Much Gnashing of Teeth: Reviewing a Review of Book Reviews

Jacob Silverman writes “Against Enthusiasm” at Slate: “The writer Emma Straub has 9,192 Twitter followers . . . let’s say you’re part of this web of writers, fiction-lovers, literary editors, and readers in the social-media world, and you’re assigned a review of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. What if you don’t like it?” Without wanting to sound (too) facile, isn’t that, um, not really much of a problem? Given that she has “9,192″ followers? (World Bank’s 2011 World Population: 6,973,738,433.) Is it newsworthy when 53 people “like” their friend’s picture of his new car, and one of them happens to write for Road & Track? (“Only 11 of them actually liked it, our source says.”) Authors post about their books, filmmakers post about their films, your 14-year-old cousin posts about MMA—that’s what social networks are for.

[Silverman’s op-ed seems to be about the prevalence of “positive” reviews, and the problem that poses for “literary culture.” By way of counterpoint, here’s a fascinating story, from Foz Meadows, about goodreads, bullies, and bullying goodreads bullies. Which would seem contrary to what Silverman is saying, given that goodreads is a social media platform. For talking about/reviewing books. But we won’t dwell too much on that.]

I am not a scholar of book reviews. I can’t say whether what we are seeing at the moment is unusually positive. It is a lament I hear often, for whatever reason, but it never sticks for me. There is boosterism—plenty of it—but I can’t believe that that’s so historically unusual, especially not relative to the number of people in the world who are literate, which is now at its historic peak, numbers-wise. Certainly, advertisement has existed for quite some time, and cronyism, too—even its less-pernicious friend, word-of-mouth. It seems to me important to separate, at all times and in all contexts, criticism (which is ongoing, but infrequently contemporary) from reviewing (which, despite the standards some seem to be holding it to, is a form of publicity—”review copies” exist at all, anymore, because publishers want to advertise their books), and both from just plain old puffery.

Opinion is always, has always been, and always will be just that—opinion. It doesn’t count for much if it doesn’t come from someone the reader knows and trusts. (Do you care about my opinion, dear reader? Should you?) This trust used to be deposited in the local newspaper or other respected periodical, largely because, for most people, this was the only informed opinion they were likely to read. But that’s not the case anymore. Silverman writes: “We are paid to be skeptical, even pugilistic, so that our enthusiasms count for more when they’re well earned.” But that seems to me to reflect a naïve view of the contemporary reader, both as someone who has a history with the reviewer (less and less likely, now that there are so many outlets and reviewers (even if many of the latter are unpaid) readily available to anyone with an internet connection) and as someone who doesn’t much care that his/her judgments are relatively consonant with those of that reviewer. It seems to me that, if Reviewer X trashed Harry Potter and the Social Media Book Reviewing Scare, a book that you loved, you might be less likely to trust her trashing of the sequel, Harry Potter and the Social Media Book Reviewing Scare Scare, and if you don’t know Reviewer X from Adam (or Eve), it won’t matter anyway, because you probably won’t seek out his/her review. I don’t say that this is a good thing, so please don’t argue with me about it; I’m just saying that seems to be the world that we live in now. Why else would FoxNews be so popular? Do you ask just anyone you meet what movie you should see tonight? We don’t have that kind of trust now (if we ever really did), is what I’m saying.

There are fewer cultural arbiters these days in that respect, but also many more. Viz. this much gnashed-over review in the NY Times (and its response from the author, thus much of the gnashing). It is not the first result I get when I search for “Patrick Somerville This Bright River” on Google. This one is. See that? That one’s in the NY Times, too. Huh. So much for “trusting” in institutions/outlets. But, aha! I get Ervin’s review first because I happen to be “friends” with him somewhere on the internet (thus that weird little man (no, not the picture of Ervin—next to that) next to his review), and I guess Google knows it (I always wonder how, and whether I ought to be concerned). So perhaps in some way this actually goes to making Silverman’s point. Or does it?

Silverman, to his credit, writes: “The problem with Liking is that it’s a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence—or, really, posture without opinion. For every ‘+1,’ ‘THIS,’ or ‘<3′ we offer next to someone’s fawning tweet, a feeling is expressed without saying much at all.” Thus, Bill Diehl of ABC Radio calls 1993′s Son in Law “Outrageously funny!” (So, empirically speaking, we know that thoroughly useless “review”-age has existed at least 19 years.) The biggest dust-ups on goodreads seem to happen over a phenomenon complementary to the one Silverman describes, when readers/reviewers respond with vitriol to attempts at promotion/perceived attempts at promotion (so sure that “affirmation is the habitual gesture of the Internet,” Mr. Silverman? Maybe if one ventures away from social media (or, rather, select social media—again, goodreads is a social network) for a moment and trolls down on some youtube videos, or basically any newspaper article comment stream, or, if s/he wants to stick with “literary culture,” maybe HTMLGiant, one loses that certainty pretty quickly). A natural corrective to all the “like”s, perhaps? Not really, and I suspect that Silverman would be with me in saying that it’s really the other face of the same coin—whether what comes out is gushing or damning, unless there’s “evidence” (read: description and informed analysis), what we’re left with…isn’t much. But then much of what’s said in daily life isn’t so much, either.

Silverman is right to wonder about how networking affects reviewers involved in those networks (is that why I can’t find Janet Maslin on Facebook?), and I think his opinion is most interesting precisely there. But I don’t think it’s exceptional to our moment. He writes, “Rebecca West could savage someone’s book in the morning and dine with him in the evening,” and yet “social media has collapsed these barriers [between personal life and professional life].” Maybe. That seems specious, and if never meeting or even speaking to a person is more likely to break down ethical barriers than, you know, going out to dinner with them and actually spending time in their company, well, that seems to me a challenge to critics that has nothing to do with social media and everything to do with individual ethics. It could be that Ms. Straub counts Janet Maslin, James Wood, Michio Kakutani, Lev Grossman, and all of the other name reviewers I don’t know because I don’t rely on them to determine what I read next among her 9,192 followers. But I somehow doubt any of them are going to feel pressured into giving her novel a positive review because of it.

If there are fewer negative reviews these days—and I’m not so sure that’s the case; Silverman’s thoughts about writers and readers spending too much time “in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres” are evidence that he’s spent too much time “in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres”*—then maybe that’s because we’re all just admitting the truth: the harshest criticism an artwork can receive is silence. Not just at this particular moment in history, but at any time (just ask Barnum, or the legendary Barnum, anyway). If your friends (or your “friends”) can’t help deflect that, even just a little, then (PSA-style:) they’re not very good friends! There’s really nothing to lament in that, is there?

*By which I mean that taking part in said “-spheres” is a prerequisite for believing in their importance. Those who do not spend time in them do not know or care about them, as is only proper.

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