Too Nice

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

But 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.

At Slate, Jacob Silverman on the epidemic of ‘niceness’ in online literary culture, a problem of which I have been quietly aware and actively guilty. At Fictionaut, for example, there seems to be an unspoken policy forbidding any negative criticism; the only comments are meant to praise, with ‘faves’ serving as a scoreboard for the most beloved work, and if a story is bad, it is simply skipped over. Fictionaut has been great for my confidence and for inspiring me, even in a competitive way, to create new work that I can show off and feel good about, but this method can only help a writer so much. Who is keeping us honest?

One problem with not pursuing an MFA is that it leaves me without a mentor. Just once I wish I had someone who could tell me when I am not being true to myself as a writer, or not matching my abilities, or that I just plain suck.

Silverman isn’t talking about writing-share sites like Fictionaut, though; he’s talking about real authors and publishing and professional critics. We are too busy championing the art and the industry to judge what comes out of it critically for the sake of making it better. But this isn’t so much a new thing. Susan Sontag—who one would never call a reviewer, but a critic, in the manner of Trilling and Wilson—only wrote about books and films she loved, figuring that writing about anything else would be a waste of her and her readers’ time.

At Salon, Roxane Gay responds:

While Silverman makes an interesting argument about an excessive culture of enthusiasm in literary circles, it is curious that he never talks about books. Instead, he focuses on these cults of personality that rise out of social networking — Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook and the like, conflating people interacting via these networks with serious criticism that might take place in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, London Review of Books, Bookslut and any number of rigorous critical outlets – so many of which exist because of the Internet and have their voices amplified by Twitter, Facebook and other dorms of social media.

And there are indeed certain authors who promote themselves very well on social media, and they develop loyal such followings so that the content of their art becomes secondary. If you were to write something harshly critical about such a writer, even in an honest way, those followers would be breathing down your neck, because the Internet has a way of zeroing in on such offenses like an angry mob before the arguments the critic makes can be fairly considered.

Gay addresses this point with candor:

There is, indeed, a very simple solution. If a critic feels like he or she cannot follow a writer on social networks and review their work honestly, don’t follow writers on social networks. It is not mandatory to follow writers beyond their actual writing. James Wood and Michiko Kakutani are not worrying about how friendly writers are online as they consider what to review next and how.

I would argue that any critic shouldn’t get too close to his/her subject if that critic expected to review the subject fairly. But Mailer and Updike and Cheever and Roth and Bellow all managed to write about each other’s books without feeling the need to be their cheerleaders; if anything, they often let their competitive sides get the better of them, yet they still maintained friendships to certain degrees. It also took a couple of days for each’s letter to reach the other in the mail. Perhaps a little distance is all we need to be honest.


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