The literary feud about snark versus smarm kicked off at the end of this year seems set to splutter on well into 2014. Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times Sunday Review, picked it up in a piece entitled “Bigger Than Bambi,” referring to the now-notorious Bambi Rule: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” And, she concluded, “such prettifying is consistent with a culture dominated by an Internet concerned mainly with marketing techniques.”
Although I applaud Dowd’s decision to stand by snark against the saccharin surge of smarm, I have to differ on that point – which in some ways is shooting the messenger. It’s not the Internet itself that’s to blame. It’s the coincidental rise of highly sophisticated promotional and lobbying consultancies, which happened to come to maturity around the same time that the Internet pulled together. Social media and blogging merely provide new channels for smarmers and snarkers alike to snipe at each other. To blame the Internet itself echoes another recipient of lashings of smarm, “Great American Novelist” Jonathan Franzen and his anti-technology tirades-in-a-teacup.
Or is there a direct link after all? Because many of those PR, spin, and promotional techniques were pushed into prominence during the dotcom era as mechanisms to hype, and thereby increase the immediate financial value, of concept dotcom stocks. As Peter Shankman’s 2006 book Can We Do That?!: Outrageous PR Stunts That Work, concluded, “The dotcom era was when companies truly learned the value of a well-crafted public relations plan.” The dotcom bubble was inflated by PR puff, and some would argue that the PR profession was over-extended post the dotcom blowout in just the same way that the Silicon Valley venture capital community was. Certainly, a lot of people had a big financial incentive to suspend their critical faculties and swallow the hype back in 1999-2000.
So perhaps the Internet and smarm did spawn each other. That’s no reason to swallow the smarm now, though. Not only is it nauseating stuff that rots your teeth and is hard to keep down, but, as David Denby alleged of snark, “it’s ruining our conversation,” when conversations are reduced to promotional megaphones bawling at each other.
And just for a bit of self-smarming here, let’s go back to the original 2000 Harvard Advocate interview with David Eggers, former San Fran publishing employer of Isaac Fitzgerald, now singled out, fairly or unfairly, as the apostle of smarm. “Do not be critics, you people, I beg you,” Eggers begged his audience. “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.”
Well, personally, I’ve written a couple of books. I’ve made a couple of movies. And I’ve met a lot of people, and thanks to Facebook, can reach out and meet many more. So that gives me a full Eggers license to be as smelly, ignorant, and dismissive as I like, and full of rage and envy. And you’d be amazed how therapeutic it is – for me and for culture as a whole.