Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's All Good. Or Is It?

You’ve probably read Jacob Silverman’s article in Slate about the so-called “epidemic of niceness in online book culture” by now, but if you haven’t, he essentially asserts that current literary culture has more or less turned into a bland and uncritical mutual admiration society, in which anyone with a negative opinion about a book is immediately excoriated by the relentlessly grinning forces of rainbow-flavored positivity. Or something like that. “Chilling effect on literary culture,” “clubbiness and glad-handing,” the dissent-crushing effects of Twitter and Tumblr, etc. and so on and so forth.

I really can’t speak with a whole lot of knowledge about the world of professional literary criticism, simply because I haven’t eyeballed with the prolonged degree of analytical focus necessary to say whether those people are deliberately trying to appease the Bureau of Grin Enforcement across the board.  I just clicked through a mess of reviews on both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times websites, and indeed, the negative reviews were noticeably outnumbered by the positive reviews. That’s hardly the most scientific approach to the topic, but it’s not actually the result I would have expected from even the most crude kind of eyeball test. Then again, Kirkus certainly continues to publish its share of eviscerating reviews.

I guess it’s possible this guy is on to something, even taking Kirkus into account. Still, I find it hard to get on board his negativity-driven steam shovel. It’s not that he doesn’t make valid points, because he does – dissenting opinions of all kinds ARE important. There definitely are times when Twitter feels like a relentless Ferris wheel of affirmation, and I'm a huge believer in the value of affirmation. I actually agree quite strongly that Twitter has an immense capacity to smother (at least temporarily) a person’s ability to engage in solitary, contemplative thought. I don’t personally spend a lot of time on Tumblr – and by “not a lot” I mean “absolutely none at all” – but it’s not hard to believe that it also has an air of super-overt positivity.

Is this really a problem, though? Or maybe I should ask, is this really the earth-shattering problem for the all-encompassing "literary culture" that this fellow thinks it is? The field of professional literary criticism is obviously going through an agonizing period of change, but it seems overly simplistic to lay it at the feet of book lovers routinely knocking back shots of happy juice on Twitter.  There’s also a very snippy and small-minded part of me that wants to chalk this up to sour grapes over the fact that the world of literary criticism isn’t exempt from the massive upheavals currently being experienced in the world of traditional publication as a whole.

I think my main objection to this piece isn’t so much the allegation that Twitter and Tumblr are echo chambers of insincere, self-serving enthusiasm, because I do think that's true to an extent (albeit a lesser extent than Mr. Silverman does), and frankly I suspect that phenomenon has existed in every arena of public communication the world has ever known. My bigger objection is to the implication that it’s somehow invalid for bookish people to choose support, camaraderie, and a shared experience of happiness as their primary reasons for participating in online literary culture.

I’m a writer, so obviously I have a horse in this race. My career is just starting, and I need all the help I can get, and yes, that help does include completely psychological things such as “not feeling like a fraud” or “having people respond sympathetically while I complain about how hard it is to write a book.” I’m also a big believer in celebrating, however. I recently attended the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference in Los Angeles, and an author who I really respect and admire (okay, it was Kate Messner) told me she loves the enthusiasm I’ve shown throughout my entire journey to publication, because she really feels like having a book published is an amazing, one-in-a-million experience that should be savored to the fullest.

I agree, naturally. It’s not hard to feel positive about my new career. It’s very easy to express enthusiasm about it. This is a dream come true! How could I not be over the moon? How could I not recognize what a positive experience it is for anyone to have? And why shouldn’t I use the tools at my disposal to communicate those positive feelings? I also don't agree with Mr. Silverman's assertion that writers are bathed in nothing but applause, and have a harder and harder time hearing voices that are critical of their work. I've gone through the query process, I've been in slush piles, and I've seen my share of rejections. I've worked with critique partners, agents, editors, assistant editors, and copyeditors, and every one of those people has been willing to point out the things I can do better. And I've seen friends suffer through intense episodes of literary cyberbullying.

Don’t get me wrong, I place a lot of importance on professional literary criticism. We really DO need thoughtful, nuanced, probing, informed opinions on the quality of children’s literature. School LibraryJournal blogger and reviewer Betsy Bird is a national treasure, if you ask me. And I actually do understand very well how expressing a dissenting opinion on Twitter can result in a person feeling psychologically stepped on. I've stated my complete lack of enthusiasm for the work of J.D. Salinger a couple of times on Twitter, and yow, there were Salinger fans coming after me with pitchforks and torches. I'll confess that it felt a bit chilly.

