Lame criticism’s happy talk is the enemy of truth
While intellectuals can be kind and nice, their job is to expose mediocrity
The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell tried to riposte in a post called “Being Nice isn’t really so awful” but wandered into a silly argument about satire propping up, rather than subverting, the privileged and the status quo. Malcolm Gladwell Photograph: Theo Wargo/WireImage
I started speaking truth to power early. And my older brothers didn’t like it. They told me that archness in a 10-year-old was not welcome. I concocted a plan to prove how boring life would be if you were just nice all the time, how much more bracing it is to have sweetness laced with tartness.
I told them I would be very, very nice until they asked me to stop, certain that they’d get sick of saccharine and syrupy in short order. Except they didn’t. They liked it. After a week, I’d overdosed on sugar myself and gave up, going back to my old ways of being angelic or devilish, depending on the provocation. Later, when I fell in love with Jonathan Swift, I felt gratified that I’d kept sardonic, that excellent arrow against oppressors, in the quiver.
So naturally, I’m intrigued with the literary donnybrook over niceness raging on the internet, a place better known for nastiness. It flared last month when Isaac Fitzgerald, the first book editor of BuzzFeed, gave an interview to Poynter. Looking for clicks, BuzzFeed, Upworthy and various new websites try to capitalise on the “awesome” rather than the awful.
Fitzgerald, a former biker-bar employee, co-owner of the online site the Rumpus and director of publicity at David Eggers’s San Francisco-based literary journal and publishing house, McSweeney’s, said he was negative on negative reviews. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.”
Old media? Has this guy ever browsed with his browser? Fitzgerald said he would follow the “Bambi” rule espoused by Thumper: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” His plaint echoed one by Heidi Julavits in 2003 in the Believer, a magazine founded by Eggers. She wondered if reviews could strive for “loftier service” to the culture and deplored snark as “a reflexive disorder”.
Julavits was echoing a 2000 Eggers interview with the Harvard Advocate. Replying to a question about selling out, Eggers chided Harvard students: “Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. 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, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.”
In a wonderful essay on Gawker last week, Tom Scocca excoriated the pompous and often vapid niceness brigade. Snark can be overdone, he wrote, but it is better than smarm, which “is never a force for good. A civilisation that speaks in smarm is a civilisation that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilisation that says, ‘Don’t Be Evil,’ rather than making sure it does not do evil.”
The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell tried to riposte in a post called “Being Nice isn’t really so Awful” but wandered into a silly argument about satire propping up, rather than subverting, the privileged and the status quo. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, notes that we label food if we believe it has deleterious consequences and critics are perfectly within their rights to label books in the same way.
“In the very first issue of my magazine, almost 100 years ago,” he told me, “Rebecca West established what she called ‘the duty of harsh criticism,’ and she was right. 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. To do otherwise would be cowardly and irresponsible.
“If one feels that a value or a belief or a form that one cherishes has been traduced, one should rise to its defence. In intellectual and literary life, where the stakes may be quite high, manners must never be the primary consideration. People who advance controversial notions should be prepared for controversy. Questions of truth, meaning, goodness, justice and beauty are bigger than Bambi. I never thought I’d utter a sentence like this, but I stand with Gawker against BuzzFeed.”
Pretending that false and ugly things don’t exist is a bit delusional. Yet such prettifying is consistent with a culture dominated by an internet concerned mainly with marketing techniques. Not to review books negatively is in essence to subsume book reviewing into advertising, public relations and promotion. Succumbing to uplift, edification and happy talk is basically saying that there’s something more important than telling the truth: not making enemies, not hurting people’s feelings.
All quarrels are not petty. Sometimes quarrels are about big things, and it’s a privilege to take a side in them.