Note: I apologize in advance for the length and general analocity (analness?) of this post. If it helps, please know that the published version is about 1/87th the length of the draft. (The analness, I’m sorry to say, is pure me and not expungeable.)
I’m working on a blog page, “Jessica’s Personal Rules for Reviewing”, while at the same time listening to the audio version of Karen Marie Moning’s Beyond the Highland Mist (you can read the finished snarky product here.)
Perhaps if you have read this book, you will know why I am suddenly interested in the question of whether “snark” is ok in a review. And, as usual, I start with the question of “what is snark”?
What does “snark” mean? Apparently, it derives from early 19th century British slang (imitative of “snort” or “snore”), where it meant either “to sharply criticize” or “irritable, testy and short”. The OED defines snarky as “irritable, short-tempered, ‘narky'”.
In the US and Canada, in contrast, “snarky” signifies not merely critical, but “critical in an annoying, sarcastic, grumpy, wisecracking, or cynical sort of way” (Randomhouse.com). The American Heritage Dictionary online defines it as: “Rudely sarcastic or disrespectful; snide.” The Urban Dictionary says it is a combination of the words “snide” and “remark”.
So criticism is inherent in snark. Is any critical review a snarky one? Clearly not. Here are two examples:
1. Rosario’s review of Nora Roberts’ Homeport which gets a (very rare, as Rosario is a big fan of La Nora) D+:
“I guess Ryan’s supposed to be charming in a devil-may-care kind of way, but not to me. It must have been his condescending amusement at Miranda’s oh-so-naive problems with his being a thief. Once he toned down that aspect a bit, in the second half of the book, I didn’t despise him quite as much, but he never really did appeal to me.”
2. Here’s Kristie(J)’s negative review of Susan Mallery’s Sweet Talk, an author who has written other books she has enjoyed:
“Gads I hate saying this about a book, but for me, this one was just plain bad. And what was bad about it you ask? Um…. Everything.
Claire was one of those doormat type heroines who just scream ‘beat me!’ She’d been taken from her family when she was very young as she was a young piano protégé. When her youngest sister calls to ask her to come back to help her other sister she can’t seem to get there fast enough – only to be treated like dirt by her sister and her good buddy Wyatt. Yet sweet, ‘beat me’ Claire keeps coming back for more abuse by the two of them.”
I think a snarky critical review has to intend to be witty or funny in some way. But is that enough? Can a review be critical and funny/witty without being snarky? I think so. Here are two examples:
3. This F review of Nicholas by Elizabeth Amber, is the kind of snarkfree, yet amusing negative review you often find at Dear Author:
“The prose is purple, the storyline is flat with little movement. There is no character arc. There is no connection between the characters. If this is a love story, my copy was missing those pages that described it. If it was a hot and sexy read, then I’m going to have to become an inspirational reader. I debated not finishing it because it was so boring at one point.”
4. AAR reviews are also generally snarkless, but can be funny, like this F review of Jenna Petersen’s Lessons from a Courtesan:
“The writing. Oh, the writing. It very, very, very strongly reminds me of amateur, self-published work that could do with a tough editor wielding the largest red Sharpie ever sold. It is explicit in the worst way; we are told everything, and I mean everything. By the end of the book, I felt like a priest at a never ending confessional.”
So, I think we need more than criticism and humor to make a review snarky. To find out what that “more” is, let’s look at two excerpts from masters of the snarky romance review:
5. Here’s a review of The Viscount’s Bawdy Bargain by Connie Lane from Mrs. Giggles,
“Ms Lane doesn’t ask one to suspend one’s credulity, she builds a spacecraft out of pink fluffy clouds and begs readers to fly with her to la-la land. It is when the silliness bleeds over into agonizingly stupid behavior on the heroine’s part, however, that is when the involuntary enema starts to happen.”
6. Here’s another F review, this one from Smart Bitches of Gold Plated Garbage Truck by T. C. Allen:
“If I had to describe this book in two words, those words would be: complete bonerdeath. This book will suck the sexy out of any known being, and leave any libido in the tri-state area dry and gasping. This book is the real reason all those erotica novel vaginas are weeping.”
If I am right, and 5 and 6 are paradigmatic examples of snarky reviews, then it looks like a snarky review is critical in a wisecracking or sarcastic or snide way, with the humor generated at the book’s expense, and thus at the author’s, either directly or indirectly. I think there’s a pointed quality (a laughing at) to 5 and 6 that isn’t quite there in 3 or 4 above (although the line is fine, I admit).
