Nice Book Reviews

(A guest post from Subashini Navaratnam.)

I’ve been reading the current flap over nice reviews vs not-nice reviews and wondering what this says about me, that I write not-nice reviews. Maybe I’m a not-nice person. (A revelation?) That’s what happens when much of the debate is framed around issues of niceness, positivity, and likeability—you can go around in a circle wondering if the reviewer is nice or not-nice, positive or curmudgeonly. I’m inclined to think that this whole discussion started off on the wrong foot, with a bizarre Jacob Silverman piece that claimed to be “against enthusiasm”; bizarre because presumably people get into book reviewing as a Thing To Do because they’re really enthusiastic about books? Surely, then, it’s not about enthusiasm and niceness and more about the demands of the market and book industry and the concurrent intensification of networking and “branding” of the self and of the product? It’s less about niceness than shrewd, aspirational ass-kissing to garner more page views, increase one’s reputation, and sell sell sell.

I mean, I liked Silverman’s initial blog post enough to expect that he was going in a different direction than where he ended up going in that Slate piece. I think he had a bigger, more interesting point buried in that piece, part of which I saw as having to do with how social media functions to uphold or replicate hierarchies of print capitalism, as such, and how reputation, expertise, and cultural capital accrue to reviewers from corporate media and media dynasties—and now, online magazines (some which formerly started out as blogs.) I mean, think about the networks of visibility on what is considered book talk worthy enough to be retweeted, reblogged,  or linked to and they’re basically writers, contributors and editors for the The Millions, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, The Awl, to name a few. And if you follow enough of them on Twitter and Tumblr you begin to see that the editors, writers, and contributors for these publications tend to know each other and prop up each other’s work—fair enough (or not), but it’s particularly North American, and it’s particularly insular. If we want to talk about social media and book reviewing, it should probably be a conversation about the reification of these digital connections in social media; how social media is implicit in dominant modes of cultural production and dissemination.

Let’s acknowledge that this discussion about book reviewing/criticism that’s taking place on the world wide web is largely among North American reviewers and critics. (Stuff First World People Like: Talking to Each Other & Assuming It Speaks to a Global Audience.) As such, I would think that any discussion about social media and economies of attention in The Literary World (forget the reductive discourse on enthusiastic vs critical, for the moment) would be more illuminating if it focused on the entrenched hierarchies of reputation/knowledge, within the North American milieu itself and between North America and the rest of the world. Someone can write a fantastic critical piece for the India-based The Caravan or Livemint and it will mostly be retweeted/liked/favourite/whathaveyou by other Indians or a select number of people within Asia and North America. But even a middling review or piece of criticism in The Rumpus or Slate will generally enjoy the privilege of being seen and read by readers from all over the world. (That is, by readers who are interested enough in books to actually want to read book criticism and reviews.)

I mean, what I’m trying to say is, sometimes a negative review of a highly-praised cultural product from the first world—the kind that enjoys wide distribution and robust marketing—is a necessary intervention by readers at the margins, at the borders, from other places and spaces. The discussion around enthusiasm or positive reviews, whether for or against, seems to assume that all this takes place, in the words of Michelle Dean, “on a level playing field.” I appreciate Dean’s essay for talking about the gendered aspects of the discussion:

The fact is, "harshness" is a moving target. It means entirely different things to different people. And one line along which it often divides is gender. In retrospect, that a call for being "less nice" would begin with a male critic isn't so surprising: There's a certain male tint to the perspective that life happens on a level playing field, where reason is always triumphant and a hint of bias is a slag on a good man's word, so why can’t we go mano-a-mano and all just have at it? Women, for better or worse, don't have that luxury. They know that the unconscious bias is always there. Yes, it's expressed along a spectrum: not everyone is as clueless as our poor "phallic shadow"-master in the weekend review. But even less direct disapproval can ping a radar, if you've been out and about in the professional world for long enough.

That’s pretty great, but the field becomes a lot more complicated when you add race, nationality, and location to the mix.

I mean, I know. Cultural hegemony, imperialism and its discontents. I’m simplifying the argument greatly to think of it wholly in terms of first world vs the rest. Nothing worse than pulling a reverse-Niall Ferguson. This brings to mind Aijaz Ahmad’s argument in “Literary Theory and ‘Third World Literature’” (in In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures):

By the time a Latin American novel arrives in Delhi, it has been selected, translated, published, reviewed, explicated and allotted a place in the burgeoning archive of ‘Third World Literature’ through a complex set of metropolitan mediations. That is to say, it arrives here with those processes of circulation and classification already inscribed in its very texture. About this contradictory role of imperialism which simultaneously unifies the world, in the form of global channels of circulation, and distributes it into structures of global coercion and domination, I shall say a great deal throughout this book. Suffice it to say here that even as we open ourselves to the widest possible range of global cultural productions, it is best to keep in view the coercive power of the very channels through which we have access to those productions.

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But this is a Very Big Topic that probably wouldn’t have generated as many page clicks or as much worthless discussion as an article titled, “Against Enthusiasm”, so. But when you write a piece like that you will predictably get a very meh response about “the case for positive book reviews”  which is about as useful as being “against enthusiasm”. What is Laura Miller saying here? I’m particularly peeved because I used to enjoy reading her in the (distant) past. To Miller’s credit she does seem to identify this conversation about criticism and reviews from a particularly American perspective, bizarrely (or not) Miller’s piece ends up being widely circulated. And her response prompted a particularly abrasive response from Scott Esposito (though I might add that the terms of which the debate is framed was always-already stupid). Then there’s the other widely-circulated essay by Dwight Garner, who actually writes these words:

“What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.”

