the original kStyle blog.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Wednesday Writing Assignment: The Snob Within

We're early this week.

I like to think of myself as a tolerant, grounded, Zen sort of person, happy to do what I want and content to leave others to their tastes and opinions. But occasionally, something jars my serene self, and a less savory side comes out: the grouch, perhaps; the gossip; or, worst, the snob.

Some people are proud of their snobbery and wear it like a badge. Some people don't realize they are snobs. Others have a sort of reverse-snobbery, looking down on those who prefer opera to bowling.

I'll share my anecdote shortly. What kind of snob are you? Has anything brought it out recently?


Blogger Ann said...

Observation: Snobbery and hipness--or, for that matter, anti-hipness--go hand-in-hand.

5:25 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

I went to a wedding Saturday. It was, in many ways, a beautiful wedding: the bride looked radiant, the centerpieces were creative and lovely, and the setting was the best you could imagine, a country club overlooking a picturesque inlet on a sunny, clear day.

When we arrived at the country club, the first couple there, the staff director was screaming--and swearing--at the kitchen staff. I almost made my presence known and chastised him, but we concurred it might be more hassle than it was worth. The director would likely become either defensive or overly apologetic. The bride & groom would never know, anyway.

It was time for toasts. It was hard to hear the toasts anyway, and the staff was blaring music in the kitchen. This was completely unacceptable and morbidly unprofessional, and so I marched over and asked them to turn it off. (Later, one waitress bumped into me, and another cleared a fork I needed for dessert.)

The food arrived. It was the worst salad I've ever eaten. The greens were so wilted that one leaf was decomposing on my plate. The olives were dry! The salad was topped with canned fried onions. The rolls were crappy. The prime rib looked woefully undercooked (this is what the staff director was screaming about earlier) and the salmon glazed with a heavy, disgusting sauce that tasted like it had a salad dressing base. We each got two pieces of tough, overcooked potato (homefries, actually) and green beans that had clearly been frozen and then microwaved.

Yet everyone else at our table (except G.) ate everything. Speaking of everyone else at our table...Take the backdrop I just described and add to it a dull couple. A horribly dull couple, where the wife is genuinely sweet but perhaps lacking intellectually. She speaks with a squeaky voice, like the ditz stock character in old musicals. She's blond, too, straight from central casting.

Her husband is boorish. He's a large man with thick hands and the intellectual capacity of a retarded fruitfly. He's mean to her, constantly bringing up old girlfriends or belittling her in subtle ways. He's pretentious, yakking about sailing although (we later learn) he has never sailed and making sure we all know that his family has long belonged to this country club. He's drunk and, soon after joining the previously happy community of our table, he knocks over a drink. He dominates conversation, interrupting often.

Over dinner he brags that his wife is an excellent cook. Wanting to give her some positive attention, and wanting to drift away from my horrible salmon with dreams of a perfect coq au vin, or a simple, crisp, organic salad of local produce, I ask what her signature dishes are. She squeaks, in a heavy Boston accent, "I make this chicken he loves, with cream of mushroom soup on top." He adds that she makes great tacos. I snobbishly reflected to myself that these people are from a different caste.

His favorite hobby is narrowing his eyes at another guest at the table and making wildly inaccurate guesses about their lifestyle, habits, and so forth—matters that are none of his business. He wrongly guessed that one fellow was Beacon Hill brahmin, for example. He tried to guess where G. and I went to school. This brought out the worst in my thoughts.

I KNOW state schools are perfectly good, that many smart people go there. But here's what he guessed, with his dull eyes narrowed in his gigantic rotweiller head:
"Holy Cross." (A Catholic school.)
Not even close, I replied, proud of our uber-liberal academic heritage.
"U-Mass Dartmouth."
"U-Mass Amherst."
"Fitchburg State."
He was close to making his way through all the state schools when I stopped him: Wrong state.
G. hinted that he was from Connecticut.
"OH! U-Conn!!"
No no NO. Finally, tired of this idiotic game, G. told him: Wesleyan.
Predictable response: "Isn't that an all-girls' school?"

I was aggravated, intensely aggravated against my egalitarian better self, that he didn't guess a single small, private college. Perhaps he doesn't know of any. Later, he had the audacity to guess—perfectly backwardly!—that G. was my second or third serious relationship and I was his first.

Later we chatted with the sweet wife alone. We live fairly close by these people, and so we recommended a great jazz club in town. She replied, wrinkling her nose, "I don't really like jazz." (!)

Then the band, which had been doing admirably, if too loud, suddenly dropped half the lyrics on an Earth, Wind, and Fire medley. I'd had enough. We blamed the emerging mosquitoes and bowed out.

