The challenge of criticism: snark, entitlement, Steve Almond and me

IMG_0838.JPGThere’s a really interesting essay by Steve Almond in the Sept/Oct issue of Poets & Writers. It’s called “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect,” and it talks about tearing other writers down.

Steve describes his view of the difference between snark and entitlement, which I found helpful distinctions. He says:

Snark is a conscious attempt to cast aspersion for narcissistic reward. Writers who use social media, or other public forums, to dis other writers are seeking to convert resentment into attention. It’s a tool of self-promotion.

Entitlement, on the other hand:

…operates at a more basic and often unconscious level. It’s a kind of defensive snobbery, a delusion that the world and its constituent parts–whether a product or a piece of art or a loved one–exist to please you.

Although he frames his essay in terms of creative writing workshops and students who rip on writers they hate, he also mentions that snark and entitlement exist throughout our ranks. Every time someone badmouths another more famous writer, it’s some combination of the two.

Ultimately, of course, neither of these temptations serve us as writers. As Steve puts it, people can either “get over their sense of entitlement or, at some point, abandon writing.”

I found Steve’s example from Tobias Wolff quite illustrative as well. He quotes “Bullet in the Brain,” a story about a burned-out book critic, which rang true for me as a reformed (and formerly burnt-out) book critic. When one loses the pleasure of reading – or, indeed, of giving praise and respect to a fellow writer – it is time to take a step back and reevaluate what you’re really doing in critiquing another’s work.

My husband often tells me I am too harsh a critic. I like to think I just have high standards and aim for greatness, and therefore want to bring everyone up to my level. But when he points out that I am being overly critical, I try to go back over a piece with a specific need to find something I enjoyed. It is so easy to lose that lust for literature, and to skip over the parts that work simply because they work. “The writer already knows this part is good,” critics think, “so why tell them what they already know?”

Whenever I get stuck in a review, and realize I’m leaning much more heavily toward negativity, I stop and remember a playwriting instructor I had in my university days. This professor would invariably give his students – myself included – extreme benefit of the doubt, comparing our novice attempts to some of the great dramatic works, and it was a technique that worked well.

Part of his goal in offering these comparisons was likely to prove he knew what he was talking about, as he was extremely well-read in both French and English literature. His allusions also subtly suggested we seek out those works for additional study, since we typically had no idea such works existed and hadn’t read them in class.

The other part that worked was the way he put us in the company of those great writers, giving us a chance to see ourselves as drawing from the same well. To praise our works as being anywhere near the same league as those famous, well-known playwrights made us feel as if we were on the right track – and reminded us that others before us had dealt with similar problems in life and in writing.

Aren’t we all, in the end, standing on the shoulders of giants? And if we seek to tear those giants down, what do we truly accomplish – aside from denying ourselves the same dazzling view?

Thanks, Steve, for this reminder to always be mindful of our words, particularly when we critique.


  • Kevin Burton Smith

    I feel your pain. I’m still pounding away doing reviews, but I’m always wary of the temptation to just snark for the sheer joy of it. Mostly, I hope I’ve resisted.

    Some books, however, are simply asking for it, and the struggle to say something “nice” — anything nice — becomes a real challenge.

    Most of my editors, though, don’t want total snark, so alluding to the greats is always a handy way to muddy the waters. A sharp reader will see through the muck, of course.

    But hey, the expectation that a review is written for the benefit of writers is itself a sort of sign of entitlement. On the writers’ part. Probably a throwback to the writer’s school years, when one wasn’t “reviewe” but “critiqued.”

    I don’t really write reviews for writers (or publishers). I write them for readers.

    And Lord knows I try to be diplomatic, in both reviews and critiques, but sometimes a little bit of snark (just a dab) cuts right to the heart of the matter in a way a lot of wiggle words and critical hand-wringing fail to do. I’d like to think, that done judiciously, both readers and writers appreciate it.

    So I’d say “SNARK: Use it for good, not evil.”

  • Laura Roberts

    I hear that, Kevin. Especially when it comes to genre fiction, where sometimes you have to wonder if the writers have read anything else in their genre, or the repetitive use of certain words starts to really grind. In erotica, for instance, I’ve been noticing a lot of “channels” lately, which grosses me out – a pussy is not a waterway in Venice!

    Snark also tends to be a lot more word-count friendly if you’re restricted by length, so I can concede the usage of snark for good and not evil there.