The epidemic of niceness in online book culture.
Illustration by Sean Ford.
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.)
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.)
Jacob Silverman is a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review and a columnist for Jewcy. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, the New Republic, and many other publications. He lives in New York.