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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