But here's the thing: those Salinger fans, as unpleasant as I thought they were being, had a right to react to my "I just can't get into Catcher in the Rye" tweets, just as I had the right to send out those tweets in the first place. To paraphrase what Nathan Bransford said in his own blog response to the Slate piece (in the comments, to be more precise), there are a whole lot of people on the internet who’re willing to tell you, in no uncertain terms, how much you suck. If Mr. Silverman really needs a tall cool glass of pugilism, he can spend five minutes on Goodreads and drink in all the venom he wants.

Epidemic of niceness? Nah. We live in a snarky, ironic, aggressive time, and I think it’s inaccurate to say the world of books has somehow managed to exclude itself from those dynamics. From where I sit, niceness still has a lot of catching up to do.

Mike Jung is having a flipping great time with all this "journey to publication" stuff, and you can't stop him. His debut novel Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic) arrives on October 1. He actually prefers Facebook to Twitter.


  1. I agree with this 100%. Totally how I feel. Especially the paragraph that begins "Is this really a problem, though?..."

    seriously well said.

  2. Very well thought out piece, Mike. I tend to see it like this: Before social media, what were the primary ways authors and literary-business types interacted with one another? Probably conferences, parties, etc. Face-to-face, and maybe the occasional correspondence.

    Admittedly, I'm not a big conference goer, nor do I spend a lot of time at parties rubbing elbows with other writers, editors and the like. Though I'm sure I'd do it more if there were no Internet. Anyway, I can't imagine people spend their time at conferences telling each other what they REALLY think about their work. I'd also guess there's a fair amount back patting and ego stroking that goes on. It's just the polite way to interact with your peers in public. That's never changed, I'd guess.

    What has changed is what constitutes as public interaction. Twitter counts now. As do Facebook, blogs, etc. Twitter is not a vacuum in which you can spout your true opinions and only your closest friends will know of it. (Just ask any number of senators and celebrities.) Essentially, your blog isn't your local coffee shop. If you say IT on Facebook, the person you've said IT about is going to find out.

    No, as a writer, it's probably best to treat social media as one big, ongoing public gathering. If you wouldn't say it in a room where the person is standing, it probably shouldn't be said at all. Not sure what Silverman would suggest we do. I suppose stay quiet, but that kind of defeats the point.

    1. Thanks E.J., and I think you've stated it very well - I don't want to understate how much the advent of social media has altered the SCALE on which public interaction takes place, because it really is like nothing the world has ever seen before. But I think you're right, it's still valid to extend the unspoken rules of public interaction out from the conference/lunch/cocktail party level to the social media level.

  3. This was very interesting. I think writers, for the most part (at least those of us in SCBWI) are supportive and encouraging of one another. Leave the criticism and nastiness to the critics. We need both to make our work the best it can be.

    1. Hi Laurisa, thanks for your comment, and yes, I place very high priority on being supportive and encouraging - the support and encouragement I've received over the past few years has played an enormous role in the progress I've made with my career, and I believe those things have enormous value both within and without the author-specific community.

  4. Thanks for you sanity shower, Mike. The world is needlessly harsh as it is. Some niceness is *not a problem.*
    And again- can we remind ourselves that we are not professional reviewers? We have not been paid to give the picture, the whole picture, and nothing but. We have feelings and opinions, but most of our itches and discomforts can remain private.
    I will give a Whoo-Hoo shout when I love something. I don't expect it to matter; but who knows- maybe it makes good karma.

  5. Definitely. My podcast actually just finished recording an episode about literary cyberbullying and how out of hand it gets. Rather than it being all niceness and hearts and rainbows, it seems like there's more of a mob mentality when someone doesn't agree with what fans of the book think.

  6. Such a well done post, Mike. Maybe it's just me, but I'm completely willing to post reviews and help promote books I love, but I'm not willing to put up negative reviews of those books I don't love. Reading is so subjective, after all. I've had conversations with friends who love books that I don't, and vice versa. Just because I don't like a book doesn't mean someone else will.

    I do think there's a difference between authors/teacher/librarians/book lovers who review books in their spare time (like I do) and professional reviewers who get paid to critically analyze and review books. This distinction is brought up in the comments section on this Educating Alice blog post:

    The point of my book review blog is to review books that I would use in my library and recommend to teachers and students. Therefore, I'm not going to include negative reviews about any book; I simply won't recommend those books to my staff and students if I don't feel it would be a good fit for them. I do think there's a place for critical, honest reviews, but I have seen some that are scathing, and those reviews don't help anyone--author or reader.

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    Extremely apt metaphor, Mike! I tend agree with Bibliolinks on approach. I'll let the professional reviewers provide the critical analysis while I'll stick to recommending the books I adore.