Writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman argues that literary culture, driven by Twitter and blogging, has gotten too nice:
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.
I think we’ve all encountered shallow and forced positivity online, and all those likes and RTs and squeefests can, at times, ring a more than little hollow. I’m a bit wary of reviewers who choose not to write negative reviews, which, by the way, is completely hypocritical because I have a self-imposed rule not to give bad reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.
But I disagree with Silverman that old school negativity is an integral part of a more virtuous literary culture. Sure, we need both positive and (thoughtfully) negative reviews, and above all we need honesty, but there’s no reason thoughtful literary criticism and squeefests can’t coexist. It’s a big Internet out there.
Besides, uh, have you seen some of the reviews on Goodreads? Some of them would make H.L Mencken blush they’re so hostile.
Even if one accepts the premise that we’re getting more positive in the Internet age… what are we losing again? Old school literary smackdowns may have been entertaining for those who agree with the reviewer, but I’m not sure I see how hysterical pans really advance constructive dialogue.
So basically… if there’s a problem I don’t see a problem.
What do you think? Too many rainbows and puppies out there? Would we be better off with more negativity and fewer niceties? Does the problem have more to do with cliqueishness than positivity?
Art: The Happy Violinist with a Glass of Wine by Gerard van Honthorst
Hallie Sawyer says
I don't think there is anything wrong with writers/readers/bloggers to support authors by talking positively about their books. I look at these more as recommendations rather than reviews. And when it comes down to it, I think if a book doesn't have a buzz about it, that should be enough. There is enough negativity in the world (the news) so why not keep the ugliness to ourselves. And puppies rock.
I've been thinking about this lately. It's an interesting issue.
I think it's a mixed bag. Certainly the community that is forming is wonderful. Authors supporting each other is terrific!
But the downside is the pressure on authors to be 'honest' (alot of the not-so-nice commenting people mentioned is done by readers, not authors, or it's posted anonymously). I think there's a definite loss there, in terms of honest exchange of opinion and truth.
I think we are entering the world of public scrutiny and celebrity. Just like actors and musicians tend to have almost scripted positive responses to their interactions with fans and interviewers, authors are beginning to feel the same pressure.
It is really easy to say the wrong thing and have someone swear they will never read your book, or promote your book, or feature it on their blog, or whatever, because they didn't like what you said. Authors may be wary about generating that type of ill will. The two-edged sword of the internet, which is allowing authors to finally have some visibility, is also placing them at the recieving end of other people's immediate opinion.
Some brave souls may ignore this pressure and speak out anyway. And thank goodness, because we need honest voices. For an actor to give a scripted response is one thing, that's what actors to. But to silence the voices of writer could be a great loss.
For those brave souls who speak out, if they are lucky, they'll get a positive reputation for frankness that people will accept. Men will probably find this easier than women; an outspoken woman still tends to draw harsh critique, for the most part.
My final concern is that this pressure to be 'nice' will impact what people write. That they will soften their books because they are worried about the reaction from readers.
Of course, writers will speak. We do have the fortunate options of pen names. That may help balance the pressure to be popular rather than truthful. And, again, some writers will always choose truth over popularity.
It will be interesting to watch.
Peter Dudley says
I agree! This is a great post, and you're awesome! The guy you quoted is the best! I love your blog! You talked about a subject I love!
Full disclosure: Positivity is my #2 "StrengthsFinder" strength. So I tend to think everything's great. I'm totally a rainbows and kittens and cupcakes kind of guy. But the saccharine squeefests make me gag a little, and I stay out of them. It often comes across more like sycophantic ass-kissing celebrity worship than actual dialog. I also don't ask for autographs when I meet super awesome famous people, which I have a few times recently. Even that one time when I really was tongue-tied star-struck. (Sorry, Nathan, it wasn't you, though you're a close second.)
Anyway, someone wise once used to yell at me quite often, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Reading between your lines, it sounds like on Goodreads you'll list the books you've read, but you'll only actually review the ones you like. That seems completely honest to me and very stable and sustainable. I think it's a good approach in person, and a good approach online–twitter, facebook, blogs, etc.
A. M. Perkins says
I once read a piece that was absolutely terrible – poorly plotted and conceived, bad grammar, incorrect word usage – you name the problem, it had it.
I thought long and hard how to nicely point out some of the issues and gave a review with selected constructive criticism that was still overwhelmingly positive and encouraging (and, again, to be nice, gave it more stars than it deserved).
I got a scathing rant in return, with profanities, insults, and diatribes delineating my many failures as a human. Fun.
I would never be deliberately mean to someone, but that's the kind of thing that makes me not want to be completely honest, either.
I deal with the opposite usually. In fandom everybody is looking for a way to tear somebody else down. X_x