Friday Fragments: Like Totally Random

When I picked up my daughter from school today, I noticed how close she is to catching up to my height. Her brother passed me at 12 (an age she is fast approaching), and at 15 he’s a six-footer. I’m a few inches shorter than both my own parents, and I can’t help feeling my children are violating some law of nature.

Maternal bragging: my son’s personal project for school, Looks a Bit Sketchy, is on YouTube. He gets this from his paternal grandad.

. . .

My governance council successor and I had a meeting today with the internal auditors who are working on policy frameworks. I loved it. I think I have the soul of an auditor. Doing governance work, I sometimes felt like a voice in the wilderness. It’s validating to talk to smart people who take governance, policy and process seriously. #policygeek

. . .

I started listening to Austen’s Persuasion, read by Juliet Stevenson, on my morning commute. It alternates with Pride and Prejudice for my favorite Austen depending on my mood. The comic zingers, something I don’t usually associate with this novel, stand out in audio: “The Musgraves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, possibly of improvement.” There’s cruelty in the book as well: how Austen mocks Mrs. Musgrove’s “fat sighings” over her dead son Richard, of whom, in the narrator’s acerbic view, she is well rid. I’ve got Stevenson’s recording of Middlemarch and was thinking about how Eliot is never so ungenerous or unsympathetic to her characters, even the worst of them, as Austen can be. I haven’t had the energy to tackle a re-read of Middlemarch in print, but I’m enjoying Stevenson’s narration so much that I’m ready to dive in to the audio. Seems like a good holiday project.

. . .

I’m sure everyone has now seen, or at least heard about, Tom Scocca’s Gawker piece “On Smarm” (Sunita was the first person I saw tweeting about it):

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.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?

There’s a lot in this long essay that relates to discussions about negative/critical reviewing in Romanceland, and in Bookworld more generally. The piece has been described as a defense of snark, and in a way it is, but I think Scocca is more interested in exploring what snark is reacting against. (Is there snark that’s nasty for nasty’s sake? Sure. But I know I’m most moved to snark when I feel that smarm has put one over on me).

There are other ways to respond to/resist smarm than snark: Michelle Dean suggests “honesty” (h/t to Rohan for that one). Honesty without snark is my own preferred mode, and Dean had me nodding up to this point:

Let’s say you do just genuinely like a lot of books. Let’s also say you like a sufficient number of books to populate a whole book reviews section with positive reviews of them. If you are being honest in your enthusiasm, is that smarm?

Well, not exactly. But here’s the thing (and I guess this is where I’ve finally come down on the “what if I only want to talk about books I love? Why don’t people believe me?” discussion in Romanceland). If one person decides only to talk about books she loves, OK. There are such people who have earned my trust, whom I believe to be sincere in the love they express–usually people who have reviewed critically in the past, or who are thoughtful and measured in their expressions of love. (Also, people who love mediocre things and recognize that they’re mediocre or imperfect are not, in my view, being smarmy. They’re being human).

But what if (when) a whole publication or website decides to talk only about books they love? What if love and praise become the dominant mode of public discourse in a community? The more wide-spread the desire to say only nice things becomes, the less easy it is to discriminate between honest love and smarm. In that environment, smarm can crowd out honesty, sneak in under its cover.

The more common the decision to say only nice things is, the more it seems like an imperative and drives out other forms of honesty: “If you can’t say anything nice. . . .” If only certain kinds of honesty are valued or permitted, are we really being honest? The line that resonated the most for me in Scocca’s piece:

When you hear a voice say “Everyone’s a critic,” listen for the echo: Everyone’s a publicist.

That’s not a Bookworld, or any world, I want to live in. Some days, we feel awfully close.

. . .

I’m reading a book that’s disappointing me. I’ll have more to say when I’m done.

. . .

I enjoyed Catherine Lloyd’s Regency cozy mystery, Death Comes to the Village. The mysteries I’ve read set in this period tend to be darker in tone (though like this one, they mostly seem to be written by romance writers . . . .). I wouldn’t call this a great book, but it’s fun. The characters (spinster rector’s daughter, wounded Waterloo vet) are less stereotypical than I feared, and the mystery kept me guessing. The village world really came to life, though I thought Lucy’s wandering into the kitchens–and then up back stairs to the drawing room–of every house in the neighborhood wasn’t really historically accurate. I really liked Lloyd’s depiction of how circumscribed Lucy’s life is, her fear of being trapped forever replacing her mother, without the respect and power an actual wife and mother would have. (It’s a little reminiscent of Persuasion, come to think of it). It seems pretty likely the series will have a romance arc, and it could be a good one, as Lucy and the Major are often at odds with each other, but also learning to respect and like each other. His being wounded is important, I think, not just emo backstory for him: without that, he’d have all the power; as it is, they need each other and help each other. I liked it enough to try another and see where they go.

