The Bleating of the Lesser Snipewank – Notes from New Sodom

Sarah Thornton

You may have heard of the UK lawsuit where Seven Days in the Art World, was reviewed in the Daily Torygraph by Lynn Barber, one of the people she interviewed for it. In her takedown of the book, Barber explicitly said she couldn’t trust Thornton’s claims regarding her rigorous research. Why not? She’s one of the interview subjects named, she said, and she never gave an interview:

“Thornton claims her book is based on hour-long interviews with more than 250 people. I would have taken this on trust, except that my eye flicked down the list of her 250 interviewees and practically fell out of its socket when it hit the name Lynn Barber. I gave her an interview? Surely I would have noticed?”

Unfortunately for Barber, Thornton had proof of the actual interview, proof that her research was not fabricated as Barber’s stupefied snark claims — and claims with the absolute authority of one who’d know for sure. Unfortunately for Barber, Thornton had proof that this libel and malicious falsehood was indeed libel and malicious falsehood. One might well give credence to Barber’s excuse that she just forgot — fuck, it strains credulity that anyone would deliberately dig a grave so deep — but the judge dismissed this as irrelevant, proving only an indifference to veracity that was scarce a mark of greater integrity. So he awarded £50,000 for the act itself and chucked an extra £15,000 on top just for the spiteful spirit of the false accusation.

This doesn’t seem too complex a story to me; it seems cut-and-dry, in fact. And yet we get the Slate piece by Francis Wheen linked above, which dances around apologia and quibbling argument, with testimony to the “scatty” memory of a “friend and former colleague” and hedged concern over the ramifications of the decision. What do I mean? Note the subtitle: the scare quotes afforded “malicious,” implicitly setting that judgement as subjective, a viewpoint on which judgement is reserved; the fact that it’s this perceived “malice” by which the review is characterised, not the fact of… you know… libel. The whole theme is encapsulated in the title, indeed: the subject here is to be the caustic critic on the run, hounded, harried — the hunting of the snark. Think of the poor wee harried snipewanks.

For sure, Wheen admits that this verdict is not, as some might paint it, a censorious embargo on ruthless critique that will heretofore enforce only simpering praise in reviews. But this is followed by the drearily oblivious “nevertheless” that dismisses exactly that admission in favour of a fret that editors may succumb to their timidity, self-censor in fear of legal reprisals. It is the “nevertheless” that is really a “yes, well, but”. It is the “nevertheless” that accepts the fact, boxes it up neatly as a fact, then shelves it to be quite forgotten; it’s superficial acknowledgement as a step to disposing of reality without further consideration. Yeah yeah, it accepts, actually this is entirely a matter of the reviewer being criminally negligent to the point of libel, being punished for a flagrant failure of integrity. But

Nevertheless

Ruthless critique may nevertheless be curtailed, Wheen worries. As I imagine… I don’t know… the fear of getting prosecuted for sexual harassment might curtail one’s harmless flirtation with this or that colleague. As the fear of being dismissed for homophobic abuse might curtail one’s freedom to banter in jovial badinage with that or this workmate. A reasonable concern, I’m sure we all agree, that the law which says, “You cannot publish this specific type of statement because every utterance is also an action and the particular type of action such a statement constitutes is criminally wrong, an action of libel,” will all too easily be taken to mean, “You best not publish all manner of things, because any utterance might now be construed as criminally wrong.” Yes, clearly when a judgement in a civil suit punishes a specific breach of journalistic integrity we should ponder the dread possibility that it will suppress writing that doesn’t constitute such a breach.

But, but, but… what if people ignore the actuality of the law and imagine it means “no harsh reviews ever”?

By all means, let’s consider the perilous chilling effect that might come from this judgement, from a law which punishes thoughtless blather when it falsely accuses a researcher of duplicities that, if true, would annihilate said researcher’s credibility. Let’s consider the perturbing possibilities if the smackdown given Barber for transgressing a clearly-defined limit of acceptable critique — “No, sorry, Ms. Barber, falsely accusing Ms. Thornton of fabricating an interview with you is not on,” — should strike fear into the hearts of those who are either so cretinous or so craven, poor things, that they’ll naturally extend that judgement to a Damoclean sword hanging over all snark. Let’s consider the fools and cowards who might be trembling now, afraid of being hounded, harried, hunted for their snark, tremulous that any snipewankery might now be deemed unpardonable transgression if it, in some vague and indeterminate way, goes “too far.”

Let’s consider them for all of two fucking seconds.

Seriously, if some fucktard of a snipewank strayed into homophobic hate-speech in their review of a book, if what they said was judged to be legally punishably beyond the pale, not as some vaguely hurtful Blue Meany nastiness but because it breaks a specific fucking law against, in this case, hate-speech, what sort of credence would we give to a response fretting over the ramifications for the art of snipewankery? Think it through, for cock’s sake. Is there a logical outcome to such fashing other than, “We should discard such legislation to accommodate those who don’t grasp the clear limits of its application”? Hate-speech or libel, we’re talking very specific acts of malice here. Any maundering that suggests the discourse may be impacted as dull wits project from this some nebulous criminalisation of mere vitriol in and of itself simply begs the question(s): And? If an editor or writer can’t distinguish between snark and legally prohibited actions, whether they be hate speech or libel, are we really meant to worry about their fatuous tizzy?

