Wednesday, January 09, 2013

To snark or not to snark...

After I wrote yesterday's post, about trying to be more positive in my blog posts and not just naming and defining problems but propositing solutions and alternatives instead, I had to run out to the grocery store. On the way, I listened to National Public Radio.

When I turned the radio on, there was a report on concerning the death of Ada Louise Huxtable, who (I learned when I Googled her when I got home) was an architecture critic. She became the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper in 1963 and was the recipient, in 1970, of the first Pulitzer Price for Criticism. As part of the NPR report, someone was talking about how Huxtable was very blunt in her criticisms and felt that no architect was above criticism.

I don't think there is anything wrong with pointing out the shortcomings in something, be it in the arts, in culture, or anywhere else. On the other hand, it sometimes seems like too many critics have the notion that their status as a critic gives them license to be unpleasant. Well, unpleasant is being kind in reference to some criticism I've read. Snotty (this is a technical term) is a better, more accurate description. And rude. I'm sure, if you read much criticism at all, you've come across, say, a book or movie review in which the critic not only does not like the work he or she is reviewing but goes on to call the artist (writer, musician, painter, director, for example) unflattering names and infers...or says right out...that the artist is stupid, inept, and unworthy to live. Well, I might be exaggerating a little. But not by much, in some cases.

It bothers me when I read criticism like that. I keep expecting the critic to end the review with "...and your mother wears army boots" or something. It's like the critic is personally offended that the artist has had the gall to make something that the critic doesn't like.

I've thought about this a lot, especially since I do write book and film reviews from time to time, and have done so since I wrote for the student newspaper at Reedley College (it was Kings River Community College at the time), many years ago. I always try to evaluate the work, and the artist's success or failure to produce an interesting book or movie, rather than trying to claim that the artist is a bad person, or stupid, or has no talent generally. I'm not sure I'm always successful in this, but I try to be fair and civil and I try to avoid the critique becoming personal.

Maybe it's my upbringing, being told over and over and over that if I can't say anything good, just don't say anything at all. And sometimes I feel that I don't make a good reviewer because if I can't find something good to say about a movie or a book, I tend not to write about it at all.

Which is why I will never write a review of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Well, that and if I did, I'd have to read it again, and I'd really rather not. I've already had to read it at least three times for different classes since junior high, and that's at least three times too many as far as I'm concerned.

See? I can edge over into snarkiness. I just prefer not to most of the time.

What I'm wondering here is, what do you think? Do you think that criticism demands that the critic be brutal about work he or she does not like? Do you think that it is fair game for the critic to say personal things about the artist rather than sticking to a discussion of the merits or lack of merit of a work? Is snark more effective in criticsm than the critic simply saying "I liked this" or "I didn't like that" and explaining why?

I know snark is more entertaining. That isn't the question here. The question is, is snark good criticism, or is it bad, lazy criticsm?

Drop a comment and let me know what you think.


Kathy said...

I firmly believe if you don't have nothing nice to say, you shouldn't say anything at all. It was how I was raised and how I am raising my children. I don't think snarkiness is necessary at all. Great post on an issue that needed to be addressed. Some critics think they have the right to be rude and really that isn't part of their job description.


Anonymous said...

Snarks can be a way to vent annoyances, when in the proper place and time. But to attack a person in one's critique is to attack the person, not the work.

I do book reviews from time to time. It is not my place to attack the author, but it should be the place to discuss what aspects of the book or writing that falls short of expectations and why. I do not know the author, usually, so why attack who they are. Their words should stand on their own merits.

And really, a good critic will know this difference and not go there to attack the person.

Becca said...

I don't think criticism demands brutality and it's certainly not fair game to make personal attacks in a review of an artist's work. At least in my opinion. When it comes to snark, as long as it isn't necessarily a personal attack, I can see why critics might resort to that. It can make for a more interesting or fun read. That is, if you are using "snark" in the same sense of biting wit that I think of.

I agree with you that it seems a lot of critics and reviewers believe it is their job to be negative and, when it comes down to it, outright mean. When, in reality, the idea is to point out what's good as well as what's bad, what is appealing as well as what isn't, and yes...WHY they are or aren't. So while any specific review might be all good or all negative, the whole of a critics reviews really ought to balance out somewhat. If they don't and, maybe they just aren't that great a critic.

Thea said...

Hmm, good questions. I'm a little torn - on the one hand, I do think reviewers can get overly nasty and personal. Taste truly is subjective, and I do think it's out of line to resort to personal attacks against someone who put time and effort into creating something.

However, I'd be lying if I didn't laugh my ass off at, say, some reviews of "50 Shades of Gray", and stuff like that. I'm no stranger to snark, but I'd like to think I know where the line is.

littlemissattitude said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments.

Looks like I'm not completely off-base in my feelings about criticism, at least from what all of you have said, especially in regards for how much I hate it when critics get personal.


. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Critics who only wrote nice things would hardly be fulfilling their duties.

littlemissattitude said...

I really wasn't saying that critics should only write nice things. For example:

"I don't think there is anything wrong with pointing out the shortcomings in something, be it in the arts, in culture, or anywhere else."

It's just that I've read too many reviews that attack the artist along with the art.