On the Moral Status of Snarky Reviews

Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark

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?

Published in: on September 9, 2008 at 3:33 am  Comments (14)  
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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I hate not liking books and giving not so great reviews. But when I do, I try and think to myself how would I feel if the author herself read this review – would I be comfortable enough with what I wrote to sit across the table from her while she read it? In the case of the example you gave, I would be squirmy if that was the situation, but then it doesn’t take much at all to make me squirm. But I have to say, that while it wasn’t a positive review, for me it wasn’t a good book. But I think I balanced it out by saying that I have enjoyed many other books the author has written – and recommended them.
    I love good snark too but I think one who does write snarky has to walk a fine line between being snarky funny and snarky cruel. That’s one reason I don’t do it – that and I just don’t have the talent.

  2. Kristie,

    I didn’t mean to single anyone out with my examples — yours just struck me as an example of good, clean “fair play” criticism.

    I agree with you, though, about the problems with the Publicity test. As an academic, I have had to give “good clean” negative reviews to unpublished works, and although they are generally anonymous, I know if I saw the author at a conference, I would feel a little bad. So maybe that’s not really a good indication of the moral status of the review, but rather of how thin skinned a reviewer is!

    I agree with you that the line is fine, — it is so fine I honestly can’t find it, hence this post — and while I don’t know if I could write a good snarky review (certainly nothing that approaches the coke-on-the-keyboard-funny of Mrs. G or SB), I want to try it, but without the moral residue.

  3. I think a lot of it depends on how the author receives it too. Mrs. Giggles makes me howl laughing with some of her snark. I think if I were an author, I would try and take it as a badge of honour to be snarked by her and I think I might even take the funniest bits and put ’em on a website.
    One author I’ve noticed – Joanna Bourne – even has a link to a bad review or two on her blog – which I think is real cool. That’s the best way to handle one of those I think.
    ‘Cause not every reader is going to like the same book. Some of my all time favourite books have been dissed and while I couldn’t understand it and was quite perplexed *g*, if authors hold that thought too, I think it might make it easier when they get a snarky or bad review.
    And *chuckle* I didn’t mind that you used mine. I tried to explain why the book didn’t work instead of just going on about how much I didn’t enjoy it 🙂

  4. Hi Jessica, read about your blog on Ramblings on Romance and enjoyed your thoughts on snarky reviews. Lately it seems I only have time to read reviews and not the actual books but – I do enjoy a good snarky review. I always read Mrs G’s reviews – usually the lower the grade the more I enjoy her review. I read reviews for books that aren’t even my “type” – just because the review or the reviewer are damn entertaining. I appreciate an honest review/opinion of a book (or product)and regard most highly positive reviews with… well, maybe that’s just my suspicious nature.

    After looking around here on your blog I find that I’m reading too many Scottish & historical romances as I scored way too high on your tests. I also agree with 9 of the 10 favorite love scenes, am a longtime fan of Diana Gabaladon’s, not so much a Nora fan but love the “In Death” series. I’d leave a comment for Tall Tales & Wedding Veils but I’ve already read it.

    Geez, we’re reading way too much of the same things…one of us needs to get a life.

  5. What struck me most about the Mrs Giggles and Smart Bitches quotes was that they, unlike any of the other review quotes, included virtuoso displays of metaphor-creation. These reviewers weren’t just describing the books or their reactions to them. Through the use of metaphor they almost create a fictional paranormal world of their own in which an author can build “a spacecraft out of pink fluffy clouds” and some novels are capable of “suck[ing] the sexy out of any known being” or carrying out an “involuntary enema” on the reader.

    I have no idea if that’s an essential feature of snark, but it was definitely something that those two quotes had in common. I also wonder if snarky reviews are really a form of satire. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (I’m sure there’s a better source of a definition out there, but this is one I found quickly) satire is:

    1 : a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn
    2 : trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly

  6. Laura,

    I love your point about metaphor in the Mrs. G and SB reviews — that’s exactly what I mean when I say that these reviews can in themselves be works of literature (or works of a valuable type of writing). They are not just reference guides to (a) the book, and (b) the reviewers’ views of the book. They can stand on their own. I never had any intention of reading Gold Plated Garbage Truck, but I enjoyed the hell out of the review.

    Your point about sarcasm is also good, and supports my claim that maybe we have competing artistic (literary) values to reckon with. I mean, how many classic essays would we have to get rid of if we got rid of satire?

    Peggy — Thank you for visiting! With two kids, two jobs, too much volunteer work, and this blog, I am going to have to decline your offer to get more of a “life” on the grounds that it would kill me. 😉

  7. This is a great post and I’ll have to come back to finish it (la headache is making mince meat of my brain), but I do enjoy a well-written snarky review at times. I enjoy Mrs. Giggles and the like. I am rarely moved to use snark myself in reviews though unless the book has seriously pissed me off, and then I’ve never approached near the level of skill Mrs. Giggles has.

    Kudos on shortening your post lol. That is hard for me to do sometimes.

  8. I agree that reviews can also be a form of literature. AAR used to have a reviewer, Mary Novak, who wrote beautifully at times. Her reviews contained some spectacular turns of phrase, like the ones in this paragraph:

    “The only people I could recommend this book to are beginning writing students; dissecting it could make an interesting class project, since overall it’s a staggering depiction of what not to do. I never saw any evidence of editorial input in this book. It’s available in three different formats (paperback, e-book, and rocketbook), but I wouldn’t recommend reading it in any of them.”

