A long time ago, when I was doing my MFA work, a Famous Author came to campus. He wrote popular historical fiction and when somebody in my creative writing class asked what his work was like, I said something snide and demeaning. Snide and demeaning has always been the basic black of bad criticism, and I must have looked like death personified. Then the next afternoon I ended up sitting next to the Famous Author at lunch. To this day, that remains one of the best times I’ve ever had; he was smart, he was funny, he was fast on the comeback, he was kind, he was wise . . . if he hadn’t had an equally fabulous wife, I’d have married him just to be able to talk to him for the rest of my life. And I thought, “Jesus, I’m a schmuck.”
I’d love to tell you that after that, I was Changed. Nah. I went to lunch with another author I admired and trashed a self-help guru I didn’t like. Who was one of the author’s best friends. Which I sort of knew. I have no idea if the self-help guru was a nice guy or not, but as somebody pointed out to me later, the guru had helped a lot of people, he’d made a difference, and the fact that I found his simple analysis of a complex problem ridiculous didn’t change the fact that smart people liked him, and that I had been snide and demeaning. And I thought, “Jesus, I’m a schmuck.”
I was in grad school when Bridges of Madison County came out. I read a couple of pages, thought, “Life is too short,” and put it down. But that sucker stayed on the bestsellers lists for months, it was a legitimate bestseller, the kind of book that sells because real people really like it and get people who are not ordinarily readers to buy it and the word passes and the book just sticks. People in the MFA program were appalled because, in their estimation and mine, the writing in that book was terrible. But this time, I wasn’t a schmuck. I took a step back and thought, “But people like it.” If that many people liked it, there was something there. I still don’t know what it was, although my theory is that Waller believed in that story so much that his passion for it lived on the page for those who could see past the terrible prose. Or maybe they really loved the terrible prose. The point was that those people were not stupid. They read a book and liked it. When the Da Vinci Code came out, I didn’t trash it, either, not because I’m an author and authors should stick together, but because if something is legitimately popular, the best response is not to say, “I hate that, therefore it’s stupid,” but to ask, “Why is that popular?” Because “why is that popular” is interesting, and “I hate that, therefore it’s stupid” is just a prop to my self-esteem: “Thank God I have the taste not to like that.”
This has served me in good stead most of the time, especially since I write romance where I get hit with snide and demeaning all the time. I’d give you some examples here but basically, I think everybody who has ever snided me was probably karmic payback for that Famous Author, and I deserve whatever I get that for that, so no whining. Even so, I still slip. I pretty much have snide and demeaning in my DNA and it’s very easy to slide back down that slope. I’m not proud of that. But I don’t wallow. I’m snide and demeaning and then I move on. I think that only moves me from an F to a D on the basic humanity scale but it’s a start. And it’s important because I don’t like snide and demeaning in others. Snide and demeaning brings out the outraged-sense-of-justice in me. Which I mention here because two things in the past two days have made me look at snide and demeaning again.
One was on a blog that does very good reporting and reviewing, albeit savagely with a strong undercurrent of S&D. This site has one author that it returns to regularly to hold up for ridicule. It’s the only thing about this site that I don’t like, but I’ve never said anything. And that’s where I screwed up. I should have said something. I should not have sat at home with my laptop and watched the repeated humiliation of this author without saying, “What did she do to you guys, run over your dog?” Then they posted comparisons of her work with non-fiction sources, and it appears clear that she lifted her information word-for-word from those sources which is plagiarism. Normally, I’d have said, “She goes down;” plagiarism is serious and rampant in our industry, and any time we can make the point that it’s wrong, we should. But I read it and thought, “Are they ever going to leave this woman alone?” and posted the run-over-your-dog comment, which was taken as a refutation that plagiarism is a serious thing, and which I deserved because I was, once again, going for snide-and-derision instead of making myself clear. So I went back in and said, “Plagiarism is bad, but what you’re doing to his author is a crime, too,” or words to that effect. Then I left the site. Haven’t been back since. Not going back. Because while it’s a great site by smart passionate women who love romance, I don’t like the S&D there. I wish them the best, but I’m not their reader, which I’m sure has been pointed out in the comments by now, several times, loudly.
