, Scocca wrote:
Malcolm Gladwell deepens our understanding of smarm by explaining that when Dave Eggers wrote the words ‘Do not be critics,’ he meant people should be critics.
By this point, Scocca is simply pointing and accusing. Yes, you’re getting it, he is saying. That’s smarm. And he is using that accusation as a way out of the argument.
What Scocca seems to ignore in all this is the difference between gratuitous negativity and valuable criticism. Scocca wants to take the world’s fact-checkers and conscientious objectors as his allies— though it is unclear whether they would choose him as their ally. When he conflates negativity (the saying of negative things) with negativity (a stance of sneering dismissal), he erases the possibility of a productive or creative kind of criticism—something different from critical-ness. In either case, the task remains to rescue productive criticism from Scocca’s sinking ship.
Luckily, as it turns out, a good start on this difficult task has already been made by Scocca’s own sources, in the many parts of their works that he neglected in his quest for incriminating evidence. David Denby’s Snark spends a vast number of pages sorting through exactly which kinds of negativity he finds unhelpful and which kinds he supports. Far from being opposed to negativity as such, Denby ends his book with a note of praise for Stephen Colbert’s critical powers and with a plea for his readers to go out and commit some “vituperation that is insulting, nasty, but, well, clean.” Denby, it turns out, is not opposed to negativity at large (I certainly got the impression he was while reading “On Smarm”).
In her own Believer essay, Heidi Julavits is not out to trick you when she writes: “To be perfectly clear—I am not espousing a feel-good, criticism-free climate.” She goes on to confess an “intellectual crush” on the “curmudgeonly” critic James Wood. Even in his overwhelmingly negative book reviewing, Julavits argues, there is a positive belief in the better possibilities for contemporary fiction, along with “room for a dialogue with Wood, which indicates there’s something to wrangle over.” Taken in full, Julavits’s essay is much more a plea for productive criticism than it is an attack on snark itself. Tom Scocca quotes her with the following line:
“If snark is a reaction to this sheer and insulting level of hyperbole, fine—”
but then he cuts her off there, removing the second half of the sentence, which asked why the writer (who has not chosen the book cover or written the PR copy) should have to receive the disdain. Scocca silences a voice that does believe in the uses of negativity: He would rather paint her as one more member of the worldwide Smarmy Army.
The difference between takedown negativity and productive negativity was exemplified in that other great drama of last December, the Love Actually saga. Christopher Orr of The Atlantic came out with a ruthless critique of the much-beloved Frankenstein’s Monster of a rom-com. After much online grumbling, Orr clarified his point. He held disdain for Love Actuallyonly because he thought it missed all the important parts of love: his negativity, under pressure, clarified the possibilities that the film left out. In doing so, Orr was making a set of positive, descriptive claims about love. He was telling a love story of his own.
Over at Jezebel, meanwhile, at the girl-targeted holding of the Gawker Media empire, Lindy West produced a breathtaking, hilarious takedown of the film. Her intentions were clear from the get-go: the piece ran under the title “I Rewatched Love Actually And Am Here to Ruin It For All of You.” West was in no mood to cut Richard Curtis any slack, and her piece admitted no quality to the more successful elements of the film. (In her frenzy, West also denounced something that was actually fairly realistic in the film, and fairly easily double-checked: the presence of Portuguese guest workers in rural France.) West’s piece makes for enjoyable reading, but she has approached the film with different aims from the aims of a critic. She came to snark, and she took no prisoners.
By no means do I believe the Lindy Wests of the world should have their keyboards taken from them. West’s piece is certainly not without value. Yet it is not a meaningful contribution to criticism in the way that Christopher Orr’s essays are. Tom Scocca defends the role of snark in messianical terms, as if it is the only available answer to BuzzFeed’s Bambi Rule and his smarmy opponents. In the field of arts criticism, at least, this is plainly not the case. There, negativity certainly has its place—but we should be careful not to confuse the playful vanity of the takedown rant with the productive critical output of those who will stand hard by their claims. And if Scocca wants to refute the criticisms of snark that are posed by Denby, Julavits, and Eggers, then he must do so on terms more specific than his essay presents.
Which brings us back to poor, poor Dave Eggers, victim now of not one but two attention-seeking takedowns, if we count Tom Scocca alongside his old mates and allies who launched n+1 in 2004 with a vitriolic—and since partially retracted—attack on Mr. Eggers and the “Eggersards.”