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8 Responses to Friday Fragments: Like Totally Random

  1. Robin says:

    I am completely disgusted and disappointed by the “positive reviews only” position BuzzFeed has taken, because it’s false advertising: positive only reviews means they are NOT running a review venue. They are running a RECOMMENDATION venue. Which is fine, but don’t try to warp the critical weight of “review” to do it.

    I personally think they are doing their recommenders a disservice, too, because without the full range of critical opinions, it is impossible to see the kind of analytical work a recommender (I refuse to call them reviewers, at least not for what BuzzFeed will be publishing) is doing. So not only are they not engaging critical analysis as a site, but they are limiting the value of their contributors’ pieces within the realm of recommendation, because there is no critical basis on which those recommendations can be evaluated.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Absolutely. And I think the disgust/anger you mention is the source of a lot of the snark I read–certainly the snark that’s doing more than trying to get attention.

  2. SonomaLass says:

    I love Persuasion. Absolutely my favorite Auten. Makes me wish I had space in my life for audio books; I’d love to hear it read well. Instead, maybe I’ll find time this week, while my eldest is visiting, to watch the Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds film adaptation. Because it is just brilliant,

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That sounds like a perfect end of term grading break! It is my favorite “straight” Austen adaptation (I also really love Clueless).

  3. Sunita says:

    If positive reviews were about honesty rather than clickbait and PR, then Scocca wouldn’t have written that piece and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The “everyone’s a publicist” is the money quote because the majority of arguments for positive reviewing come from people who have a financial or reputational stake in the thing being reviewed. That was true even back in the Believer debate days.

    Like you, I’m not a big practitioner of snark, although I enjoy it sometimes. And I’ve seen snark that as part of a reputation-building enterprise, designed to draw attention to the wit and cleverness of the snarker. But at least that way of building capital allows for discomfort and criticism (of both the object of snark and the snarker). PR-oriented positivism (which is what smarm is, whatever else it is) doesn’t. We probably have more sincere positive-oriented reviewers and bloggers in romland than in the general media, but if you added up all the positive-only venues and practitioners, I think you’d find that the majority of them have an investment in whatever they’re recommending.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I understand the choice to be positive as professional self-interest from authors (although I find it problematic, as you know). But when it’s justified in other ways–“I just prefer to put positive energy and good feelings out in the world”–as if it were a moral good, we’re in the realm of smarm. People who say these things may be talking about books they genuinely love, but there is also an element of PR to what they are doing. And I agree that people can have an investment of some kind in recommendations even though it is not a financial one (a reputational stake, a desire for clicks–which may also be a desire for ad revenue, even the fact that mutual praise of friends/publishing label-mates might create a rising reputational tide that lifts all boats). There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but I do find it cynical to pretend that’s not part of what’s going on.

  4. Rohan says:

    Aside from sharing others’ objections to a “review” site insisting on accentuating only the positive, I always have one stupidly pragmatic quest about this kind of policy. I don’t know if I like a book or not until I’ve actually read it. Sometimes I can’t be sure one way or another until I spend time (sometimes a lot of time – I’m thinking of something like Life After Life) thinking and writing about it. A lot of the time, I don’t come down entirely on one side or the other! Isn’t a review venue that won’t publish the results of my work that unless I end up with a big thumbs up building in an awful lot of inefficiency? Unless the understanding is that reviewers will “waste” a lot of time reading, thinking, and maybe even writing for pieces that will never see the light of day, the venue is really asking for really quick snap judgments (based on what? the cover?) not real reviews…. and to me that’s even worse than the “good reviews only” policy. But I never expected to get anything I wanted from reading reviews at BuzzFeed anyway.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I agree with all this. And since I suspect that reviewers will NOT want to waste that time and won’t be compensated for it, you’re likely to get a lot of bending over backwards to be “positive” about things the “reviewer” does not really think are very good. Even if that didn’t happen, I don’t think that keeping silent about the not-good things one reads, the didn’t-like-it things, is true honesty.

      I don’t write about everything I read, because I read things I don’t have much to say about, and I think books one is lukewarm about are often hardest to discuss in interesting ways. But I don’t pretend I love everything I read, and I would certainly express my opinion if asked, or write reading round-ups where I mention those books I didn’t think much of. I do think for a reviewer’s/critic’s opinion to have weight, we have to know something about the whole range of her taste.

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