Sometimes I believe that 100% of readers are uninterested in the political upheavals of the world of book criticism, but (encouragingly for writers like me who also double up as reviewers) (and bloggers), this is arithmetically untrue. Even if books pages in magazines are usually subsidised by more popular and widely-read sections elsewhere in the paper, they remain vital to the broad cultural conversation in which a magazine like Lounge participates. The audience which reads reviews may be far smaller than that which engages with, say, the cricket scores or the provocative political opinion, but it can operate at the same volume. Shut up, IPL fans.
By an accident of medium, the culture of book reviewing is a responsive, textually productive one. For over a hundred years we have all been bound by the same technology; not just ink and paper, by which the reviewer responds to the published author and the letter-writer to the reviewer, but by language itself. The reviewer is judged by exactly the same criteria she uses to judge a book. We are all rattling the same sabres. It’s not an even battlefield -- but it can be more even than some others.
This is why few other fields of reviewing are subject to navel-gazing as prolonged as book crit. Please brace yourself as I try to summarise the conflict which has been riveting certain small, grandiloquent sections of the English-speaking world for the last few weeks. It started with a provocative editorial on Slate written by Jacob Silverman called “Against Enthusiasm.” Silverman’s contention: social media, especially the “literary Twittersphere,” is over-infected with niceness, a world in which there remain few boundaries between readers and writers. Critics, sometimes because of the nature of the medium and sometimes out of a professional interest, get caught up in a culture of friendly conversation which unduly influences the way they judge the work of an author they have “friended” or “followed,” liked and favourited. Result: bland book reviews which give middling authors more sops than they deserve.
The fleeting but perverse satisfaction every reader gets at a moment when someone has said something mean overtook Silverman’s readership briefly. Support followed. Dwight Garner in the tremendously influential New York Times extended the argument: “ Since childhood I’ve been a loather of America’s feel-good, everyone-on-tiptoes culture,” he wrote. “Give me some straight talk. Give me a little humor. Give me something real. Above all, give me an argument.”
Arguments there were in plenty. Laura Miller, in a piece titled “The case for positive book reviews”, did not succeed in making a case for “niceness” but pointed out some practical reasons why “nice” reviews take precedence over nasty ones in many newspapers and magazines today -- we simply don’t have enough space to print all the reviews we want, and given a choice, would prefer to talk in detail about books which we think are important and engaging, instead of pontificating on things we hated. Michelle Dean in The Awl was spot-on when she pointed out that the Silverman argument is typically gendered.
She writes: “It’s curious that when examples of “too much niceness” get bandied around, it’s almost always midlist female novelists who are chosen as examples—and not, say, a writer like Chad Harbach.” (Please don’t waste time trying to dredge up counter-examples because you won’t find any.) She follows on from Roxane Gay’s piece, where Gay wrote:
“...Only a white man would believe that the online literary culture — or anything on the Internet — suffers from too much niceness. If you’re a woman, person of color, or member of the LGBT community, the online literary culture is, more often than not, far less hospitable and criticism is directed to the person rather than the person’s ideas. Has a man writing in the public sphere ever been called fat, ugly or a whore within the context of their writing? I doubt it. It is a privilege to have had no encounters that might lead you to believe the online culture is anything but nice.”
I’ll stop at this point, emphasising that I’m only posting a few examples of a long and complicated chain of response, which I happened to read and agree with. I thought I would write a response to Silverman when his piece first started doing the rounds (largely approvingly circulated among Indian readers, who appeared to think it closely mirrors the situation in South Asian letters today), but was overcome by the biological impulse not to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m kidding.
For my part, I think that niceness/nastiness is a false dichotomy in the way we judge book reviews. These are descriptions, not evaluations. Our favourite reviews are ones which speak deeply of an reviewer’s experience with the book, offer us some context, either because the reviewer knows a lot about the book’s subject, or knows a lot about the author’s oeuvre, and are written well. We respond first to their quality: and this is not always dependent on the quality of the book.
To do justice to a book, we require honesty. For that, we need to think ethically about how conflicts of interest apply to reviews. I’m surprised Silverman didn’t, even once, suggest that perhaps the key to the problem of social media over-friendliness lies with editors, who can always choose to assign a review to someone who isn’t from the same social circles as their author. Or is that too old-fashioned? I know there’s no easy way to measure conflict of interest in the Twittersphere -- individual mileage varies so much-but it is sometimes possible to find reviewers who care more about a book than about a Twitter personality.