And so, in the course of five short hours, I managed to see my own snobbery about food, education, music, dull people, and unprofessional service. Grrrreat.

5:48 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Ann, you're certainly right.

5:59 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

PS. reflecting upon my now-written-out litany of aggravations, I realize exactly why all the state school guesses bothered me. It had little to do with state schools themselves, but rather (and perhaps this is worse!) with Brute's assumption that G. and I are in the same cultural bracket as him. (when clearly we are vastly superior)

6:24 PM  
Blogger Larry Jones said...

Oh, kStyle, your story is so sad. Sad because of your snobbery, and sad to think those two will now start breeding.

Because I was a musician, I have been to many, many weddings and receptions. I came to think of them as tawdry, melancholy affairs. Pathetic people spending more money than both their families could afford and still you can see the plywood tops of the rented tables, and the ill-fitting collars on the uncomfortable young men. It turns out that a tuxedo does not a James Bond make. Each couple chooses from the same five songs to be their first dance, and half - maybe more - will be miserable for four years, and then they will cut each other loose, to go line dancing and weeping in country bars.

But I can't look down on these people as they reenact the ancient ritual. Instinct drives them. They don't know what they're doing, or why. What happens is not their fault. I won't try to stop them, or teach them not to touch the fire.

So I played whatever songs they wanted, no arguments, no snobbery. I made the goofy announcements that had to be made. I got drunk along with them. I tried to make magic for them, who would be facing reality soon enough.

And I know that, whatever you might have thought, you smiled did your part to make the occasion just as perfect as it could be.

2:55 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Larry, you're too sweet. I'd give you a big hug if you were here.

I have to say that, first, I think the newlyweds are actually a great couple and bring out the best in each other. I think they'll have a happy marriage.

Secondly, I've decided to reinvent myself as "discriminating" rather than snobbish.

I was surprised that the bride was friends with the couple I described, because she's even a hair more "discriminating" than I.

And yes, I did my best to remain gracious.

10:26 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

p.s. Larry, country line dancing isn't so popular in this part of the country. The theoretical divorced couple is more likely to go to beer-soaked bars with the Red Sox game blaring.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Ann said...

It isn't snobbery to be annoyed by some obnoxious jackass who thinks he knows everything, or even to think he's an idiot; it's common sense. He would've been just as bad if he'd listed all ivy league colleges.

I also don't think it's snobbery to prefer a particular lifestyle. The snobbery part comes in when you think the way you live your life is a better choice for everyone, not just you.

I turn snobbish when I'm with people who don't appear to spend any time alone. People who can't just sit down at a table during staff meetings; they have to descend in a group. People who spend a lot of time gossiping about family and friends and pets. People who constantly ask each other, "Are you going to so-and-so restaurant later?" or "Have you signed up for this-or-that task yet?" People who accost you if you choose not to take part in certain office festivities. People who will tell you intimate details about their lives if you ask them how they are. I wish they would just shut up once in a while.

Larry, out of curiosity, what are the five first-dance songs?

11:05 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

First off I want to dispel some myths about my snobbery. Some people say I'm a film snob and that's just false: I mean, "Mean Girls" was on my top ten list last year. "War of the Worlds" will probably be on this year's. And give me "Wedding Crashers" over Antonioni any day. (I know what's good for me; I just pass it up. Though I would take Bergman over "Wedding Crashers.")

And I'm not a snob about literature either, at least in the usual way. The fact that Stephen King sells a billion books doesn't mean he isn't a good writer. He's a really good writer, better than most winners of prestigious awards. (Though Grisham isn't good, nor Crichton. My populism only extends so far.)

And I'm definitely not a snob about music, though I've been accused of that too. Musical tastes are less accountable than even movie tastes, as my own iPod itself can attest. Though I do admire diversity in this area. A CD collection contains Snoop Dogg, Gershwin, Neil Young, and Gustav Mahler is probably on the right track.

So now that I've cleared myself of those charges, here's what I'll cop to: I'm a writing snob. That's different from a book snob, because a book snob refuses to read anything but Serious Literature, usually without knowing what distinguishes it from unserious literature (and, so, usually reading a whole lot of unserious literature that pretends to be serious).

No, my writing snobbishness extends only this far: I won't read bad writing. And bad writing comes in a lot of (often award-winning) packages. Rick Moody. Joyce Carol Oates. (Shudder.) I have no use for authors enamored of their own style at the expense of narrative and directness and truth, and who think they can seem smart only by overcomplicating language, and who are more concerned with seeming smart than they are with writing a good book, and who wouldn't know a good book if it bit them in the behind.