    One of the problems with reviews as a literary form is that it can be easier for the reviewer to sound clever and witty when writing a negative review than when writing a positive one. Therefore, one has to be just as careful about honesty when writing a negative review as when writing a positive one.

    In writing positive reviews, I often ask myself if I’m being too easy on the book, and if there were any aspects that bothered me. I try to bring those to the fore and to mention them, even when I love the book for the most part.

    In writing negative reviews, I ask myself if I’m being too hard on the book, and if there were any aspects of it that were well-executed or that appealed to me. I try to bring those to the fore and mention them as well, even when the book doesn’t work for me for the most part.

    I love the part of your post where you mention morality and art. “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?”

    I think that’s a question that one has to answer for oneself. I personally don’t feel that comfortable doing harm to others for my art (I am also a fiction writer), because I think that rationale can be carried very far.

    It is possible for artists to do great harm. Leni Riefenstahl’s film “Triumph of the Will” was a huge advancement for the art of cinema, but it also helped the Nazis a great deal. Without a doubt, Riefenstahl was a great artist, but she was blacklisted after the war and I think she got what she deserved.

    Let me be clear; I’m in no way comparing snarky reviews to Nazi propaganda! I don’t want to censor anyone from snarking in reviews, either. I just use that example to point to the fact that the logic of saying that art in itself justifies harming others can be taken too far, and so, the harm to people should be weighted against the good that the art does.

    To give another example, some friends of mine have suggested that I write a memoir, but I don’t know if I will ever do it, because being completely honest about my life would hurt some people, and holding back results in weaker art. So it is a dilemma and one I have given a lot of thought to.

    In regards to my reviewing specifically, I’m certain I could be more witty and entertaining if I didn’t give a damn about the author reading the reviews. But since the reviews at DA are addressed to the author (even though they are really meant for the reader), and since I am a writer myself, I feel most comfortable when I aim for a balance between honesty and politeness. I don’t hold back on my opinions, but I try to find a way to state them that isn’t mean-spirited. Do I always succeed? I don’t know, but I hope so.

  9. “Let me be clear; I’m in no way comparing snarky reviews to Nazi propaganda!”

    Hey, I compared them to one of greatest artists of the modern era — someone has to bring the balance! 😉

    Thanks Janine, for your (as usual) thoughtful and helpful response.

    It is such a great thing to have all of you visit and share your expert reviewing opinions with a newbie like me!

  10. I don’t know that I am an expert! Sometimes I feel that I am still trying to find my footing although it has gotten easier for me.

    I want to add that I think it is just as wrong to censor snarking reviews as it is to censor other forms of writing. IMO it is up to each writer (whether of reviews or whether of other writing forms) to decide where to stand on that continuum.

  11. […] a chance on this one. Well, as you can already tell, I could not resist the urge to type some snark. Just trust me when I say I am being as positive as I […]

  12. I’ve written a few snarky reviews (generally posted on Bam’s site rather than my own as I don’t really do reviews as such on my blog) but I only really go for laughs about bad writing rather than the personal glitches I have about plots or characters or whatever. A book might not be very good; it might really not be my cup of tea. Fine. I’ll say so pretty bluntly. But when I think something is just very badly written – incoherent and maybe just plain wrong in places – I don’t feel much compunction in pointing that and using humour to do it.

    That said, I’ve had an author comment on a pretty snarky review I did (believe me, that kills a comments thread right there) and that does make you question what you’ve written: would I have said this to that person’s face? And I’ve concluded, well, no. But the fact is that the act of reviewing is not a personal act in the sense of being about the person, the author. It’s about the book, which is the creation and responsibility of the author. That’s not to say that reviewers should regard themselves as having carte blanche to say anything but if they’re justified in what they say and back it up with supporting examples, I haven’t got a problem with that.

    It’s a fine line though, I agree.

    It also has to be said that some – the best – snarky reviews can be hilarious and vehement and vicious and adoring all at once. The best example I can think of here is Bam’s review of Mistress of the Groom** by Susan Napier (a book so alarming that it sent me to the internet in search of someone else who had read it and inadvertently introduced me to the online romance community). I can’t imagine anyone could read that review and not want to read the book that Bam both pillories and reports she thoroughly enjoyed. And for me, that is why snark does have a place in romance. Because there are many many absurd things in the romance genre – and you’ve pointed a few of them in your blog.

    ** and that’s an interesting book from the forced sex persepctive as well.

  13. Tumperkin,

    Thanks for weighing in. I was wondering myself if it was possible to write a positive snarky review.

    I found the BAM review you mention of the Napier book here.

    And you’re right — it’s a “B” review of a book she snarks from here to Mars.

    I felt a little like that about Karen Marie Moning’s first book, which I reviewed here.

    I wonder though… what does the “B” reflect? Is it BAM’s enjoyment of the book, or the quality of the book itself. What;s the difference between an opinion and a review? I plan to post on that later this week.

  14. Good question. I’ll be interested to see what you write.

    Professionally, I’m a lawyer. Sometimes, I’ve noticed, judges tend to make their decisions and then work out how to get the evidence they’ve heard and the law that’s been cited to them to fit with the decision.

    I think reviewing books is a bit like that. I just give opinions on my own blog. But when I do a review on Bam’s site, I make an effort to address the various elements of the book and give a ‘proper review’. Never changes what I think though. I’ve internally graded the book already. I’m just making the evidence fit my decision.

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