(Some of this may hang on the question of whether snark is directed towards the author or the book, and secondarily on the relationship of the book to the author. Discussion of related issues here and here.)
Let me be clear: I LOVE a good snarky review.
But now that I am writing reviews myself, knowing that I want to be respectful of authors (not just them, BTW, but anyone), the question is what respect requires of me. I know for sure that it requires reading their books carefully, not getting facts wrong, not insulting their appearance, etc (that would be a “trash review” as Julie Leto wrote once. The moral status of a trash review, a review that says something like “the author is a fucking moron” is not really interesting to me, because I take it that the answer is obvious.). I also know for sure that respect for authors is consistent with writing a very critical negative review, and I think that it would be a disservice to the genre, to the author, and to the readers (all 8 of them, but still), to be otherwise than honest.
So how do I figure out if I can be snarky and respectful at the same time? There are a few moral tests that may help.
One is the publicity test. You ask yourself, if everyone knew you were the one doing this, would you be comfortable? I think when authors express frustration at the anonymity of bloggers, they are making implicit reference to this idea. Another version of this test is to wonder how it would feel to face your target.
Another test is the reversibility test. Basically, you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you still think the action is ok? If someone wrote a critically snide piece about my blog, would I feel that what they were doing was ethically ok (this is somewhat different from asking if it would make me feel bad. Of course it would make me feel bad. But the question is: would it make me feel wronged?). (Feminists have pointed to problems with this one. Whether you have been wronged may depend to some extent on your social location.)
A third relevant test is the harm test. The idea here is that if you can achieve your goal in a less harmful way, you should. If you don’t, you are essentially willingly harming someone, even if it is not your direct intention. So, if snark is more harmful than mere negativity to the author (by getting a laugh at her expense), you shouldn’t write it (it’s worth noting that “minimizing harm” is one of the tenets of the proposed Bloggers Code of Ethics recently discussed at DA.) (But is it even harmful? Some authors consider anything less than a glowing review harmful. And so what if it is? A lot of morally acceptable actions are harmful in some way to someone.)
That brings us to the question of what the goal of the review is. Can the snarky reviewer meet her goals without the snark? Quite possibly not. I think a review is more than just giving the reader information about a book (facts). And even more than evaluating a book (values). I think reviews themselves, as a kind of writing, can be literary. But that means we have to evaluate them as an art, in terms of literary beauty. (Or you could go the other way and say they are entertainment, and evaluate them in terms of pleasure. Either way, you have introduced a nonmoral value).
This goes to the question, then, of whether causing slight moral harm (in the form of disrespect) to the author is worth it, given that a (possibly) more artistic (or more entertaining) product is produced. Sometimes it really does seem worth it: I am not generally in favor of men abandoning their wives and children, but I am so glad Paul Gauguin did it, so I can enjoy his paintings of Tahiti. How do you balance moral and artistic values? Or does one always trump the other? Or am I blowing a fat lot of hot air about bits of digital detritus that are in no way comparable to anything resembling literature?? (Wait, please don’t answer that last one.)
There are other questions that come to mind…
—like what about authors who don’t respect us by putting out yesterday’s scraps and calling it a new book? Do they deserve respect? (I think yes, first because I don’t know any authors and have no idea whether the crappy book is effortful crap or effortless crap, but second because I generally don’t think my moral obligations to others are dictated by how they treat me.)
—What about authors, like Sherry Thomas, who say they don’t read reviews at all anymore? Snark can’t harm them right? (On the other hand, if you shoot at someone and you miss, does that make it ok?)
—Or maybe snark is insulting to authors, but we can say they invited it in a sense by choosing to put their work out there? (I think this is pretty weak. How far could you go along these lines? Too far, I think.)
I’m really not sure about this. I know that Janet/Robin at DA has recently framed this as a question about professionalism, but I don’t think the blogging community is a profession, or enough like one for this to be a useful comparison. Since we have a vacuum of “common moral starting points” or shared values in the blogosphere, I have to look at it in terms of what counts, for me, as minimally decent treatment, i.e. respect, towards certain fellow human beings.
For the two people that are not sleeping or rhythmically banging their head against their desk to make. it. stop. by this point in the post, any thoughts?