Like most writers, I spend a lot of time on my computer. I hang out on Facebook. I use Twitter. A nanosecond after this journal entry appears on my website, it will be crossposted to Tumblr. As a “new voice” in literature, as I’ve recently been called, I’m aware that I need to cast a wide net in order to have my voice heard at all. However, that’s not why I use Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr.
Okay–maybe it’s why I use Tumblr. For the most part though, I have other reasons for using social media that extend beyond finding new readers. Authors are people. We like to waste time on the internet. We like to have discussions online. We find out about books online, be it from friends, fellow writers, fans, or complete strangers (hat-tip to sites like LibraryThing and Goodreads). We read articles online, articles about cats and climate change and war and ice cream. We read things like Jacob Silverman’s article, “Against Enthusiasm,” published online yesterday at Slate, an article that’s an extension of Silverman’s original post, which I read when it surfaced a few weeks ago. And my reaction was, Finally.
This is a conversation I’ve been having over dinner tables for months. I tried to discuss it online (on Facebook, actually) a few months ago. I asked whether any of my Facebook friends actually talk about books they dislike. Their answers ranged from, “If I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it,” to “Yes.” When I asked the Yeses to give me an example, the conversation dried up. One person said, “My response is usually that the author didn’t know what they were doing.” I walked away from that interaction thinking, But there must be more to it than that.
As an editor, I read a ton of fiction that needs work—either it isn’t finished or has pacing issues or needs to be compressed or has too little tension (or conversely, not enough release). I think about these issues a lot. When I have the opportunity, I try to tell an author what I think needs work because, as a writer, I find feedback to be helpful. I’m not saying I’m right all the time but I can say that there are things I didn’t know were problems in my own work until someone pointed them out. Obviously, we can only hope that authors of published books have already reached that point. They likely already went through and fixed the problems with their work (or further problemitized their work, in the case of too little tension). However, they still want to know, of course they want to know, whether all that work paid off.
And we, as readers, want to tell them. We tell them by arguing about books. We read and write and talk about ambitious books because we want to take part in a larger conversation called Literature. And Literature needs that conversation in order to thrive. Further, Literature needs Criticism. We need critics, or, if there’s no one who’s willing to be seen as merely a critic (for, very often, once you get a label, you are that and nothing else), then we need to collectively be more critical. No one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings. No one wants to be confrontational. As a person who’s had her feelings hurt, as a writer who’s received mixed and, unquestionably, negative reviews, but who nonetheless prefers confrontation over passive silence, I’d like to know why criticism is suddenly such an awful premise.
Criticism leads to deeper levels of thought, authentic feeling that goes far beyond the fleeting decision to click “Like” or “☆ Favorite” or “♥.” I’m not dismissing those decisions to click; I’m saying that we have an amazing capacity for communication that we ignore when we passively, wordlessly, “like” things and then stop considering them altogether. This may have to do with the content that we read/watch online.
If I were asked to submit a scale of things I ingest on the internet, measured from Instinctual Delight to Thought-Provoking Satisfaction, the range might go something like:
Videos of cute cats to Articles on The Onion to XKCD to Articles on NPR/HuffPo/The Daily Beast/Insert Site Regularly Posting “Think Pieces” Here
As you’ll surely note, there is room for gradation between those points and, while I’ve definitely had a reaction to content on all of them that went something like, “Yay!” my reactions lessen/deepen, regarding actual vested interest, as I move back and forth on the scale. I’m saying that when my contribution to a conversation is “Yay!” it is a very different reaction than when I take time to actively ponder a topic, which is the way books often makes me feel (because books regularly make me feel multivalent emotions, whereas posts online, very often, reinforce something that I already like/“like,” which is still fine, but not the same as sources which lead to critical thought). That means nothing on the scale (and I do mean nothing) makes me feel the way books do. There’s crossover. I coo over cat videos. I coo over the phrase, “VICTORY TO THE FORCES OF DEMOCRATIC FREEDOM.” I laugh at The Onion. I laugh at Lydia Davis’s story, “Honoring the Subjunctive,” the full text of which is, “It invariably precedes, even if it do not altogether supersede, the determination of what is absolutely desirable and just.” Similarly, I hate foxnews.com. I hate The Heart of Darkness. My responses are comparable, but different. That difference gets to the heart of criticism’s glory.
Glorious criticism: Let’s consider how we feel when we learn something, through an artwork’s message, that we already know—translation: when we come to a party too late. How many friends do you have who first read a book or saw a movie or heard a record long after you did? A book or record or movie that you love and they can only be disinterested in. All we can do is accept that it’s one of those bits of art that needs to be consumed at a certain age or its impact is lost. Examples include: Catcher in the Rye, Ishmael, Weezer’s Blue Album, and Rushmore. (NOTE: I’m not debating these titles’ merits. In the interest of full disclosure, I hate one of them. I may or may not have been introduced to it too late. Point being: These are all polarizing in the public’s reaction to them.) The best part of disagreeing on whether or not the books you love or hate are, in fact, worth loving or hating is the discussion. You get to talk about why something is good or bad. You get to accept or dismiss its merits. You get to be introduced to two different parties’ points of view—the creator of the work in question and the person you’re arguing with, which brings me back to Silverman’s Slate article.
Reading Silverman’s original post, I felt vindicated. I felt similarly, though not as strongly positive, about his article in Slate. He pegged Emma Straub, a writer whose online presence is hard to avoid, as an example of effusive author-ity. He went on to say he could’ve named Jami Attenberg, Nathan Englander, Cheryl Strayed, or J. Robert Lennon. The difference between Emma Straub and the other writers he mentions is that, in addition to being an author, Straub is a bookseller. In his original post, Silverman stated, “Some of these people have backgrounds in book-selling, publicity, or marketing, so their enthusiasms are understandable.” In his Slate article, that was conveniently left out. That omission makes his argument less credible, but beyond that, the argument was still sound, an argument, wherein by the way, he does not criticize Straub, rather he criticizes the entire system. In order to discuss our fear of voicing dissent, for fear of being disliked, Silverman had to name names. So he raised the flag for criticism and pointed to what he saw as behavior indicative of the root problem. He will likely fall prey to a backlash that will support his underlying argument: We don’t like people who disagree with us. Frequently, we confuse disagreement to argumentativeness. We assume it’s an attack on our taste. And sometimes, it is. But in the instances wherein we feel attacked, we should stop and consider what the attacker would gain from the kill. If someone is anonymously throwing their weight around just to spout vitriol, then yes, that’s an attack, and it’s likely best dealt with by pointing out the source’s unnecessary anger and moving on. But if there’s merit in the argument, we should hear it out. We should treat it as we would a book and think about it beyond our immediate reaction to like or dislike it. If, after that, we still feel attacked, then we should find a third person and ask their opinion because discussion is a form of criticism and criticism is the way art has a long and active life.