Why I Try Not to Write Bad Reviews

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Last week, Gawker editor Tom Scocca published an essay pushing back against the pushback against snark. The real problem, he argued, was "smarm":

What is smarm, exactly? 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?

Malcolm Gladwell responded this week, which sent the Internet into another frenzy of denunciation and counter-denunciation. Which has gotten me thinking about the decision I made a few years back to avoid writing bad reviews.

I'm not saying I've actually stopped writing bad reviews. I haven't. If I accept a book or a product for review, and it isn't very good, I feel that I have to say so, both for the good of my readers and my own reputation. But I do not seek out those opportunities, and I start every review by looking for the positive, not the negative.

And, oh, doesn't that sound precious, Pollyanna? Just too nice and sweet to get down there in the muck with the rest of us, are we? Too busy finishing up the hand-painted Easter eggs we deliver to the orphans every year?

Rather not. To my regret, I am, as my family and friends will testify, neither nice nor sweet. And I have certainly delivered my share of scathing takedowns and over-the-top denunciations. But I'm not particularly proud of it, and as I backpack into middle age, I've been trying to cut down on the snark, along with late nights, red wine and almost everything else I enjoyed in my 30s.

If not because I am nice, then why? Out of pity for my victims? Oh, sure, that's a factor. When I used to write mean reviews of people's books, I thought of them as big, powerful people who deserved to have their work torn down. Then I started running into those people, and to my shock, they had read -- and remembered -- even reviews I'd written for obscure outlets. They were people who had spent years of their lives working on something -- something they thought was really important -- and I had spent perhaps two or three hours composing a sarcasm-filled denunciation. They were hurt, just like I'd be. This is both sobering and socially awkward.

But that's not actually the main reason I avoid it. The main reason I avoid the joys of snarky takedowns is that it's not very good for you. Snark is immense, immense fun; the only thing more enjoyable than chortling to yourself over a particularly well-turned insult is having your friends and acquaintances e-mail to tell you how awesome it was. But if you're basically pretty good at snotty putdowns -- and most bloggers have at least an apprentice-level facility with this art -- it's almost too much fun. It's too easy. It's the writing equivalent of skiing the bunny slope.

I have written some epic snark, and I have written a book, and let me just tell you, there is no comparison. Books are hard. Reported features are hard. Sarcasm and outrage are easy, which is why they tend to peak in adolescence, unlike, say, mastery of nuclear physics.

There is nothing harder than writing a good review of a book or a movie, for the same reason that it is difficult to write an essay on "why my mother is great" without sounding like a particularly inarticulate third-grader. On the other hand, I bet you wouldn't have any problem at all writing an essay on the many personal failings of the mean girls who made fun of you freshman year. Making "I like this" interesting is one of the hardest tasks a writer faces, and for just that reason, you are constantly tempted to take the easy route and write another well-received nastygram. I think writers -- and by writers, I mean me -- should fight that temptation.

Whatever the ostensible subject of the snark, you're always really saying the same thing: "Look at me! I am so smart and funny! Not like this stupid person I am making fun of! You should think less of them and more of me!" It almost seems as if you're trying to hijack all that work they put in, turn it to your benefit instead of theirs. You will suspect me of special pleading because I've just written a book, but if anything, I expect this little meditation to net me more mean reviews, not fewer. And, in fact, I swore off nasty reviews before I ever got a book deal. They just started to seem pointless and cheap.

We shouldn't let wrong arguments slide. But it seems to me perfectly adequate to say "This person is wrong, and here's why." The loving passages where you compare their intelligence to that of various other mammals don't add anything except the tribal pleasures of nasty gossip.

In small bands, that sort of gossip probably serves an important social function. Yet although I'm a fan of evolution, I try not to be an absolute slave to it. I think of our appetite for public snark like our appetite for fatty, sugary food: It undoubtedly made total sense on the savannah 50,000 years ago, but it's dangerous if you indulge it to the extent that the modern world allows.

But as with our current diet, the more you feast on negativity, the more you start craving it. After all, it's as easy as popping a frozen pizza in the microwave, and more is always there at the store. So you start spending more of your time looking for reasons to be angry, and things that can be held in contempt, so that you can put on another exhibition of verbal superiority for your audience.

These days, 90 percent of the Internet could be subtitled "here's another thing to hate." I have a pet theory about why this is -- why so many people spend so much time on the Internet looking to be enraged: Getting mad short-circuits anxiety, particularly anxiety about the economy, and our own eventual deaths. But whatever the reason, it doesn't seem like a great way to spend whatever time I have left on this planet. Because there's one thing that I never am when I am busy being hilariously outraged and offended, and that is happy.

So while I certainly don't want to get rid of snark entirely, I'm trying to let it rest a little. Sure, the virtues of niceness may be oversold -- but it's not nearly as overdone as meanness is.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net