“Do not be critics, you people.” It is certainly no coincidence that Dave Eggers was speaking to The Harvard Advocatewhen he made this argument. Eggers was offering specific, pragmatic advice to a group of undergraduates. He was also provoked by a line of questioning that was grating and self-satisfied in tone. The Advocate interviewer began by communicating his hopes that Eggers was finally free from the “perfidious yoke of those Massachusetts McSweeneys. Talk about a McFaustian bargain!” It is also important to read the Eggers interview in terms of the very specific discussion that was being entertained. The Advocate president was not arguing about the quality of Eggers’s work—he was questioning Eggers’s legitimacy purely on the grounds of the material conditions of how Eggers was publishing. This discussion is a familiar one for young people who are interested in alternative culture and suspicious of the influence that mainstream success might have on an artist’s integrity. Does success alone make you a sell-out? Is Dave Eggers, then, a sell-out? The crucial point here is that no one was asking questions about the honesty or the quality of Dave Eggers’s work. He was not being fact-checked by the Advocate president. He was on trial for complicity with power, and the punishment was tossed on the don’t-read pile. So, when Dave Eggers says, “Do not dismiss a book until you have written one,” he means exactly what he is saying: Do not dismiss it, out of hand, without having read it. He is arguing specifically about the proposition that mainstream success might make somebody unreadable. Against that proposition, he says: No. Read them.
And then, of course, you can do whatever you like to them. Dismissal is not the same as negative feedback; dismissal means not even thinking about it. Eggers clearly admits the existence of “fair and helpful book critics.” What he is arguing against here is specifically the kind of negativity that knows it’s out to get you in advance: the kind of negativity that won’t even listen. He is arguing specifically against snark, not against negativity at large.
The overblown tone of Eggers’s speech in this interview is certainly worth criticizing. Nevertheless, his words take on a different meaning when they are read in their proper context. The “sell-out” accusation was never targeted at Eggers’s work—it was targeted at the fact of his success and his activity.
As a former Advocate president myself, I feel inclined towards Eggers’s words in the context of undergraduate literary culture. The line being adopted by the Eggers interviewer is one that brings out the worst in us, as student editors: It prefers the easy gains of ridicule to the real rewards of the learning that goes on when one exposes oneself to new and alternative ways of thinking. If anecdotal evidence is worth anything, then I shall be the first in line to testify that snarky talk from college literati finds its roots, more often than not, in one’s own creative insecurities. I have seen it, and I have done it myself.
By structure and by necessity, the Advocate staff must make negative decisions: stories must be rejected from the issues, and would-be editors must be rejected from the masthead. Although our authority is scant, we find that we need to be critics—which is fine, for the most part, because we do believe in criticism. But the exercise of that criticism must take place in a creative community of young people, a community where vulnerability is necessary if anything interesting is ever going to get done. What kinds of criticism we might permit ourselves in such a field is a difficult question to answer. There is a value to open-mindedness and generosity, here, which goes above and beyond the responsibilities of established writers. And there is a value to giving each other the benefit of the doubt. In national politics, ambition is a danger. Among young artists, we could show a little more patience for each other’s ambitions, as long as they are honest.
The debate on snark and smarm has been dominated by the kind of thinking that maintains that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It is easy to like Tom Scocca’s essay on these grounds: He doesn’t like racism, he doesn’t like sexism, and he doesn’t like Upworthy. This kind of opposition, though, is a false one. If criticism really were a case of balancing Boo against Yay, mixing snark in with smarm, then it would be an easy job indeed. Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic seems to accept this binary at face value when he says, in Maureen Dowd’s column: “I never thought I’d utter a sentence like this, but I stand with Gawker against BuzzFeed.”
God forbid that those should be our options. Awesome and Yuck are not a ying and yang for online journalism—they are a Scylla and Charybdis. Snark and smarm alike should be treated with suspicion by truly thoughtful criticism. They are evasive, self-congratulating techniques, both of which are anathema to the needs of a productive creative community. Snark and smarm are friends who pose falsely as enemies, and one can stand against both of them at once.
The snafu over “On Smarm” poses serious questions about what might be missing in this phony set of undesirable alternatives. In a new media landscape that is increasingly obsessed with counting page views, meeting quotas, and delivering “the perfect feed,” the answer might be something like thoughtfulness. Or perhaps, in this brand-dominated online space, which specializes in figuring out what we want and then giving it to us, the answer lies in something like surprise. Something like courage.