Doug's Blog

Book Reviews and the Snark Epidemic

In a high-minded column last Sunday that got pretty haughty, Maureen Down in the New York Times dismissed a recent pledge by Isaac Fitzgerald, book editor of BuzzFeed, to publish only positive book reviews. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” Fitzgerald said in an interview with Poynter, which I guess is yet another website. (Can you keep up? I can’t.)

This sent Dowd, my personal favorite composer of eloquent snark, soaring on her sense of noble purpose.

“An intellectual has a solemn obligation to speak out negatively against ideas or books that he or she believes will have a pernicious or misleading effect upon people’s understanding of important things,” she writes. “To do otherwise would be cowardly and irresponsible.”

Well, okay ... but I think the issue here is not whether critics can take a high-minded stand against low culture. They can, and should — but a far bigger problem is that the snide and snarky have become the low culture. In our age of instant communication, the Netwaves are saturated by people’s unleashed impulse to take easy refuge in the cutting and the cynical comment.

Today ,everybody’s a critic — and to be a critic, just spewing negativity, is the easiest thing. It’s a quick and dirty way to get noticed, a means of grabbing attention without taking a risk. Dowd quotes Dave Eggers, the author and publisher, for whose innovative San Francisco publishing house, McSweeny’s, Isaac Fitzgerald is director of publicity. “Do not be critics, you people, I beg you,” Eggers told the Harvard Advocate in 2000. “I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one.”

There are lots and lots of bad books, and not to be able to let people know about a new one doesn’t serve the culture — so I don’t see much use in saying that a publication or website should only be positive. But the real problem here is the epidemic of snideness, and of posturing negativity. Our world is full of comment boxes, and it’s all too easy to fill them with slashing putdowns, for example of a new book, without realizing the impact that can have on creative work that has taken someone years to complete.  

I think what Eggers and Fitzgerald are really doing is encouraging those who comment on the book culture — on any culture, these days — to reach more for insight. As a form of expression or comment, insight is much harder to achieve than the snide, the cynical, the snarky dismissal. And I’d argue that it’s almost always a far more useful contribution.

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Friday, 05 March 2021

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