Observation, satire or snark?

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson

Snooty, bitchy and arrogant? Or edgy, witty and incisive? In short, bad writing or good? That is the question.

That’s Cintra Wilson in the little mug shot above, and I would have absolutely no interest in, or knowledge of, her if she had not just re-inflamed some old kindling for all writers. Do not mistake this post as being about the content of the text I am about to refer to–I neither know nor care about fashion. In this post I care only about the issue of writer’s voice.


Cintra wrote a review in the New York Times of a J.C. Penney store that has opened in Manhattan. The review was, shall we say, scathing. Penney, she said, is a

dowdy Middle American entity

that, in essence, has no right to be on this island of skinny snobs. The clothing is full of polyester, the racks are full of sizes 10, 12 and 16, but not Cintra’s 2; and, perhaps most damningly, the store

has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen. They probably need special insulin-based epoxy injections just to make their limbs stay on.


Perhaps predictably, the country appears to have gone to war against Cintra. Bloggers are attacking her, for example herehere and here. Tenor: Cintra is an asshole; go shop at J.C. Penney just to spite her!

The New York Times, meanwhile, appears to have been receiving bags (gigabytes) of hate mail, decrying the newspaper’s

fat hatred, class bias and nasty humor.

The journalist, her editors, and the entire damn publication must be “smug”.

In response, Clark Hoyt, the Times‘ “public editor” or ombudsman (a bizarre and navel-gazing role, by the way) pens a characteristic mea culpa, oozing sudden humility on the newspaper’s behalf.

He does a great and succinct job of summarizing the eternal and underlying tension that is relevant for all writers when he asks:

What is the difference between edgy and objectionable? Or, as one reader … put it: How do writers “navigate the fine lines between observation, satire and snark.”

He even prompts the newspaper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, to say that

he wished it had not been published.

Wow. Cintra must be up there with Judith Miller and all those articles in the run-up to the Iraq War if she deserves editorial disavowal.

Cintra, meanwhile, has apologized on her blog and is back-peddling.


So let’s contemplate Clark Hoyt’s question: How do we navigate that fine line?

Allow me to remind you that the publication that I happen to write for, The Economist, is accused of smugness on an hourly basis. And every time somebody calls us smug, somebody else is simultaneously calling us “refreshing” or “incisive” or something even more flattering.

Furthermore, I am right now trying to figure out just what my appropriate voice is in the book that I am writing.

So, just a few observations:

  1. Navigating that fine line is just one of the things that makes good writing so incredibly hard. Because yes, it really is hard, otherwise a lot more people would be doing it. So remember that, readers, when you write your angry (snarky!) hate mail to us journalists.
  2. Would you really–I mean really–prefer to shut up the Cintras out there, to sanitize them, to edit in the “on one hands” and “on the other hands”, to give 50% of the article to those who say that Iraq did have WMD and 50% to those who say it did not, because, you know, 50-50 is “balanced” and 10-90 might offend the heartland? You get my drift.
  3. Or would you prefer an authentic, damn-the-torpedoes, honest voice, one that tells it as its owner sees it and is prepared to explode with the torpedoes?
  4. Bill Keller: If you really do wish that Cintra’s piece had not been published, why did you not, as editor, nix it? Since you did not nix it, what the f*** are you doing now disavowing your writer?
  5. There is an easy way to address the reaction to pieces such as Cintra’s: Publish more pieces by other writers with an equally authentic but different voice. This would indeed be edifying for your readers. But do not dilute the copy that comes across your desk into the lukewarm bilge that would, at last, be the end of good writing.

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14 thoughts on “Observation, satire or snark?

  1. I ……have absolutely no interest in, or knowledge of, her ……..Do not mistake this post as being about the content of the text I am about to refer to – I neither know nor care about fashion.

    Protesteth thou too much?!!!

  2. Since I am not allowed to comment on anything related to this matter at this point, I can only say that had I actually read this post and if I were actually leaving a comment right now (which I am not), I would only be able to say….Wow! I got defended by someone who writes for the *Economist!*

    Being a major fan of the Economist (and a subscriber), it is kind of like being defended by Elvis, or Zeus, or maybe Claus von Bulow.

    In any case, I would thank you. A lot.


