On Friday, when I first read Jacob Silverman’s column in Slate decrying niceness in the online literary community, I was excited to see the reaction on Twitter seemed mostly in favor of his point. When I found out the column was based on an earlier blog post that was written partially as a reaction to Molly Fischer’s second n+1 piece on ladyblogs—I piece I loved almost more than her original story on ladyblogs, by the way.
Early Saturday I was further encouraged to see Ron Charles’s response in the Washington Post (sorry, I too missed his earlier lament about dullness in online reviewing). But then I started to see the counterreaction.
First, I read Emma Straub’s response, which wasn’t objectionable at all, but struck me as curious. I could see writing a response because she was mentioned by name in Silverman’s original column, but nothing he wrote was any kind of attack on her; she was simply a good example of an author with a sizeable Twitter following whose first book isn’t even out yet—something very relevant, because part of his point is about positive comments around books that the commenters can’t possibly have read. That is to say, Silverman’s point doesn’t really have anything to do with what Straub has done or will do—she’s promoting her new book, after all, and social media marketing is a perfectly legitimate part of that—but about how other people in the online literary community react to that promotion.
Meanwhile, Helen DeWitt writes in a comment at The Millions that she doesn’t “feel good about” reviewing a book she thinks is “terrible” by “slash[ing] and burn[ing].” First-time authors may be bullied by editors and agents into making changes they disagree with artistically, and if DeWitt just happens to criticize a book such that she agrees with the author’s initial vision but not with the final version of the book:
Will the editor revert to the author’s version when the paperback is released? Nope. Will editor and agent apologize and try to make amends? Nope. Will it do the author any good to say to editor and agent, or to other editors and agents, that s/he was right all along? Is this a serious question? No, in order to spare readers the loss of 20 bucks and 10 minutes, I am sabotaging the prospects of a writer who may well have genuine talent.
Now, my first reaction is to say that it doesn’t matter that the book isn’t reverted—if an editor or agent consistently has her books panned by critics, maybe that editor or agent won’t get so much work in future—won’t be able to ruin so much work. It’s not as though the only feedback in the publishing world should go to the author. If we want good books to happen, we are dependent on those agents and editors for it too. We should want those people to lose their jobs, or at least get better at them. My second reaction is to note that a critic might hope to save a lot more than one reader $20 and 10 minutes (or hours). Multiplication is a powerful thing.
But nothing compared to my dismay at the reaction of Michelle Dean at The Rumpus, who has a problem with the basic fact that Silverman’s column was inspired by something to do with ladyblogs, “which is, I must say, a subject on which I see no call for the opinions of people who do not identify as women.” Well, now I must digress, and talk about Fischer’s n+1 story for a moment. The most compelling part of it, for me, was a section on a negative review Edith Zimmerman wrote of Green Girl, a novel by Kate Zambreno. After “comments were unusually hard on Zimmerman,” she invited the author to do a Q&A on The Hairpin.
Zimmerman was doing what I am trying to do now: create an opportunity to revisit her opinions, and to revise or more strongly restate them. Both Zimmerman and Zambreno were positioned to respond to their critics—Zimmerman to the commenters, Zambreno to Zimmerman. But instead of discussing their differences, Zimmerman abandoned her critique entirely.
“I feel a little ridiculous even putting myself into this conversation,” she wrote, “because you wrote a novel, and I wrote a review. That a lot of people thought sucked. I would love someday to make a book, and I think it’s awesome that you have.” Zimmerman highlighted the praise Zambreno had received elsewhere, encouraged readers to buy the book, and expressed chagrin at certain omissions in her review.
It’s hard for me to imagine, though, that Zimmerman’s initial response was only lazy or mistaken. Surely she meant what she had written? If she did, she was willing to discard it. She framed her shift in terms of the rebuke she had received from commenters and a coincidental email recommending the book. Social consensus had overruled her opinion, and it was time to reestablish social harmony.
Below the Q&A, one commenter wrote, “I was really anxious while reading this, I think because both Edith and Kate were in a very vulnerable place: what if someone said something awful about the other’s writing?? But in the end I like Edith even MORE than before, and Kate seems awesome too.”
“For real. Two classy ladies being super classy,” responded another.
What if Zimmerman and Zambreno had managed to stay super classy while still disagreeing?
Dean makes a point of saying she thinks it’s okay to criticize things (except for certain things, like appearance, which Silverman didn’t actually criticize at all, simply describing a photo Straub posted to Twitter, since the fact of her posting photos of herself to Twitter is part of her book promotion and relevant to the methods of social media marketing under discussion), but I’m left wondering exactly how, since “my mother always told me that nice is as nice does” and it’s apparently “kind of weird” to think short-form social media is appropriate for criticism, and Silverman’s basic call for a more critical and self-critical online book culture is only perceived as “bare name-calling and bitchery.” Admittedly, I think Dean badly misreads Silverman’s entire discussion of Straub and her book—he’s not “carping about attire,” but telling you that he can’t tell you what he thinks about the book yet, and most other people can’t either. In the meantime, there’s a basically content-free vacuum filled with enthusiasm.
And God forbid anyone should think I am writing about Straub here (or her appearance); clearly, pulling a real-world example like this was the worst thing Silverman could have done, because it’s hardly a matter about individuals. (For the record, I know almost nothing about Straub except that she exists, is pretty popular on Twitter, and has a book coming out soon.) The most interesting thing to me in his whole column is the idea that the medium is largely the message. When you can only “like” on Facebook, never “dislike,” what percentage of human emotion and experience are we essentially stuffing under the surface as if it never existed? Someone from Tumblr gives the New York Times the to-me-shocking quote, “We don’t want to allow you to have your feelings hurt on Tumblr,” and that’s not the main thing we’re talking about? A fair share of writing about books is moving from a sphere of staff writers who, as Ron Charles described, are safe in their ability to write negative, to one in which writing negative is made all but impossible by the conscious decisions of the designers of our new media.
Of course it’s possible to write a negative tweet, just as it’s possible to write a negative blog post, but it’s easier (and more rewarding, in social terms) to go the other way. And of course this isn’t about encouraging “meanness,” but about honesty and integrity toward the audience. It’s also about one of Fischer’s ultimate points about the ladyblogs, which I think applies to far more than just them:
[My ideal website] would be one where good faith could be assumed without gussying everything up in the trappings of intimacy, swaddling tricky subjects in chattiness. These are gestures that seem strange and infantilizing to me, because instant friendship regardless of individuality is the kind of assumption that parents make about children (“They have a daughter your age, you’ll have fun!”) and bosses about subordinates and majorities about minorities, but not one equals in power typically make about one another.
The “instant friendship,” “chattiness,” and “clubbiness” are largely an illusion. Tumblr may not want to let anyone’s feelings get hurt, but they can’t help that—the relentless focus on positivity has huge potential to create in-groups that have little problem finding ways to ostracize others. There’s no faster way to create criticism than to diss the niceness that normally covers such up.
And one final note on complaints that “enthusiasm” is a good thing just because it means people are enthusiastic about literature. So many people in this conversation, I think, come into it with the mindset of the embattled book lover or industry insider—publishers, editors, booksellers, critics, not to mention writers. The kind of defensiveness manifested here is not ultimately helpful. I don’t care about literature or being enthusiastic about literature; I care about good literature and being enthusiastic about good literature. The survival and success of the publishing and bookselling industries in their current form don’t do much for me if the books they are publishing and selling are not good. And that’s why I just can’t understand the question why any of us should not “feel good about” writing anything we really believe in about the books we read.