Over the last week and a half, the online literary community has been caught in the grips of a minor furor over Jacob Silverman’s Slate piece, “Against Enthusiasm.” The gist is that,
if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.
Or, at least, that seemed to be the gist. As it happens, I was in the process of building up the newly christened CultureRamp Twitter account, when the story broke. The Twitterverse was soon awash in rebuttals to the idea that the online literary community is “too nice.”
It’s an unfortunate truth of online journalism that the stories that build the biggest immediate audiences tend to be those that tell their story twice, the first time as farce. Something of the sort seems to have happened here. It’s true that Silverman’s first attempt to make his point focused on the amiability of the online community, but he soon followed by making the point more salient:
Whereas critics once performed one role in print and another in life—Rebecca West could savage someone’s book in the morning and dine with him in the evening—social media has collapsed these barriers. Moreover, social media’s centrifugal forces of approbation—retweets, likes, favorites, and the self-consciousness that accompanies each public utterance—make any critique stick out sorely.
As the article continues, it becomes clear that Silverman isn’t opposed to niceness or amiability per se, just to a growing, industry-wide resistance to negative reviews. Online outlets, and particularly those (like Twitter and Tumblr) that depend on social sharing, add to that resistance by encouraging reciprocity between authors and their critics. After all, retweets and shares are, functionally speaking, avenues to geometrically larger audiences on their respective platforms, and an enthusiastic endorsements is more likely to get rebroadcast (particularly by the endorsed) than a more complex view. Doubtless, then, there are those who have concluded
that they will catch more readers (and institutional support) with honey than with argument, dissent, or flair.
Of course, courting controversy also works. In fact, given the way that links travel over social media, it may be the only effective means of catching the zeitgeist when your point is, shall we say, less enthusiastic.
Therein lies the catch-22. Silverman might have avoided so much muddling controversy had he led with the point that the mixed-use space of social media has eroded the boundaries between social and professional spaces. Yet, in all likelihood — and for precisely the same reason — getting the priority of the argument right would likely have meant a much smaller audience. “Against Enthusiasm” may not have convinced very many of its readers, but by stirring controversy (even if only accidentally), it was successful by the only metric that matters to many online venues: readership.
How does platform matter?
Silverman is right about this much: social media has been very much on the mind of some authors and critics as of late. Twitter and other social media have recently grown into the promotional venue of choice for many on both sides of the line. Strategies for using those outlets to create a “platform” for building a literary audience has recently given rise to a veritable cottage industry in social media advice. Some degree of backlash was practically inevitable.
Roxane Gay — a writer and critic with, it might be noted, a sizable Twitter following of her own — has provided one of the more pugnacious responses to “Against Enthusiasm.” In a piece for Salon entitled “Twitter isn’t killing books“, she takes jabs at Silverman for arguing from a position of white male privilege, for purportedly letting misogyny creep into his argument, and for fetishizing negative reviews as a marker of critical honesty.
I’ll leave all of that where it stands. Better to hone in on the more practical points. She is, for example, dismissive of much of the attention given to the functional tokens that define social media. “The ability to ‘like’ something,” she argues,
is one of the more irrelevant aspects of these networks and to assume that clicking a button on a social network is somehow a greater statement is perplexing.
As it happens, the greater ramifications of the act are currently the subject of a case over the first amendment rights of a dismissed deputy sheriff. Given the difficulty we are increasingly having in keeping the results of such tokens restricted to their social media platforms, there’s substantial room for doubting that “likes” and “retweets” really are all that irrelevant.
Because their relevance is not immediately discernible, it is tempting to agree with Gay when she argues that,
What truly diminishes literary culture is to focus on a writer’s Twitter feed, appearance, number of followers or anything that has nothing to do with the writing — and yet that’s exactly what Silverman does.
Though Gay doesn’t see it that way, that’s a point on which she and Silverman agree. The real point of contention between them is not over superfluity of social media, but rather over which critics have it too much in mind.
What is, in either case, undeniable is that the communications that pass over Tumblr and Twitter are conditioned by the structure of their respective platforms. That conditioning matters, not only for the shape taken by those communications, but also for the ways in which the critical mass of such communications give shape to culture. The question isn’t whether or not social media has an effect on literary and critical culture, but rather, what effect?
