I have been thinking about Jacob Silverman’s article, Against Enthusiasm, since it ran in Slate on Saturday. Early on, it asks the question, “Would you be willing to critique [Emma] Straub’s novel after watching her life scroll out on social media over the last year—indeed, after likely being the recipient or admirer of some small word or act of kindness on Straub’s part?”
Full disclosure: I am one of Emma Straub’s 9,192 followers on Twitter, and a couple weeks ago, she did something nice for me. (She gave my poetry collection a shout-out at Rookie.) Emma and I aren’t “real” friends (we’ve never even met IRL), but I admire her style, and look to her as a model of what social media is capable of, particularly for up-and-coming writers like me.
I see Silverman’s point that it’s hard to criticize the work of someone who’s just so fucking nice, but by choosing Emma as his case study in likability, he is effectively slapping her on the wrist for being so successful at self-promotion. And I don’t think that’s fair. Don’t wear flowers in your hair, Emma, don’t you want us to take your work seriously? Would his argument hold if we swapped Gary for Emma?
Gary Shteyngart has even more followers (11,753), and 7,224 Facebook likes. He is hilarious and charming. He often posts pictures of his dachshund. (Full disclosure: I have written, and performed, Gary S. fan-fic.) Does he pose the same threat to critics that Emma does? Should he quit it with the dachshund? Of course not, because his career is banked on humor, and his online persona matches the persona he often uses in his novels. “If you like this,” his tweets seem to say, “you’ll like my books.”
And I think that’s what Emma does as well.
And what’s so wrong with that?
As book review pages shrink or disappear, criticism is changing, which Silverman acknowledges. It is migrating to blogs, and to amateur reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon. Silverman argues that “constant applause is making it harder and harder to hear the voices of dissent—the skeptical, cranky criticisms that may be painful for writers to experience but that make for a vibrant, useful literary culture.” If you would like to hear the voices of dissent, I invite you take a look at the Goodreads or Amazon pages for my two books. Here’s a recent goodie:
“Dull, obvious and over-simplified, with a too-easy resolution. Barf.”
Look no further for crankiness and vibrant literary culture. Real criticism isn’t missing; it’s just been democratized. Barf is its new ammunition. The real question is, what does this mean for the writers of books and the readers who need them? Do we even know or understand yet what effect amateur reviews have on sales, compared to say, a mention in Briefly Noted?
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