The writer Emma Straub has 9,192 Twitter followers. That might seem like a lot for an author whose first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, hasn’t even come out yet. But Emma Straub is really good at Twitter. She’s funny and charming and evinces great enthusiasm for the books and stories of the fellow authors and critics in her social sphere. Outside of Twitter, Straub writes for many bookish publications, she's the daughter of the novelist Peter Straub, and she runs a small design outfit with her husband that's made posters for everyone from Passion Pit to Jonathan Lethem.
The other day, Straub posted a picture of herself wearing a big flowery crown and holding a hot-off-the-presses copy of her new novel. She signed the post, “Yours, in love with everyone, Emma.” On Twitter and Tumblr, the news was RT’d and Liked and responded to with great excitement by friends and fellow writers and fans, including the Twitter feed of the literary website the Rumpus; followers of Straub on Facebook know that the site has already picked the book for their monthly book club.
But let’s say you’re part of this web of writers, fiction-lovers, literary editors, and readers in the social-media world, and you’re assigned a review of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures. What if you don’t like it? Or what if you like it, but not unreservedly? Are you willing to say so? Would you be willing to critique Straub’s novel after watching her life scroll out on social media over the last year—indeed, after likely being the recipient or admirer of some small word or act of kindness on Straub’s part?
To the uninitiated, this might seem immaterial, or like the kind of navel-gazing tabulation of credentials that can make the New York literary world insufferable. As a relatively recent arrival to New York, I can say that both are true. But it also matters, because the situation of someone like Straub epitomizes the mutual admiration society that is today's literary culture, particularly online.
I’m using Straub, of course, as an illustrative example rather than as a subject of critique. (I could have begun this essay with scores of other authors with recent or forthcoming books who are also engaged users of social media, from Jami Attenberg to Nathan Englander to Cheryl Strayed to J. Robert Lennon.) I haven’t read Straub’s novel, and indeed early reviews have been (presumably honestly) positive. And 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. 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.
Whereas critics once performed one role in print and another in life—Rebecca West could savage someone's book in the morning and dine with him in the evening—social media has collapsed these barriers. Moreover, social media's centrifugal forces of approbation—retweets, likes, favorites, and the self-consciousness that accompanies each public utterance—make any critique stick out sorely.
Not to share in the lit world's online slumber party can seem strange and mark a person as unlikable or (a worse offense in this age) unfollowable. This kind of rationalization might mostly take place in our lizard brains, but I'd argue that it's the reason why the literary world—a famously insular community to begin with—has become mired in clubbiness and glad-handing.
And why not, you might say. Why shouldn’t writers and lovers of literature construct an environment that's wholly comfortable and safe? When your time comes, when your book is published or you finally land that big feature, don't you want some applause too? But that constant applause is 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.
In recent years, the symbiotic fields of journalism and publishing have been particularly adept at stoking fears of their own demise, as they prepare to kneel before the moneyed monoliths of Google and Amazon. But unlike journalism, publishing is actually doing not badly—not well, you might say, but certainly not in a spiraling decline. Boosted by self-publishing, book sales are relatively stable; e-books have taken off; and the industry seems to have learned some lessons from the music business, whose Luddite failure to embrace digital distribution in the early aughts stands as the media industry's pre-eminent cautionary tale. Where publishing is endangered is in criticism and coverage, in the culture that should buttress it.
Though books pages have evaporated from newspapers over the last decade, blogs, Web magazines, and journals run on shoestring budgets—places like the Quarterly Conversation, the Boston Review, Full Stop, and the Los Angeles Review of Books—are springing up to take their place, along with some enduring legacy brands. (The New York Review of Books’ blog is often as good as anything in its print edition.)