    • After the Hannibal Blog brought it to my attention:

      1. I visited your website. I would love to have a martini in the pool. (I promise to remain fully clothed).

      2. I read your Penny’s piece in the NYTimes. I thought is was very clever and evenly satirical.

      Your article fits in the category of articles about which people love to be indignant. That is, the articles and letters about your article are far worse than the original text.

      Here at the HB, Mr. Kluth encourages us to take risks in our writing. I’m sure you’d be welcome here, but it doesn’t pay well.

  3. The good old days of ‘publish and be damned’ may be over. Today’s writers navigate more dangerous waters (combining fine lines in the sand and the immortality of web-text). The ability for all and sundry to very publicly respond is a pressure that wits of old did not have to face.

    Add corporate media’s interest in not offending anyone with access to a blog and there is an inevitable pressure to water down strong opinions.. Ms. Wilson has been compared to a Dorothy Parker of the digital age – seems today’s Dorothy Parkers need to be even ballsier.

  4. Ms. Wilson has a right to her opinion, which I imagine did not affect JCP sales in the slightest. I would be heartbroken if there were not readers who did not think my writing a little controversial and, on occasion, “Snarky.”

  5. Personally, this would be perfectly appropriate for something like a blog, but as a review for a widely-read newspaper, it’s far too biased. Considering the diversity of media these days, it’s as important to know where you’re writing as whom you’re writing for.

  6. There’s a difference between being “edgy” and “bitchy.” To me being edgy means making the readers think. This Cintra person (is that a real name?) came off as being bitchy and enjoying it.

  7. I’ll tell you all you need to know about smugness and satire, good writing and bad:

    back in my town we had this guy named Victor, or Tito Santana or somesuch. He lived in an old car with no wheels and smelled like rotten fruit and had some kind of skin disease that was either poison sumac or advanced-stage syphilis. All us kids used to make fun of him on account of the pastor at church said he was a queer. Well, one day Victor (or Tito Santana) was rooting through my Pap’s garbage cans and I came outside and started talking to him, and it turned out Victor/Tito was actually a famous Hawaiian drummer. He was, in fact the first drummer in the history of Hawaii with a blood sugar level that stayed consistently under 80, and in fact, wrote the hit songs “Dover, City of Gold” and “Meatballs for the Blind” and even “Give Me A Little More Love, If You’re Not Too Busy Mopping.” Tito Santana played with every famous Hawaiian musician whose drummer got sick at some point. Anyway, he left Hawaii when a group of angry Polytheists set him on fire after he turned an ice cream social into melee. He didn’t die, but the incident depressed him so much that he lived in an old car for the rest of his life. Tito Santana committed suicide with a heavy duty stapler in 1994.

  8. I thought Cintra Wilson’s piece wickedly funny.

    Gore Vidal once described Americans as a solemn people (I think Vidal was spot on, by the way). Could this be why Cintra Wilson’s readers excoriated her piece in the way they did?

  9. I read a lot of reviews about books, art, and wine from the New York Times and sometimes, I have the feeling that the writers there are working very hard to be clever. And so the reviews have a disingenuous voice.

    That’s the worst.

  10. Well, too bad Cintra didn’t/couldn’t comment, because after the kind of day I had I was rather hoping to be compared to, say, Zeus–I would even have settled for some little ugly deity such as Hephaestus or Pan. Oh well.

    Mr Crotchety, as ever the Cavalier among Roundheads has got the right spirit, although I believe he will break his promise in Nr 1.

    Jag, Neurotype and D.L. Fields seem to be today’s voices of caution in writing. Karma Dog and Philipp Phogg are today’s damn-the-torpedoes voices.

    The right response is probably Cheri’s: Cintra may have tried too hard this time to be clever. But the bigger point is that she still should be allowed to be clever, and that no editor must disavow her after the fact. As Mr Crotchety said, you have to take some risks from time to time to succeed. With that comes occasional failure. As a writer I am quite willing to forgive the occasional misstep in others. I’d much rather have that than the lowest-common-denominator fare that newspapers have been trending toward. If Cintra (Cintra is just the example we are using for writers in general) were to get all “safe” and “cautious” now, she’d be toast. If she uses this to fine-tune her instincts but then go for the jugular right from the next piece, she’ll be better than ever.

  11. I just read Ms. Wilson’s article. I didn’t find it insulting or excessively facetious (in tone). I do, however, feel that her observations might be better expressed as a stand-up comic routine.

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