Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking through a review of Emma Straub’s debut novel, “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures,” a book I enjoyed, but also had issues with. A Slate story published Friday, “Against Enthusiasm” by Jacob Silverman, on the supposed suffocating niceness of the online book world, sent me back to the piece. This is how I concluded it:
I highlight the book’s merits and identify where the book fell short. I convey, I hope, an appreciation for the book and the quality of the writing while wanting more. Is this review mean? Are we in high school? Will I hesitate to share this review because I am acquainted with the book’s author online and find her warm and friendly? That’s what Silverman’s piece suggests.
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There has been a long and rich history of lamentation and garment rending over the state of criticism so it’s always amusing when there’s a new entry into this race, as if these concerns are new or peculiar to our time.
In Sarah Fay’s “Book Reviews: A Tortured History,” which appeared at the Atlantic online in April, she quotes Edgar Allan Poe who, in 1846, wrote, “We place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright.” In the debut issue of the Believer in 2003, Heidi Julavits issued a manifesto of sorts, calling for a new culture of criticism. She wrote, “In a perfect, or possibly gilded world, a book review might strive for loftier service issues, those completely unconnected to commerce or fashion; a review might hope to serve the culture.”
One of the epigraphs preceding “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” is a line from “All About Eve” — “I can be an actress or a woman, but I can’t be both.” Silverman’s “Against Enthusiasm” gives the impression that Straub can be a writer or a woman but she can’t be both. She has written two books, but Silverman has nothing to say on that matter. Indeed, while he opens a piece with a long anecdote about her, he doesn’t seem to have read either.
The piece is about what the subtitle calls an “epidemic of niceness in online book culture.” Silverman’s beef begins with Straub’s presence on Twitter. He writes:
I’m not suggesting that Straub’s online persona is disingenuous in the least — she seems legitimately delightful, and what is social media for if not making connections with people interested in the same things as you? 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.
While Silverman makes an interesting argument about an excessive culture of enthusiasm in literary circles, it is curious that he never talks about books. Instead, he focuses on these cults of personality that rise out of social networking — Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook and the like, conflating people interacting via these networks with serious criticism that might take place in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, London Review of Books, Bookslut and any number of rigorous critical outlets – so many of which exist because of the Internet and have their voices amplified by Twitter, Facebook and other dorms of social media.
Equally curious is the frame Silverman has chosen for his argument — Emma Straub’s 9,000 Twitter followers, a photo she posted on her Tumblr, and how he suggests that her likability and these personal things he knows about Straub via her social networking presence might be a deterrent to reviewing her book honestly.
There is, indeed, a very simple solution. If a critic feels like he or she cannot follow a writer on social networks and review their work honestly, don’t follow writers on social networks. It is not mandatory to follow writers beyond their actual writing. James Wood and Michiko Kakutani are not worrying about how friendly writers are online as they consider what to review next and how.
If literary culture is a school, serious criticism can be found in the classroom. Social networks are the cafeteria — what you find there will be loud and gossipy, amusing but not very satisfying.
At his most hyperbolic, Silverman writes that this overly friendly literary culture is “not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having 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.” What truly diminishes literary culture is to focus on a writer’s Twitter feed, appearance, number of followers or anything that has nothing to do with the writing — and yet that’s exactly what Silverman does.
I’d also suggest, and I don’t want to belabor this point, that only a white man would believe that the online literary culture — or anything on the Internet — suffers from too much niceness. If you’re a woman, person of color, or member of the LGBT community, the online literary culture is, more often than not, far less hospitable and criticism is directed to the person rather than the person’s ideas. Has a man writing in the public sphere ever been called fat, ugly or a whore within the context of their writing? I doubt it. It is a privilege to have had no encounters that might lead you to believe the online culture is anything but nice.
Also unmistakable: Silverman blames women for making literary culture so nice, so enthusiastic, so feminine, so decidedly not like the old days of Norman Mailer. In addition to Straub, he singles out Jami Attenberg and Cheryl Strayed, two other writers with lively online presences. He strains to include two men, Nathan Englander and J. Robert Lennon, and neither makes his point – Englander has tweeted three times in August and 16 times in July. Lennon is indeed active – but with his 847 followers. Where’s the excessive niceness there?
Because writers and critics (and writers who are also critics) are on the various social networks, we tend to misconstrue their interactions with these networks. Interesting opinions are often shared on Twitter but those opinions are shared alongside recitations of recent meals, jokes, cat pictures and idiotic babbling. Social networking has never been and never will be a medium for thoughtful criticism. The ability to “like” something is one of the more irrelevant aspects of these networks and to assume that clicking a button on a social network is somehow a greater statement is perplexing.
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There seems to be a nostalgia, both implied by Silverman’s essay and in other corners of the critical world, for the good old days (which are not actually behind us) of sharp, negative reviews. There is a grave misperception that a negative review is more honest than a glowing, enthusiastic one. Indeed, negative reviews make careers and get attention, even if like Dale Peck’s savage New Republic pieces, the author regretfully walks some of them back later, after his name is made, after the anthology is sold. Nevertheless, it’s practically a fetish for some critics, recalling those better, savage days. Ooh, remember when Richard Ford spat on Colson Whitehead!