A Defense of Banality

To be fair, Wheen’s piece reads more as puffery than as a serious concern. It’s just springboarding off the judgement into a shallow puddle, splashing about in the issue a bit. It’s an easy opinion, operating at the level of chit-chat in the Bistro de Critique: we should scorn the writers who “go blubbing to [their] lawyers” over harsh reviews; writers should respond in kind, see, with counter-snark we can relish for its switchblade wit; or they might better deliciate in the schadenfreude of seeing a guilty snipewank cringe in the face of one’s resolute magnanimity; we should live with the fact that snipewankery will, of course, only be applied to strangers and enemies; this is the price to be paid if we don’t want the “bland pap” of snipewankery’s polar opposite, cockfluffery. This is coffee talk, not a hard questioning of the consequences of Thornton’s suit. Still, it’s worth interrogation, I’d say, as such.

To me this seems a defense of banality. Snark is fun, for sure, but it’s cockfluffery in its own way, pandering to the allied egos of reader and reviewer, offering the delicious cruelty of a tongue-lashing take-down meted out to some scribbler buttmonkey with the conceit to think their work worthy of respect in the salon. To imagine it a corrective for trite panegyrics is a self-serving obfuscation of a performative approach that may be equally shallow. Cause yeah, Louis Voxelles was soooo much sharper a critic when he dismissed the “bizarre cubiques” of Braques that he named an entire movement. And of course had he held his tongue out of social niceties and nepotism, because Braques was a buddy, his forsaking of shallow disdain for silent bias would simply be… the way of things.

Really? Do we really just want to shrug off the switchblade in the hands of the callow and/or hypocritical because that’s somehow more incisive than lazy plaudits, or is the point of that blade rather that in the hands of a surgeon it can cut to the very core of a folly, that in the hands of a satirist it will be snicking at its targets for a damn good reason? Don’t think for a second that I’m rejecting this weapon as too savage. Quite the contrary: I think the lesser snipewanks reveal themselves in their ineptitude, can and will be skewered by sharper wits. There should be no blubbing for them when such a skewering sends them into a tiff, when their skills with the blade fail and they resort to the petty hackwork of an outright falsehood.

I mean to say, Thornton doesn’t strike me as the one to be scorned here for a petulant and precious flounce in the face of snark. Rather, in the cut and thrust of discourse, it’s Barber whose wit seems to have been wanting, who succumbed to a “critical tantrum,” as Wheen describes it, when faced with a work that maybe cut too close to home. How so? From the Publisher’s Weekly review of Seven Days in the Art World:

“The hot, hip contemporary art world, argues sociologist Thornton, is a cluster of intermingling subcultures unified by the belief, whether genuine or feigned, that nothing is more important than the art itself. It is a conviction, she asserts, that has transformed contemporary art into a kind of alternative religion for atheists. Thornton, a contributor to Artforum.com and the New Yorker, presents an astute and often entertaining ethnography of this status-driven world… Thornton offers an elegant, evocative, sardonic view into some of the art world’s most prestigious institutions.”

Ah, right. So the book in question is itself sort of a… well… review — albeit of culture rather than text. It’s a work analysing the metanarratives of the art world, one might say, a critical examination of that domain’s stories of self. When one’s response to that sort of critique is to challenge its validity by impugning the critic’s integrity… really, if one wants to defend ruthless analysis, it’s not Barber’s blundering stab one should be making excuses for, not when the very reason it’s being punished is because it used a false accusation to discredit an unflattering analysis.

Duh.

A Glint of Switchblade

What we have, at first glance, seems an analytic study of the art world as a system wrought of reverence in which kudos is capital, a book of cultural critique. Articulating a view which gleans in that interweave of subcultures at least some degree of insincerity — “feigned” belief. And we might well catch a glint of switchblade in PW’s use of words like “astute” and “sardonic” to characterise Thornton’s analysis, a similar steely sharpness reflected in her own words from the intro: “As I’ve roamed the art world, I’ve been habitually amused by the status anxieties of all the players.” Not having read the book, I can’t judge just how characteristic that quote is, but it does sound like this scrutiny of social structures could be a little cutting to someone enmeshed enough in that domain to be a Turner Prize judge, no?

I have to confess to my own snarky amusement here, in this column that you could well call a review of a review (Wheen’s) of a review (Barber’s) of a review (Thornton’s), a little wry smile that Wheen’s apologia presents Barber’s ire as only natural in the face of arrant pretentiousness. We may be forced, she says, (by, you know, legal adjudication) to concede that Barber acted out of spite, to use that actual word. But cock knows, we’d rather not, rather allow her mere impetuous pique. There wasn’t even an animus until she read the work of this “decorative Canadian with a BA in art history and a PhD in sociology and a seemingly limitless capacity to write pompous nonsense,” until she was forced to suffer through its piffle and balderdash. That pomp, Wheen assures us, is the sole reason for Barber’s malice (or perhaps we should say, with scare quotes, “malice”):

“It’s not as if there was a history of animosity between Barber and the author; her spite, if we must use that word, was provoked entirely by the canting academic jargon of the work she had to review. Sarah Thornton presented her account of the art world as a piece of “ethnographic research,” part of “a genre of writing with roots in anthropology that aims to generate holistic descriptions of social and cultural worlds.” Is it any wonder that Barber threw a critical tantrum—and, in her fury, quite forgot about the interview that would eventually prove so lucrative for Thornton?”

