On Talking Smack

In Others
June 25, 2012

Adrian Hon and Andrea Phillips and I often shoot the breeze about how much we hated some movie, book, TV show or game. We go into some detail. We explore the many different ways in which we hated it. We do it so much that we’ve frequently joked that we should set up a podcast about all the bad bits of culture in the world and call it Snarkcast. It may yet happen, except that this amount of hostility might forever torpedo our reputations as easy-going and generally lovely people. Plus, we’d then invite everyone else to snark about our work.

However, the more I think about it, the more I believe that talking smack about other people’s work – privately, if you must – is an incredibly important creative skill. 

In school, we get shown great pieces of world culture. Books that are acknowledged classics, art or music or movies that were made by people at the peak of their powers. We’re supposed to learn how to reverently “appreciate” this greatness by pointing out why it’s so good.  That’s fine, that’s how we learn about our shared culture. 

But I was never shown anything truly dire in school, or an early work by a talent that wasn’t yet formed. Never encouraged to point out the flaws, or to answer the question: “how could this have been made better?” In fact, it wasn’t until I did my Creative Writing MA that anyone tried to systematically get me to critique, rather than just identify many different reasons to praise greatness. 

Which is a shame, because that question: “what is wrong with this, and how can it be made better?” is maybe the single most important thing that any practising artist who wants to improve can ask themselves – both about others’ work and their own. And trying to pinpoint exactly what the problem is and then trying to solve it is the fastest way I’ve ever found to become better as a writer. 

If you’ve been reading my Buffy posts, and if you read them in future, you’ll see that I’m going to talk a lot of smack about Buffy. This is not because I don’t rate Buffy. I think it’s the greatest TV show ever made. But nothing is perfect (except, perhaps, a couple of stories by Saki and Borges). And certainly Buffy had its flubby episodes. And there’s so much to be learned from comparing the ones that just missed the mark to the great ones, and the ones that totally failed to the ones that only just failed. 

The “only just failed” ones are the most interesting to me, because they pinpoint something. With a genuinely genius piece of writing (like The Soprano’s “Pine Barrens” or Buffy’s “Fool for Love“) so many things are going right that it’s hard to strand them out and learn from them. With something that almost worked, you can more easily pick apart what’s going on: did the threat work but the characterisation was off? Was the underlying metaphor great but the plot logic shaky?

One could argue, I suppose, that failure and success is subjective. That the episodes of Buffy I think fail might be other people’s favourites. But that’s fine too. The way to get better at your art is to pick the things that work *for you*, and those that fail, *for you*, and work out what the former has that the latter lacks. After all, surely you want to make art that gets closer and closer to being the thing that, if you hadn’t made it, would make you pull your own heart out with love. 

I’m sure this applies to everything. If you want to be a better artist, seek out bad art and work out why it’s bad. If you want to be a better musician, think about why terrible music is so terrible. In fact, in many professions – medicine, law, accountancy – the ‘post-mortem’ or studies of failure are critical parts of the learning process. I think it’s just the same for the arts. Critical, engaged, thoughtful snark is the way we learn what to avoid, and so how to get better. 

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