But why are we even framing criticism as either negative or positive? The most interesting book reviews are those that make me think, the reviews that bring out interesting themes in a work. Good criticism is not merely about liking or disliking a book or exploring a book’s merits and failings. Good criticism, for me, is about trying to understand how the book works and what it offers, or doesn’t, to contemporary culture, where the book fits within a tradition, and how it speaks to history.
One of the most memorable reviews I’ve ever read is Jessa Crispin’s “The Female Body,” where she discusses five books, the television show “The Killing,” the dynamic of “man as predator, woman as prey,” and how invested our culture seems to be with that dynamic. In the July 30 issue of The New Yorker, Ruth Franklin reviewed the diary of Witold Gombrowicz, an absurdist Polish writer with an “extraordinary voice.” The review both informed me about Gombrowicz’s writing, which I now want to seek out, but it also made his diary seem intensely interesting and reached beyond the concerns of American arts and letters.
So long as we keep thinking about reviews as negative or positive, we are losing sight of how book reviewing and cultural criticism are supposed to function. We’re not even having the right conversation.
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I don’t write many negative reviews, not because I’m scared or nice, but because my time is finite. I recently read a book by a well-known writer from a major press. There was a grammatical error in the very first sentence and the rest of the book was not good—shoddy editing, shoddy writing. I could have written a scathing review but for what? Nothing would have been learned from that review and writing about that book would have given it undeserved attention and been a colossal waste of my time.
If a book is bad because of laziness and sloppiness, the reader doesn’t need me or any other critic telling them that. The laziness and sloppiness are plainly evident.
All too often, a negative review is simply a way for critics to reveal their own biases and petty grievances. In Julavits’ Believer essay, she also discussed James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s “Autograph Man” in the London Review of Books, and notes, “Rather than overcompensating for his known bias (a potentially interesting tack) or surprising us by delivering the last verdict we’d expect, he made a savage dive for the jugular, going above and beyond the critical call of duty by indulging his own fictional impulses and composing a derisive example of ‘hysterical realism.’”
When I write a negative review, for lack of a better term, I’d rather talk either about books that are flawed but still have something interesting to offer to the literary conversation.
Writers, most writers, do not enjoy criticism. It is difficult to hear that the art you’ve worked so hard to create is imperfect. Privately we sulk and stew but then we move on. Publicly, most writers will handle criticism gracefully. Writers, with few exceptions, are professionals and when they don’t act professionally in the face of a negative review, the story remains part of the gossip cycle for quite some time. Remember that one time, when Alice Hoffman lashed out on Twitter?
As far as I know, I haven’t been blackballed by this apparent, sinister cabal of niceness for any of the negative reviews I’ve written. I am social-network acquainted with most of the writers whose books I have reviewed negatively. We are all adults here.
Perhaps social networking has irrevocably blurred the line between the professional and the personal. It’s hard to say. Silverman has a valid argument but he did not treat Emma Straub like a professional. (He did, however, manage to mention who her father is and what her husband does. Nothing like a little casual sexism to tart up the literary scene.) He did not embody the brand of criticism he claims to long for, and instead he contributed to the diminished culture he writes against in his essay.
Intellect and emotion are not discrete tools, not for me. When I write fiction, creative nonfiction or literary and cultural criticism, I do so with both my mind and my heart. When I talk about books, I often feel ecstatic because that’s what reading brings out in me. When people deride enthusiasm, I cannot help but think, “How can you be anything but ecstatic when talking about a truly great book?”
Take Zadie Smith’s forthcoming “NW.” Smith’s novel is the finest examination of race, class, gender and upward mobility I’ve ever read. The ending is at once abrupt and breathtaking and with the glorious last line you see what an ambitious book “NW is.” At times the writing practically vibrates off the page like spoken word. Each section of the novel builds on the previous with true elegance. One section is written as a list, an excerpt of which recently appeared in the New Yorker. The novel might best be described as a literary jam session that still manages to maintain a clear and beautifully articulate sense of purpose.
I felt equally overcome when reading Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins.” The novel spans from Italy in the early 1960s, to present-day Hollywood, with a sprawling cast of characters who somehow manage to arrive in the same place when they need to. Walter deftly works with form and structure to create an outstanding literary achievement. There is wit and honesty in the book and there is also a great deal of heart. More than anything, “Beautiful Ruins” is an epic love story spanning more than 50 years with a deliciously satisfying ending.
Do I sound enthusiastic talking about these books? You’re damn right I do.
If nothing else, there is this: The oldest printed book dates back to 868 if not much earlier. While we lament literary culture year after year, it’s important to remember that books are enduring and literary culture possesses equal fortitude. It would be arrogant to assume there was anything we could do on Twitter to truly diminish such power.