Let the Hate Flow Through You

Slate has run an article by Jacob Silverman bemoaning “the mutual admiration society that is today’s literary culture, particularly online,” because authors connecting with their readers, and with each other, is going to ruin everything.

“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. It’s 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.”

“Not to share in the lit world’s online slumber party,” Silverman continues, “can seem strange and mark a person as unlikable or (a worse offense in this age) unfollowable.” He seems to be suggesting that panning a book is seen as bad form, “making it harder and harder to hear the voices of dissent—the skeptical, cranky criticisms that may be painful for writers to experience but that make for a vibrant, useful literary culture.”

That’s right: Silverman says negative reviews keep literary culture from becoming irrelevant.

Silverman does get much of the backstory to this issue right, particularly when he talks about how the alternate literary discourses that have flourished in the online era created a siege mentality among that class of people who reviewed books for mainstream media outlets. And it’s true that there are reviewers, and review editors, who prefer to accentuate the positive. (In fact, I’ve written for such outlets, including my current freelance contributions at Shelf Awareness and a recently concluded gig with the USA Network.) Where he goes wrong, I think, is in believing that there’s a problem that needs solving.

After all, there’s still plenty of negative reviewing out there, if you put in a little effort to look for it. Hell, Jonathan Franzen gets panned, and he’s supposed to be the darling of literary culture. Even online book lovers, who Silverman accuses of “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm,” are known to get in on the criticism. Now, let’s stipulate for the record that there’s currently a “movement” online in which people are so put out by criticism that they’ve taken it upon themselves to shame negative reviewers into silence—but it’s also pretty well established that we recognize those people as assholes. For the most part, I think you’ll find that reasonable, sane people who like books and participate in online forums like what they like, and if you don’t like what they like, they’re fine with that—unless, of course, you’re stupid or condescending about it, like, let’s say, a literary snob who thinks it’s still au courant to snark about chick lit. Then, you’ll get the smackdown you so richly deserve.

I can’t speak to anybody else’s motivation for choosing to write positive book reviews over negative ones, but this is where I’m coming from: Life is too short to waste on books I don’t like, unless I’m getting paid to read them. I do make exceptions for some books that make our culture actively worse by their existence, but for the most part, I’m content to tell you about books and writers I believe matter… and why I believe it.

Silverman’s insistence that “for every ‘+1,’ ‘THIS,’ or ‘<3' we offer next to someone’s fawning tweet, a feeling is expressed without saying much at all, and in the next review or essay, it will show" is particularly wrongheaded. Yes, sometimes people make simple expressions of enthusiasm. It does not follow, however, that a simple expression of enthusiasm in any way contributes to the atrophying of our critical faculties in subsequent readings. Furthermore, simple expressions of enthusiasm are not inherently expressions of blind enthusiasm—just because you’re not showing the work doesn’t mean you didn’t do the work.

I’m speaking here as somebody who spent his first few years online convinced of the righteousness of “proving” how much more clever I was than just about anybody else on the Internet, and I’m appropriately embarrassed by most of that now. So the “intellectual combat” Silverman is pining for in his article—”the old talk-show dustups between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky… the bellicosity of Norman Mailer and Pauline Kael”—isn’t something for which I have any great deal of affection, nor is it something that I want to see a bunch of other writers emulating. Because if you don’t actually have the critical chops to back up your “bellicosity,” you’re just another asshole with an Internet connection. And we already have plenty of those.

Silverman’s notion that combativeness is essential to literary (and, by extension, cultural?) criticism “so that our enthusiasms count for more when they’re well earned” feels callow and arrogant to me. The idea that literary culture gets better when we go negative feels like an intellectually dressed-up notion of the cliché about comic book storytelling that “conflict builds character.” It’s not a model of criticism that impresses me. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever express a negative criticism; in fact, many of my Shelf Awareness reviews would fall in the category of “reserved enthusiasm.” What it does mean is that I’m not looking to score points off of somebody else’s creative endeavors, because I don’t feel the need to prove my critical acumen. I don’t pick up a book demanding it “earn” my enthusiasm; I pick up a book asking what I can learn from it.

And I know that’s probably not what Silverman has in mind when he articulates his philosophy, but I think that’s the major dead end into which that philosophy can lead: a bunch of snot-nosed punks trying to prove themselves, some of whom grow up to become cranky assholes still trying to prove themselves. I’ll take the literary community I’ve found online—and to which I gladly contribute—over that any day.

3 August 2012 | theory |