Abusive enough? Punishing? Gold stars?  #NODADS for fuck’s sake.

Interestingly, one of the more useful approaches to thinking about what we do when we do criticism was to be found on Tumblr, the social media platform Twitter-people love to hate.

Hierarchies of social media! Who will write “Against Tumblr” and its necessary response, “In favour of Tumblr”?
 Tom Ewing’s brief but useful post on the furore summarises it quite neatly:

I like criticism as a vehicle for ideas about things - this isn’t the same as centering criticism on the writer but it’s not centering it on the artist either: I respect critics who specialise in piecing together artistic development, but it’s not my thing as a reader. The idea doesn’t have to be central to the piece - it could be half a phrase somewhere that turns out to be a hidden door.

I don’t expect critics to explain everything.

What’s interesting about the responses from Laura Miller and Dwight Carner (both establishment critics, in a sense) is that the focus is only on the critics, even if a lot of words are spent on explaining What Criticism Means to Me, as in Garner’s case. (“Our critical faculties are what make us human.”) It’s a little bit of a personality contest. And yes—both those pieces enjoy a wide circulation online. Click click click! Pageviews!

* * *

But all this talk about positivity and enthusiasm makes me wonder about angry reviews.

I want to be a compassionate reader. I am concerned with learning how to inhabit a text in a way that encourages more reparative readings than merely being satisfied with a paranoid reading (the result of having recently read the chapter on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” in Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling). And no, I don’t want to be the raving paranoid curmudgeon all of the time, but where does the anger go? How to place it within narratives of love and compassion, to strike that crucial balance between anger that illuminates and anger that becomes moral authority, as Audre Lorde recognised in “The Uses of Anger”? I am an angry reader a lot of the time and I want to be nice, but niceness rarely allows me to say what I need to say. I also want to be responsible in saying what I need to say, not to let honesty and anger become an excuse to hurt. But sometimes I just want to shout because being told to be nice and positive is often a mode of suppressing something uncomfortable for the status quo and when faced with the authority of reason and objectivity, vulnerable, insecure people (women; people of colour; people from other parts of the world interested in Literature and All Its Glory and but who aren’t well-versed in Literary Theory, Philosophy, the Classics, etc.; people whose first language isn’t English but who write and think in English now because fuckyeahcolonialism

As Aijaz Ahmad puts it, “One cannot reject English now, on the basis of its initially colonial insertion, any more than one can boycott railways for that same reason.”
) are often the ones who already feel the pressure to be nice. As Lorde reminds us, much of this has to do with trying to avoid the anger of others; there is the need to make nice with racist/imperialist/patriarchal authority so that it doesn’t hurt you further; sometimes you avoid the anger for bare survival. But then sometimes you need to speak the anger for bare survival; to assert your place in the world, to say, No, I disagree and you need to listen to me to understand why my disagreement is important. Notice the trend that Dean points out: white male reviewers and critics are comfortable with not being nice and writing about not being nice. They’re comfortable with coming right out and saying, Hey, that’s fucking stupid. Female reviewers need to circle around a topic, take a few steps back, think about how best to say something without being not-nice, then write about being nice. Female reviewers also recognise the burden of being nice and the burden of being subject to sexist vitriol and unkindness. And then, you know, to this, add the complex, icky, mucky, unpleasant layers of race, sexuality, nationality, etc.  (Stupid, worthless, time-wasting!—some white male reviewers might say.)

You bring all your issues to the table when you read, when you write about what you read and how you think your way through a text. Do we keep those issues separate from the text under our scrutiny? I’m thinking about Chris Kraus on female writing and schizophrenia, and in that vein, female criticism and ALL FEELING ALL THE TIME. Because conventional wisdom states that good, proper criticism should be objective, cool, rational, distant. What to do with all these feelings?(But how then to avoid the inevitable overemphasis on individual subjectivity, and the subsequent professionalisation of feeling?

In Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, Eva Illouz states that “in this process of general democratization of psychic suffering, recovery has strangely become an enormously lucrative business and a flourishing industry.” This “democratization of psychic suffering” and valorization of feelings over material inequalities and oppression helps the book industry flourish, too, so that something as insular and self-referential as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? can be marketed with book jacket copy that calls it “a fearless exploration into the way we live now”.
)  The thing is, I abhor “against enthusiasm” but I also abhor “the case for positive reviews” and the constant reminders (demands/pressure) to be nice; it’s a tyranny of its own sort, no less harmful than “objectivity” or the “critique the hell out of everything, hold nothing back, make people whimper and cry” position that some heavyweight tough-man critics want to adopt.

Perhaps I should just end this with some words from Kate Zambreno (from an interview in The Millions):

I was writing all sorts of these block-like reviews 500 words for various places, and I loved the opportunity to engage with contemporary literature and to get these shiny pretty books in the mail! but always felt like I had to bury my self and my complex associations with the text in order to write these objective capsule reviews. I wanted to write about how a text made me feel, and to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading, the ecstasy of experiencing literature, the way a book fucked with my head or changed my life, and then also tying reading into my process as a writer. So, I think there was this period of liberation, I came unbound in the blog, and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.

This is so relevant, and you can see this in a lot of blogs by book reviewers/critics, too, who link to their published review and append messier, chaotic, less-publishable thoughts in their blog posts, saying, “This is the longer version”. And those “extra” thoughts are always so much more interesting to read alongside the “proper review” itself.