The Literary Enthusiasm Debate

The literary blogosphere has been putting on its collective gas mask, or surgical mask, or whatever kind of mask protects us against epidemics. Jacob Silverman’s article “Against Enthusiasm” deriding the “epidemic of niceness in online book culture” at Slate has been getting around, presumably read, probably even debated a bit.

It’s example of everyone’s friend, writer Emma Straub, even posted a response titled “In Celebration of Enthusiasm,” in which she makes some reasonable points until the last, weird one.

“I do try to be delightful, in part because I find complaining in public terribly gauche.” Uh . . wha . . I’m sorry, I don’t understand. This is about writers, isn’t it? And so, we should only make complaints (criticism?) in private? This isn’t a charming, quirky up-and-coming novelist – it’s Stalin! Then she writes nearly as incomprehensibly, “The internet is big enough for all of us—the rabble rousers, the misanthropes, the goof-offs, and yes, the enthusiasts.”

So, misanthropes, go ahead and type to your black hearts’ content. Just don’t push publish –  because then it becomes public, you know.

Virtual friendliness?

Silverman’s article though puts a tremendous stress on social media’s role in this whole literary lovefest, and this is one place I take issue with him. Was it really different before, offline?

I’m in the process of reading a novel I’ll be reviewing, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, that came with a longer than usual amount of advance praise. The quotes come from fellow writers, with a publication or two of theirs listed to give weight to their almost entirely, at least to me, unknown names. And their criticisms are just as cloying as what Silverman finds on Twitter and Facebook – no, more cloying. I glanced at some of the advanced reviews of Straub’s novel and didn’t notice anyone comparing her to Tolstoy! Yes, advanced praise is supposed to be praise, but not vapid, wildly exaggerated compliments as if taken down by dictation on a dance floor among a circle of friends on ecstasy, one of whom happens to have just written the novel you are supposed to be advance praising.

(Some of the praise from the book copy can be found online here, though other authors’ and magazines’ blurbs are included as well, some less laudatory than others).

And yet I don’t even think the nauseating backscratching among novelist or Facebook friends is ultimately the real culprit either. Niceness is an issue, as is the fear among critics – approaching mythical proportions it seems – of being spit on at a New York party by a writer peeved at a bad review. The real cause is much more deeply rooted and insidious.

Getting taste

For reviewers not to exhibit the “relentless enthusiasm” Silverman rightly rips into would require them to have a distinct enough idea of what they like to even be able (let alone willing) to point out books that don’t live up to those standards. This doesn’t mean critics need to scrupulously rank writers and books – which would anyway cause the spitting at parties to become torrential – but maybe some fledgling critics would benefit from reading a bit more widely and critically before jumping into the reviewing game.

Segregating contemporary fiction from its predecessors as zealously and unthinkingly as we do today might still be liberating for some writers, while for others it conveniently helps them avoid comparisons that would be on the uncomplimentary side. The biggest beneficiaries though are definitely badly-read critics, who are spared making any connections between New York’s young writing phenoms and any literary greats they haven’t read.

The “comfortable and safe environment” Silverman describes writers and literature lovers creating is even worse than what he makes it out to be because it’s not recognized for what it is, even by literati who think of themselves as the opposite of comfortable and safe. It’s a many-headed beast that smiles, jokes and occasionally writes articles bemoaning the prevalence of irony. And what’s worst of all is that this literary world’s cloying, gushy cuteness isn’t confined to its criticism but to every other kind of writing coming out of it as well, including the dull-edged stuff that passes for American fiction and fills up most of the review space being debated.

Photo – Group of 6 men dressed in fashion of the 1910s reacting with joyfull enthusiasm. Man in middle with outstreched fist is identified as singer Billy Murray; others are unidentified/wikimedia (not my caption).

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Categories: Essays


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  1. Literary critics – nicees and meanies battle on | literalab - 17/08/2012

    […] critics – nicees and meanies battle on And the literary enthusiasm debate rolls on. What is it now – Round 2? Round 3? And this isn’t shaping up to be the type of […]

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