Yesterday, Tom Scocca lit up the ersatz (and real!) cultural-critic Internet with an essay called “On Smarm.” Hooked into the still-bubbling controversy over the appointment of Isaac Fitzgerald as Buzzfeed Books editor — a controversy that, for the record, I’ve already said I don’t think is of itself that big a deal — the piece is really a longer and deeper reflection about the role of snark in the world more generally. I mean, the essay has targets that run the gamut from Dave Eggers to Ari Fleischer to New Yorker film critic David Denby. And it makes many points, but the essential one is this:
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Snark is often conflated with cynicism, which is a troublesome misreading. Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism.
The practice of cynicism is smarm.
Fashion critic Robin Givhan never lacks for quotability, whether she’s eviscerating Michelle Obama’s fashion choices for the Washington Post or breaking down Marc Jacobs’ latest collection for The Cut. So it’s unsurprising that Givhan’s Reddit AMA, in which she fielded questions on everything from runway diversity to the essentials of a collegiate wardrobe, is as full of candid, concise prose as any of her reviews. Below, our roundup of the highlights from Givhan’s Q&A, which focused on fighting systemic racism in the fashion industry as much as Givhan’s personal experiences as a renowned critic. It includes her instructing a 30-year-old man to “find your inner swagger,” so needless to say, we highly recommend a quick read. Here are the highlights.
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This week and last, the novelist Jennifer Weiner has been rehashing an old complaint of hers: namely, that the New York Times Book Review doesn’t give writers of commercial fiction like her enough coverage. They don’t review the books enough, and they don’t hire enough commercial writers as reviewers. If you’re already wondering how such a tempest-in-a-teapot claim has inspired an avalanche of blog posts — after all, the NYTBR does seem to avoid anything smacking of so-called “chick lit” — keep in mind that every literary blogger on the planet is on a perpetual audition to write for the NYTBR. (Including this one. Hi, editor!)
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As with the end of most episodes of Girls, its Season 2 finale, “Together,” leaves us with more answers than questions: Should Hannah and Adam have been reunited after that shameful potential rape scene last week? Is Adam really in a position to help Hannah? Why did Shoshanna and Ray have to break up? What’s the deal with Marnie and Charlie getting back together? Oh, and where did Jessa go (and did she get her vagina pierced)? Now that we’ve had 36 hours or so to let Sunday night’s finale sink in, we’ve dug up the best critical writing on the episode, tempering the surge of critical responses to highlight the most thought-provoking pieces.
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If you’ve paid much attention to film festival coverage over the past few months, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about a film called The Raid (it was later given the rather silly subtitle Redemption, though I’ll be damned if I recall anybody being redeemed in it). It screened at Toronto, Sundance, and SXSW, and it is a knockout — a powder keg of pure action, done with deadpan humor and hyperkinetic style. I saw it at an all-media screening at Sundance, and even among that jaded group, the audience literally gasped at loud at several points, and burst into applause at the end. It’s terrific cinema.
And that’s why so many people who have seen it are losing their shit over Roger Ebert’s inexplicable one-star review of the movie, which went online last night. He complains about the film’s “wall-to-wall violence,” cracks that “if I estimated the film has 10 minutes of dialogue, that would be generous,” and says that the picture is “almost brutally cynical in its approach.” This coming from a guy who gave three stars to Transformers and most of the Fast/Furious franchise.
Then again, as much as we love Mr. Ebert, this isn’t the first time he got a great movie dead wrong. His one-star pan of Blue Velvet is still a head-scratcher; ditto the single star he awarded Wet Hot American Summer. And don’t even get us started on that two-star review of the original Die Hard. The point is, sometimes the critics just plain get it wrong. After the jump, we’ll take a look at a dozen classic movies, and the scribes who blew the call on them.
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Yes, this is a video called “Shit Book Reviewers Say.” But we weren’t going to put that in the headline, because we know you’re as sick of that meme as we are and we really need you to watch this excellent compilation of book-critic clichés, starring Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles, who officially wins our Good Sport of the Week Award. If you’ve ever winced at the overuse of “compelling,” decided that “post-9/11″ wore out its welcome a good decade ago, or wanted to see a reviewer covered in a sheet describing something as “haunting,” you will enjoy this gripping, provocative, riveting clip.
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Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending may have been one of 2011′s most acclaimed novels, scooping up the Man Booker Prize and eliciting all manner of ecstatic praise. But it didn’t impress the brilliant and iconoclastic writer Geoff Dyer, who reviewed the book for The New York Times, and found that “any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness!”
It’s impossible to deny the fun in reading a nasty review that also happens to be smart, lively, and hilarious. So, if you enjoyed the excerpt above, chances are you’ll love all eight pieces that made the shortlist for The Omnivore‘s first annual Hatchet Job of the Year Award, which honors what its judges deem “the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review published in a newspaper or magazine in 2011.” The winner will be announced February 7th. See who joins Dyer among the finalists after the jump, let us know which review you think is most deliciously mean.
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Design journalist Alexandra Lange takes online media to task in a thoughtful piece for Design Observer titled “Design Blogs: The Vacuum of Enthusiasm” and sets our cold, black hearts aflutter. The writer who recently brought New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff to task for “slippery,” opinion-free criticism is begging for some spice with her design porridge, and not to be overly enthusiastic, but we have to agree. So how did design writing get to be so nice? And how can constructive criticism be incorporated into online discourse? After the jump, hear some of Lange’s suggestions and read as we weigh in on some design topics du… Read More
The National Archives knows how to build suspense, releasing juicy tidbits from Richard Nixon’s papers morsel by juicy morsel. The latest batch of missives from the 37th president reveals an aesthetic side to the famously gruff politician, who despised news media and had a “personality problem with the public.” Something of a traditionalist, Nixon railed against the “incredibly atrocious modern art” promoted by the Kennedy… Read More
Every so often, one of our friends will turn to us and say something like “I really don’t know anything about architecture…but I like that building.”
To which we develop critical apoplexy and argue, as we have in various forms since at age twelve discovering the ineffable thrill of good architecture on a summer trip to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp that no one should ever have to know anything about architecture in order to like — or dislike — a building. Anyone can be a critic. But what makes a good critic?
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