But the world is full of good writers. You just have to be able to tell the bad ones from the good ones. Luckily I have a test. And the test has nothing to do with the New York Times Book Review either, let me tell you.

The test is this: when you're browsing in the bookstore, open the book to any random page. If the author uses any word for "said" other than "said"--if a character intones or exclaims or asserts or retorts--the book is no good. The author is trying too hard and he isn't relying on the right things. He doesn't trust his dialogue (since the dialogue should indicate the tone) and he's over-making his point. (And he doesn't know that readers generally skip the post-dialogue verb anyway). He's insecure, for one thing, and what's more, his values are misplaced.

(Occasional exception: sometimes "asked" is okay. When it's a question. Sometimes. To mix things up a little. But that's it.)

Equally crucial is the absence of an adverb after "said." If the characters say happily or wantonly or hesitatingly or sheepishly or aggressively, it's the same as if they didn't "say" in the first place. Adverbs are an obscenity. They're what writers use instead of writing.

It's actually best to try several pages in each test, just to average it out. Most writers over the course of the book will err at least once in this regard, and snobbishness doesn't require unforgiveness. But if there's a lot of it, a lot of pronouncing and shouting and whispering, or a lot of doing it facetiously or laughingly or confusingly, you're holding a lemon.

I try not to think of this as snobbishness per se. I think of it as principle. Writing matters, and if writing matters then the craft of writing matters. Doing it well matters. And though there's a lot of subjectivity in making that call, there is also, as with any art, some room to say that this is good and this is bad. That's the craft part of art, and not only is it indispensable, but it is primary. There isn't any art without craft, so when I say I am a writing snob, I suppose what I mean is that I'm a craft snob.

And proud to be so.

11:23 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Ann--good point; I would have been annoyed with him even if he listed all Ivies, or whatever. He was just a dickhead.

Eric--I like your strategy and will employ it in future book selection. My current one is less refined: open to a random page, read a paragraph, and if the prose doesn't grip me, I go no further. It's more intuitive.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

I started following the "said" rule--which is actually the "show, don't tell" rule in disguise--in high school, after spending many of my middle school years trying to think up the perfect synonym before realizing that it detracted from the dialogue.

I don't mind a few "yelled"s or "told"s or "replied"s (context matters, of course), but there's no excuse for "cried" or "laughed" or "groaned," among others.

I'm not particularly anti-adverb, though; just anti-excessive-adverb.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Larry Jones said...

kStyle - Sorry about the line dance reference. I guess it's a western thing.

Eric - Your criteria works for me, although I think I would allow "whispered," because, you know, whispering really is a different action than saying.

Ann - I'm afraid there really is no "Top 5 First Dance" song list. I misled you in service of the Muse, who is a stern mistress in many ways, but not so much in requiring the literal truth at all times. She usually says something like "They'll figure it out," or "Let them eat metaphor."

Wedding participants keep staying forever young, and their choices flow with their eternal youth. Probably the first First Dance I played was The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," and the last one, many years later, was "In Your Eyes," by Peter Gabriel. In between there was Al Green ("Let's Stay Together"), Etta James ("At Last") and "You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings," you pick the "artist." No one ever wanted "Whip It," but I was ready.

I think I would choose Van Morrison's "Crazy Love" if I were getting married today. What about you?

2:29 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

We've chosen "So Nice/Summer Samba" for our first dance. Has anyone ever asked you to play that?

2:52 PM  
Blogger Larry Jones said...

I wish. Good choice. You two might make it.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Larry Jones said...

By the way, I missed the fact that the boorish couple was not the newlywed couple, and I wrote my entire comment from this incorrect point of view. Today I am wearing a hair shirt in penance.

3:41 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Larry--It's funny to me that no one ever requested that. The lyrics are classic wedding.

Just a hair sirt? No fasting?? Flagellation?

4:21 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

PS "Let's Stay Together" is ALWAYS a good choice.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Emma Goldman said...

This will not surprise you all, but we had neither a first dance nor a song. Nothing. We had musicians, yes, and some people danced, but we were not among them. I do not at all feel as though I missed something. (If we HAD done this, however, we would have had problems--leaving aside the "can't dance" problem, which isn't trivial--which is that there's no way we could have agreed on a song. I would probably go with "Tougher Than the Rest" (by Bruce, of course), or even "Red-Headed Woman," even though neither is exactly appropriate, and C would have gone with something head-bangingly metallic, perhaps. Or not, but you see what I mean.)

8:14 PM  

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