I think that’s the key to the whole S&D thing: Something may not be your read, and that’s fine, and you can say so in the appropriate venue (like a review site or the comments on a blog you’re criticizing) but then you move on. You don’t like the woman’s books, you review them, and then you go find somebody else to analyze. You don’t like something on a blog, you point that out and then you stop reading it because it’s not your kind of place. If you keep going back and saying, “No, we really hate her books” or “no, really you guys are just mean girls now,” it’s not reviewing any more, it’s not commentary, it’s just bashing. And that’s not helpful, it’s not interesting, it’s not illuminating.
Which brings me to New Hampshire. I’m an independent, I’ll vote for anybody I think will do a good job regardless of party, but I’ve looked at both groups of candidates and for this election, I’m a Democrat because I would be pleased to see any of the top three candidates in the White House. So I probably won’t know who I’m voting for until the night before the election, but if I’d been in New Hampshire yesterday, I’d have voted for Clinton for the same reason that a lot of people evidently voted for Clinton: S&D in the press. The drubbing Clinton took from the press was ridiculous, the glee they took in her “downfall”was obscene. And I think a lot of people went to the polls and essentially voted against S&D because it’s not the way intelligent, insightful political commentary is done. There may have been legitimate issues buried in the vituperation and schadenfreude, but the press’s joy in the harm they were inflicting made sure that their message was lost to a lot of people who drew the line at such targeted bile. And that made me think about the effect of S&D because if backlash against it can change the face of a national election, it has more power than I ever realized.
The thing about snide-and-demean is that it’s a lousy way to communicate. It gets people on your side because everybody loves being in the in-group, and making fun of a scapegoat is a great way to create that in-group. Ann Coulter does it, Chris Matthews does it, and god-help-me-in-my-guilt, I have done it. And once you go the S&D route, your message, the important thing you want to say, gets lost in the joy-in-harm. It isn’t about being nice; nice has no place in communicating ideas. It isn’t even about being polite; that’s a social construct. It’s about figuring out what you want to communicate to other people and saying that, instead of going for the laugh and the superiority. It’s what I screwed up when I posted my snide comment about running over the dog instead of saying, “Any credibility you have on this serious issue is lost for me because of the way you’ve humiliated this woman in the past.” It’s what I screwed up here on this blog when I posted a vituperative letter a friend of mine had gotten from a reader, and then made fun of it instead of addressing what I was really angry about, people who think they can say anything to authors because hey, we’re rich and famous and they’re not. (Note: Most of us are not rich and famous. We’re just published. Trust me, the two are not interchangeable.) I think, maybe, speculating here, it’s what that blog is screwing up because they’re angry that writers they see as criminally bad are making so much money off of readers. I think snide and derision always has at its base real anger about real issues, and people deflect or deny that anger and go for the smartass joke. It’s so much easier to make fun than it is to look at the problem. And God knows, it more fun to read people making fun of other people and things than it is to read smart, tough analysis of a problem.
What snide-and-demean always misses is the real people on the other side of the target. The people who read the scapegoat author’s books and love them are rightly outraged that they’re being called readers-of-no-taste. They have taste. It’s just taste that’s different from the people on that blog. The woman who wrote that letter to my friend was legitimately outraged at the way she felt my friend had demeaned her group in her fiction. However ridiculous I found that, she was entitled to that opinion. I would still argue that she is not entitled to tell my friend that she could never write about that group again, but since the vast majority of people would agree with that, it’s not much of an argument, and she was a cheap shot, the recipient, I think now, of being the last-straw-in-a-long-line-of-straw people who have trashed and derided and snided my fiction and the work of my friends because we weren’t Their Kind. And so, of course, I did exactly the same thing to her.
I’m not arguing that there should be no criticism, or even that there should be no snide and derision. I think, for example, that Stewart and Colbert use snide-and-demean to great effect to communicate their outrage while making insightful commentary on important issues. But I think the way they do it is key. If you’re going to do public commentary, on blogs, on the networks, wherever, then you have a responsibility to actually say something with that S&D. I’m pretty sure Chris Matthews is reaping more S&D than he could have ever imagined, and I’m fine with that as long as it’s used to point out how biased and angry he was and how that skewed his reporting. And then having made the point, move on. It’s when we get gleeful at how awful the other person is, it’s when we take joy in the harm that’s befallen him, it’s when we wallow in the awfulness of whatever long past the time when our point was made, it’s when we stop thinking like intelligent commentators and start acting like pack animals–go look at the press from the days before the election to see what I mean–that we become just bullies in pulpits, throwing rocks instead of entertaining in an intelligent and responsible way.
Hi, I’m Jenny. I’m a snide-and-demeaner. And I’m really trying to quit.