Jacob Silverman wrote an essay for Slate on Friday decrying “the epidemic of niceness in online book culture.” Of course, complaints about anodyne book reviews are not particularly new (I wrote my own back in March, which, I note with a pang of envy, received only a tiny fraction of the number of “likes” that Silverman’s has garnered.) But he’s updated the usual lament by blaming the influence of social media. “Today’s literary culture,” he claims, is a “mutual admiration society” composed of novelists, reviewers, fans and publicists who incessantly fawn over each other in a flurry of sweet tweets.
“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. . . . The literary world — a famously insular community to begin with — has become mired in clubbiness and glad-handing.”
I can’t disagree with Silverman’s description of the cheery online culture or its deleterious effects on the fragile health of book reviewing. Like mainline churches that have watered down their theology in a fit of desperate niceness, book sections have tried to attract more followers by being friendlier — spunkier, shorter, hipper. And yet, like their religious sisters and brothers, they’ve failed to garner more influence or attention.
I sympathize with the giddy enthusers. The market has spoken, and these days the market speaks with a scythe.
I’m lucky enough to have a well-paying job as an editor; whether I like a novel or not has no effect on my next paycheck. And my Pulitzer Prize-winning colleagues, Jonathan Yardley and Michael Dirda, are free to slash and burn whatever they think deserves it.
But at many publications, only the most oblivious — or principled — freelance critics could fail to notice the relative popularity of their own positive reviews. When you really, really like a book, your review appears on the front of the Arts section and high on the Arts homepage, and a link to it gets tweeted around the world, and people “like” it — in every sense of the word. It might even get reprinted in capsule form in “The Week,” which impresses your brother, who has a real job. And a few weeks later, you see your name appearing in blurbs in That Other East Coast Paper, and a few months after that, there’s your name on the back of the new paperback edition. Your parents start to believe that maybe you’re a writer after all.
And you get more assignments.
But try telling the truth. . . . You cannot fathom the silence that greets an unenthusiastic review of a mid-list literary novel. You could comfortably tune a piano in such silence. And then on that piano you could play, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
This should not come as a surprise. We live in a consumer culture. Many feature writers are pressured to produce copy that their readers can “use” — that is, use to buy things. Combine that with a thirst for clicks and views, and you’ve got the potential for abuse.
(A freelancer for a women’s magazine told me recently that she’s been instructed to rave about the books she’s assigned, no matter what she really thinks. That’s not book criticism; it’s publicity. And it’s hardly “nice” to the people who really matter: our readers.)
If you’re a book critic, you hear the question everyday: What should I read next? Faced with several hundred thousand titles a year, people are naturally at a loss. They join book clubs; they scan Goodreads; they reach for the reader-tested books on the bestseller list, which, for all its mediocrity, at least gives people some kind of direction.
In 15 years, nobody at a barbecue has ever asked me to expound on the weaknesses of a mid-list novel they’ve never heard of.
So I see the logic of the confession by Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman that he’ll usually review only books he likes. My problem is I can’t always tell if a novel is any good until I’ve burned through too much of my week, and then there isn’t time to find another one for Wednesday’s column. Also, I think it’s essential for some of us to throw sand into the gears of the publicity machine that encourages readers to buy novels that aren’t very good. If we renounce that role, who’s left to do it in a marketplace of RTs, likes and +1s?
Silverman’s concerns, though, are broader than such consumer interests. He wishes “we’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting.” But, of course, we do tolerate those tough critics; some of us eagerly search them out every week. It’s just that pugilistic literary reflections may have been one of the things that got driven off Main Street when scores of newspaper book sections closed around the country. Without book editors and securely employed critics to defend that arena of cultural conflict, the ring has been covered over with LOLCats.
But don’t despair, Mr. Silverman. If authors and their friends want to pet each other on Twitter, that’s okay. Sharp, honest book reviews are still just a click away. If readers want them, they’ll find them.
And I’m not just saying that to be nice. :-)