Is it any wonder? I don’t know. Is it any wonder that a Turner Prize judge and Torygraph writer should behave exactly as if exhibiting the very status anxieties Thornton notes in her intro when faced with… what? A work of cultural critique that flagrantly uses the academic parlance of its academic discipline! An ethnographic study that wilfully articulates its theory and research within the discourse of ethnography! A work which unforgiveably applies the terminological toolkit of its field! No, it’s no wonder that a Turner Prize judge should be outraged at the polysyllabic abstractions, the scholarly fustian, the — no, wait. That doesn’t make much sense at all, does it?

An Understandable Ire

I’ll admit, I tend to twitch at the word “holistic” due to its associations with New Age flim-flam, but other than that Wheen’s justification seems a bizarre appeal to the philistine for whom scare quotes around some exotic Latinate phrase — “ethnographic research” — is all one needs to dismiss the high-falutin hot air of ivory tower intellectuals. It seems a casual beckoning at the very notion of “holistic descriptions of social and cultural worlds” as if the pretension is self-evident. As if no more need be said. Thornton approached the art world as an ethnographer, by Cock; what do you expect but righteous fury at her conceit?

To which I say: Huh?

Are words like “social” and “cultural” markers of wild pseudo-intellectualism now? Are Turner Prize judges, writers, critics, now unable to conceive of “holistic” having a meaning distinct from the snake oil rhetoric of “holistic medicine”? Are they brought out in hives by language retrofitted to a specific function, frameworked for a particular school of thought? Or is this some common sense conviction that the entire discipline of ethnography is vacuous poppycock — much like the similar common sense conviction of the “all modern art is rubbish” brigade? A quick flick through Thornton’s intro, first chapter and afterword via Amazon’s Look Inside function, and it doesn’t even look particularly abstruse, to be honest. I know, I know, I’m the guy who happily drops the “boulomaic” bomb willy-nilly, but trust me; from what I’ve read it’s hardly Clute.

It’s not that other aspect of pomp that riled Barber then, is it? It’s not the detachment that might strike one as supercilious, the amusement at status anxieties that might strike one as condescension? It’s not that this ethnographic approach should dare to treat the valuations coded into the culture with, one would presume, the dispassion of an outsider for whom this is just another form of culture? It’s not that the book is, like some ruthless review, detailing the follies and fripperies of its subject, challenging the vanities of that subject’s makers where it focuses on the role of status within that world? In Thornton’s previous book, she apparently coins the the term “subcultural capital,” which seems pretty self-explanatory to me as a term for the kudos exchanged within communities of interlocking cliques. It also seems self-evident as a fact of the communities of interlocking cliques I tend to write about here — those cohered around the commercial strange fiction genres. As does the tendency of some invested in the valuations coded into this culture to react with petulance at the skewering of sacred cows.

That would be an all too understandable ire, I’d say. And an ire of no small irony, the reviewer essentially taking a snit at subtle snark, lashing out with their own snark but being unable to do so without stumbling clumsily over the actual truth. But what the fuck do I know what Barber was thinking? Maybe the book does start using all manner of poncy words like “sociopolitical” or “subcultural” beyond what little I’ve seen.

Whatever the root of the wrath that pushed Barber across the bounds of journalistic integrity though, the outcome of the resultant civil suit is not a defeat of ominous import for critical discourse that might dare to cast a less than adoring eye over its subject. The snark is not being hunted here. Rather, it has stalked on in its pitiless pursuit of the honest truth, uncaring if it ruffles a few feathers, raises a few hackles. It rather seems to me that it’s the snark’s mildest sniff at the scent of folly in the art world that’s set off the petty swipe of a critique in bad faith. My main point here is simply that it’s of zero consequence whether this blow was below the belt in some precious “writers are delicate flowers who shouldn’t suffer such venom” way, so there’s zero reason to fret that reviewers might now have their scathing joys curtailed. To crosswire our Carrollian references, the vorpal blade went snicker-snack for a damn good reason, a beamish boy called libel law giving that lesser snipewank of a review the spanking it deserved.

And if the snark should turn its cold gaze to bleatings of the threat to petty snipewankery, let it spike that piffle on its talon, slice that preciousness to shreds with scorn, and flick the ruins to one side, stalk on.

Author: Hal Duncan

Hal Duncan is a sodomitic Scots smoker who staggered drunkenly into the SF Café in 2005 with his debut, VELLUM, and now has various novels, novellas, short stories, poems and essays circling in print or the aether. Further scribblings and rantings can be found at www.halduncan.com.