Literary culture is a conversation
Gay is most on point when she writes that,
So long as we keep thinking about reviews as negative or positive, we are losing sight of how book reviewing and cultural criticism are supposed to function. We’re not even having the right conversation.
Ignore the idea of how they’re supposed to function. I suspect Gay would agree that there is no master plan guiding literary or critical culture. The key word here is “conversation.”
We may habitually think of literary culture as a linear set of relationships, leading from author to critic to reader. In practice, though, the relationships tend to be more dynamic and variable. Yes, some authors make their appeals directly to the reading audience, and in those cases, critics may play a rather uncomplicated role in mediating those appeals. When it comes to popular series like Harry Potter and Twilight, for example, the critic is all but superfluous to the already committed fan. In those cases, the best a critic can do is explicate the phenomenon to those of us on the outside.
In other contexts, though, literary culture makes more sense if you view it as a conversation. In some cases, it’s a conversation between authors. Twitter gives a rather superficial glance into that relation. There, authors — many of them Tweeting even as their first works move through the publishing machine — carry on a small-scale version of that conversation, comparing and recommending one another’s work, commenting on their handling of the themes currently commanding the most literary attention. That makes social media a useful barometer of the interests driving authors who are plugged in to one another.
Likewise, much of the prevailing culture of any era is made up of the discussions taking place between critics, for which the latest books under review are practically only the occasion. Some of the heavyweights of the past, like Lionel Trilling or Dwight MacDonald, made lasting contributions not by serving as simple arbiters for the best new releases, but by themselves setting the terms of discussion.
For that matter, the conversation between authors and critics is continual and evolving. As such, it would be a mistake to place too much value on the vacuum seal Silverman seems to think should stand between the social and professional activities of critics. Maybe it’s even a state of affairs that, with enough diligence and authority, we could put into practice; we’d lose much thereby. The author/critic conversation can still be seen in evidence in the liminal figures of contemporary literature, particularly with authors who pull double duty, publishing both novels and criticism — Zadie Smith, for example, or Dave Eggers by way of McSweeney’s. It is not merely that they take part in the critical conversation in addition to making sharply delineated personal and social statements through their novels. Rather, their fiction and criticism are, alike, contributions to the same discussion, different in kind but not necessarily in spirit.
That leaves the reader. Historically, their role in the conversation has been partitioned. Yet, to call readers “consumers” is not to consign them to passivity. Rather, readers have largely been responsible for subsidizing the conversations that appear in print. They vote with their dollar, as it were. Determined critics can keep a book at the forefront of the literary consciousness by their willingness to discuss it out of all proportion to the book-buying public’s willingness to actually invest in that book — but, even then, they do so only at the risk of alienating their subscribers and advertisers. That provides them with some latitude, but not as much as we sometimes suppose. Beyond that, the readers’ opportunities for taking part in the conversation, for deciding on its content, have traditionally been limited. They could discuss literature with one another, write a letter and hope it hit its mark, or translate what they’ve read into action.
The Internet, and social media in particular, promised (or, depending on your perspective, threatened) to change that circumstance. The extent to which it has actually done so is debatable. As it turns out, conversations are very difficult to conduct among thousands of people at once. Most of us simply lack the bandwidth to process that many voices, even when our ISPs provide us with the bandwidth needed to access them.
What happens instead is that we form new venues, and with those new venues, new ways of arranging the conversations that make up literary culture. Twitter is one such venue, and its functionality matters because it provides the means by which we arrange those conversations — conversations that are part of, rather than wholly disposable adjuncts to, the literary culture of the moment.
In that regard, Gay’s assertion that “like” mechanisms are “one of the more irrelevant aspects” of social networks falls just as wide of the mark as Silverman’s suggestion that we can seal off the social and professional aspects of literary culture. Just as criticism itself can be a central part of literary culture, social media has become a means of carrying on the conversation. Whether or not either is supposed to function that way is beside the point. They do.
Not that Silverman is any more correct. The premise that social media is part of changes in the culture can be granted, but the notion that it’s undermining honest criticism is speculative at best. Social media does traffic in enthusiasm, but that need not mean anything more than that our authors, critics and readers have found a new venue for endorsing the conversations they want to have, rather than those that are foisted on them by others. Those platforms thus become breeding grounds for new discussions.
What remains to be seen is whether or not those discussions have any staying power. That will depend in large part on whether or not they’ll be taken up by media that allow for more complexity.