If you follow literary types on Twitter, you’re probably aware of recent debate regarding the changing role of book criticism. A brief summary:
Two weeks ago, Jacob Silverman wrote an article for Slate called “Against Enthusiasm,” in which he argued that social media is neutering the impulse to criticize because everybody is trying too hard to be amiable and friendly and to avoid burning bridges.
Then there were two weeks of hand-wringing and strong denials and a good ninety percent of the writers I follow posting defensive comments about how we should be more enthusiastic, how there’s nothing wrong with promoting a friend’s book, and so on.
Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article in defense of harsh criticism. Dwight Garner argued that not only is there a place for critical book reviews but that negative reviews, when conducted respectfully and professionally, are culturally essential.
Then most of the writers I follow went on Twitter to decry this notion, to dig in their heels and fight back against what many felt was a call for meanness and invective. They argued that critics should review books they like and ignore ones they don’t.
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The backlash to Silverman’s article is interesting to me in that so many people quickly went into denial mode, but if you are friends with authors on Facebook or follow them on Twitter or Goodreads, then you know this is absolutely a true statement:
But if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.
This seems so obviously self-evident an observation that I can’t believe it even counts as controversial. Offline, most writers will admit this. Many writer friends complain about this, say they’ve blocked friends because their news feed is basically advertorial for books by other friends and friends of friends. This phenomenon is endemic to literary circles in social media, and I’d argue that anyone who denies it is either oblivious or has a vested interest in pretending this is not true. If they admit that, yes, sometimes the online enthusiasm is over-the-top, that sometimes the words luminous and transcendent and even charming are meaningless, that when a popular lit blog describes somebody’s chapbook about butterflies as face-meltingly amazing or says something like I want to have your word babies, you are so wonderful, then maybe it discredits their own promotional efforts. Maybe it forces them to doubt the validity of all those five-star reviews their friends wrote for them.
Which is not to say, by the way, that people can’t be supportive and enthusiastic. I don’t agree with the turn Silverman takes when he writes that this relentless support has a
chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.
Twitter is no more indicative of literary culture at large than my local coffee shop is. It’s just a place where some, but not nearly all, writers hang out and say some stuff about books. People should feel free to do whatever they like there, on Facebook, on their blogs.
But they should also be willing to acknowledge when their social media pages have turned into hype machines for writers they know. And they should stop fighting against the notion of criticism itself; it’s fine (kind of, maybe) not to want to get your hands dirty, but most of the defenses of that attitude seem like rationalizations. They seem like fear.
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It needs to be stressed that there is a crucial and essential difference between a negative review and a critical review. One is mean-spirited, motivated by some desire besides intellectual engagement (pettiness, personal grudges), while the other is the ideal of how literary culture should work. Books, like all works of art, are part of a cultural conversation, and the audience response is essential. Writers should want, desperately, for readers to pick their book up and engage with it honestly; when people do so, they’re acknowledging that the book is a real thing, worthy of attention and discussion. It is an invitation to other readers to pick up the book and join that discussion. It is an opportunity to explore the way stories work, to advance beyond the text, to learn something about reading and writing.
Much of the negative response to the two articles has established a false dichotomy between, on one hand, praising books and, on the other, flinging hateful insults at authors. Garner addresses this point:
Criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.
And still, people have responded like this:
If what you want is a more vocal and energetic critical culture, so be it. All boats rise, you know. But don’t pretend that that will be best achieved by more bare name-calling and bitchery on the internet, for god’s sake.
This is not what those articles are asking for. They’re asking for some integrity in reviewing, and what’s worrying me a bit about the discussion around this issue is that some people seem incapable of distinguishing between honesty and ruthless meanness, as if telling the truth about a book’s flaws is problematic because it’s not nice. I’m tempted here to attribute this mindset to something about our culture and the way we’re trained via media to only have strong emotions that lack nuance and can be easily identified and understood by children (i.e.- we are angry or we are sad or we are happy, but rarely are we asked to be anything more complex). But probably there is more to it than that.
Still, the fact is this: if you are unable to critique a book without name-calling and bitchery, then the problem is with you, not with people who are tired of reviewers who are afraid to be critical.
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The moment someone starts promoting a book or a story, they are inviting friends and strangers into their heads and saying, “listen, I have something worthwhile to say.” Well, what if the writer is wrong? What if the thing they have to say isn’t worthwhile? Should we give them a medal just for trying? Should we vaguely encourage them to keep doing the same things even though we’re not particularly moved by the project? Or should we explore why that story isn’t functioning well, why it hasn’t succeeded? Is our obligation to making writers feel better about themselves, or to finding real meaning in art?
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Here’s an offline interaction I’ve had at least a dozen times:
Writer A publishes a book. Writer B praises it on Facebook and Twitter, gives it a 5-star review on Goodreads and/or Amazon. Tom and Writer B meet at a bar.
TOM: “Hey, Writer B, I just picked up a copy of Writer A’s novel.”
WRITER B: “Don’t bother. It’s kind of shitty.”
TOM: “But you said it was the best thing you’ve read all year.”
WRITER B: “I couldn’t even finish it.”
TOM: “Thanks for wasting my money.”
WRITER B: “Well, he’s a nice guy. And we have the same agent. So.”
