But the atomization of literary journalism—and the attendant problem of getting paid for it—has led to its being seen as embattled. Reviewers have responded by circling the wagons, apparently thinking that they will catch more readers (and institutional support) with honey than with argument, dissent, or flair. Editors are complicit too, as some publications don't publish negative reviews at all, treating even considered pans as hatchet jobs. Time’s Lev Grossman has said that he won’t review books he doesn’t like. He recently published an essay titled “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation,” which he drained of any details that might be used to identify the book or the writer. For quite some time, NPR.org’s main books feature was called “Books We Like,” and negative reviews were discouraged; critical voices have since slowly seeped into the site but are still rare. Other outlets milk page views (and Amazon affiliate fees) from slideshows, listicles, and guest posts from famous authors that read like repurposed jacket copy. Each of these is a victory for a publicist, but not for readers.
Reviewers shouldn't be recommendation machines, yet we have settled for that role, in part because the solicitous communalism of Twitter encourages it. Our virtue over the algorithms of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the amateurism (some of it quite good and useful) of sites like GoodReads, is that we are professionals with shaded, informed opinions. We are paid to be skeptical, even pugilistic, so that our enthusiasms count for more when they’re well earned. Today’s reviewers tend to lionize the old talk-show dustups between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky (the videos are on YouTube), but they’re unwilling to engage in that kind of intellectual combat themselves.* They praise the bellicosity of Norman Mailer and Pauline Kael, but mostly from afar. Mailer and Kael are your rebellious high school friends: objects of worship, perhaps, but not emulation. After all, it’s all so messy, and someone might get hurt.
Instead, cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments. As if mirroring the surrounding culture, biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person. Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web. And, of course, critics, most of them freelance and hungry for work, want to appeal to fans and readers as well; so to connect with them, they must become them.
Twitter and Tumblr form the superstructure of today’s literary world. The salons and independent bookstores are disappearing, so this is where we congregate, allowing us to collapse geography at the expense of solitary thinking. This is where links are passed around, recommendations exchanged, news spread, contacts and friendships made. It is also where everyone is selling himself and where debate and dissent are easily snuffed. As litblogger Mark Athitakis recently tweeted, “Twitter defaults into an affirmation engine. It's easier to enthuse than discuss.”
But that affirmation is the habitual gesture of the Internet. We like, favorite, and heart all day; it is a show of support and agreement, as well as a small plea for attention: Look at me, I liked this too. Follow back? On Tumblr, which has become a favorite home for writers and has taken on the role of a literary curator, promoting content and sponsoring events, dissent is engineered out of the product. “We don’t want to allow you to have your feelings hurt on Tumblr,” a company designer recently told the New York Times Magazine. David Karp, Tumblr’s founder, enthused about the site’s heart icon: “Everybody loves everybody, through the chain.”
The problem with Liking is that it’s a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence—or, really, posture without opinion. 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.
A better literary culture would be one that's not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement. It would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. We wouldn't want so badly to be liked above all. We'd tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions. If we all think more and enthuse less, when I do truly love Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, you’ll be more likely to believe me.
Correction, Aug. 3, 2012: This article originally referred to William F. Buckley by his son’s name, Christopher Buckley. (Return to the corrected sentence.)