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.