Or maybe Writer B has a manuscript under review by the same publisher. Or is afraid to run into the other writer at a conference. Or the other writer gave a five-star review to Writer B’s book, and he wanted to return the favor.
In one sense, this is a victimless crime. So what, an author with a small following gets to feel good about him or herself for a day or two. But it’s a hollow sense of accomplishment, isn’t it? How can the praise mean anything if you know your online friends feel compelled to support your book for reasons beyond the merit of the text itself? Dishonest praise for mediocre books cheapens legitimate praise for good books. It’s grade inflation for the sake of not hurting feelings. It muddies the waters and it makes it harder for readers to find the stuff that really matters.
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Frank Conroy, former director of the Iowa Workshop, was fond of saying, “I’m well aware of the joys and temptations of bullshit, but most of what I say will be negative.”
My job as a reader is not to cater to the writer’s insecurities. It is to enter the book with an open mind and give it a true chance to impress me, to affect me in some way, to entertain or enrich me. Even great authors write bad books; I don’t see why I need to pretend everything that I read deserves a participation trophy.
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My memoir got very few reviews, and only one negative one in a small newspaper in Tennessee (the reviewer called me self-indulgent and unpleasant), so I acknowledge that maybe I would feel differently if my book had been hammered by critics. On the other hand, I’ve been in creative writing workshops and had memorably negative experiences with my work being absolutely ravaged, and I’m a better writer for it. The people in the class were better readers for it, and I suspect better writers, if for no other reason than the fact that they didn’t want to be in my situation—it feels like a public execution as punishment for the crime of mangling the language, feels like everybody is staring at you during one of the worst moments of your life because they are.
It’s hard to accept that kind of assault on your work. It makes you never want to leave your house again. It makes you wonder why you ever bothered to write in the first place. And then you know what happens? You either quit forever, or, more likely, you start writing again anyway because that’s what you do, and you put new work into the world and await the consequences again, hope they’re a little more pleasant, but at least you’ve developed a callous against the criticism now. You keep writing because you’re a writer and you realize you can’t control the way your work is received no matter what you do.
Or maybe you don’t, and then you spend your days complaining about how mean critics are when they criticize things.
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Why be uncritical of books? Because you’ll lose friends? If that’s the case, then your friends ought to stop being assholes about it. What the hell did they think would happen when they wrote a book? We’d all hoist them on our shoulders and parade them around the town square and then give them their pick of well-groomed virgins to celebrate their genius? If someone is willing to put work into the world, to demand that others spend their time consuming that work, then they need to be prepared for people to react.
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On Bookslut, Jessica Crispin writes:
Like I commented to my friend recently, never saying a bad word about another writer makes you employable. Disliking things makes you decidedly not anymore.
Sad as it is that universities and newspapers would penalize writers and readers for deigning to critique books, this is probably true. Which makes Crispin’s stance pragmatic, if not particularly admirable.
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Why be uncritical of books? Because they can’t handle it? Books have been around a hell of a lot longer than any of us, and they’ll continue to outlive us in some form.
I think it’s disingenuous and self-serving and, frankly, cowardly for us to write books and put them out there and then act like they’re fragile little flowers that can’t handle a stiff breeze. Negative reviews hurt, sometimes badly. But if you have so little faith in the strength of your book, or of literature in general, that you don’t think it can weather a storm, then maybe you’re in the wrong business.
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I got into a Twitter discussion about this with Lauren Groff—whose work I admire, whose story collection Mike and I both lauded on Book Fight, and with whom it seems I fundamentally disagree on this issue.
This is what she posted:
Unless you’re being paid for a review, in which case you must be honest, why be negative about other writers’ work?
While acknowledging that the 140 character limit likely has stripped the nuance from her stance, my first thought is: wait, we only have to be honest if we’re being paid?
The crux of this whole debate, to me, comes down to the question of honesty. As readers, as critics, everyone has a choice: we can make a true effort to respond to the book based on its merits, or we can pretend to like things we don’t like. I see no value in engaging in discourse in which all participants are knowingly being disingenuous.
You respond honestly not because of professional obligations but because of human obligations, because the cornerstone of valuable discourse is honesty, the sense that both participants in a dialogue are invested in uncovering something True. Without that basic agreement in place, I don’t see how we can even pretend to discuss books in any worthwhile way.
What this whole debate is about, then, isn’t Facebook etiquette or how to use Twitter correctly; it’s about the expectations authors have about how their books should be treated, and it’s disappointing to see how many authors would be okay with it if we all just got to play nice over on the sidelines of the culture, rather than being a part of it. That attitude willingly marginalizes literature, announces that we’d rather not have people say mean things about our books, and we’re okay hanging out with one another and patting ourselves on the backs for being so creative. It reinforces so many of the negative perceptions of writers as effete eggheads who have nothing relevant to offer.
If you’re going to create something, you have to be willing to alienate people, and prepare to be alienated yourself. Otherwise, what are you doing this for?
UPDATE: Lauren Groff (@legroff) responds via Twitter:
Tom! I don’t think we have fundamental disagreements on this–I think we’re just talking about different things, here.
Also! 140 char cannot contain the be-all-end-all of any philosophy. Nuance=lost here. I need 5,000 words–but I have no blog.
Which reminds me that I want to stress–at the risk of being too amiable– that I’m not meaning to attack her here; her post yesterday is just what got me really thinking about this topic and that I felt was representative, in some ways, of how others feel.