Links to Jacob Silverman’s notes “against enthusiasm” have been popping up in my RSS and Twitter feeds for a few of weeks now, first when they appeared as brief remarks on Silverman’s blog and again when Silverman turned them into an article published last week on Slate. In most instances the links have been accompanied by either praise for Silverman’s argument or an absence of commentary which I take as tantamount to an acknowledgement that, at the very least, he’s on to something. In his notes, Silverman diagnoses the preeminent problem with today’s online culture of literary criticism and proposes a solution for it. I think his diagnosis is spot-on, so I’m glad to see a sustained interest in his notes — and particularly since so many of the venues that have linked to them are the very sorts of venues he faults.
“[I]f you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres,” writes Silverman,
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. … Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web.
One problem with this situation is that, for Silverman, “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.” And because such “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments” of online literary criticism, their very dominance gives rise to a second problem: “biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal — one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person.” The result is a literary culture “dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement,” in which criticism has ceased to function as such. Because every member of this culture wants their own writing to be read, they seek to receive praise for their writing by praising the writings of others and, as a result, the culture overflows with writings of which none are ever not worth reading.
Glancing at the archives of this blog over the last few months, and looking through the computer documents and notebooks in which I also write, I see that I have brought nothing to completion: no new posts, reviews, or articles. There are two reasons for this recent silence, each of which, in its own way, dovetails with Silverman’s criticisms and proposed solution.
The first reason is that I have spent three months struggling with enormous practical impediments to writing. On August 1, I took up a new teaching position in Switzerland. I began preparing for the overseas move in May and tying up loose ends in Australia in June, and I finished all that and moved here towards the end of July. Co-ordinating the overseas move was a drawn-out, demanding process that left me with almost no time to sit down, uninterrupted, long enough to find words to set on a page and twist them into intelligible form.
How does the move to Switzerland dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it entails a retreat from the literary culture of Melbourne. “To the uninitiated, this might seem immaterial,” Silverman writes of his opposition to the culture of enthusiasm, “or [it might seem] like the kind of navel-gazing tabulation of credentials that can make the New York literary world insufferable.” What’s true of New York is probably true of any city with a thriving literary culture, Melbourne included. With few exceptions, Melbourne’s literary culture — on which the city prides itself, and which can seem so vibrant from afar — strikes me as insular, shallow, and self-congratulatory, the physical manifestation of the literary Twitterverse. It functions more on the logic of a professional support network for writers than on the logic of an impassioned engagement in literary evaluation. One book launch after another is attended by the same aspiring authors, each of whom proceeds to wax enthusiastic about the book in question before soliciting enthusiasm for his or her own book when the time comes for it to be launched. Week after week, month after month, enthusiasm coalesces around one mediocre title after another before it dissipates and moves on to the next title in the line of succession. Perhaps this is inevitable in any literary culture where, in terms of labour hours, the process of becoming a writer demands less time spent putting words on a page and more time spent marketing and publicising whatever you can manage to actually write in your spare hours, and networking to ensure that other writers will contribute to your later marketing and publicity efforts.
Whatever the cause of it, I realised not long after moving to Melbourne that this sort of culture wasn’t for me. That was at the beginning of 2009. By the end of 2011, I saw that any pursuit of literary professionalisation in Melbourne would require participation in this culture. Knowing then that I couldn’t bring myself to participate, I began looking outside Melbourne for ways to professionalise my love of literature while at the same time preserving it. What drew me to Switzerland is another story. What matters here is that my departure from Melbourne — one source of my recent silence — was partly a reaction to a literary culture whose atmosphere matches that of the online culture that drew a reaction from Silverman.
The second reason for my recent silence is that I have in some sense been driven to it by a renewed appreciation for literature. Part of this renewed appreciation arises from the collapse of the demand to approach literature through an exclusively academic lens, a demand I no longer face in my new position in Switzerland. Part of it, too, arises from having spent the first half of this year reading a number of works of literature which made such forceful impressions on me that my words no longer seem adequate to the task of conveying those impressions. None of these works are obscure — all of them have been written about in several major publications both online and in print — but my final reaction to each of them was inertia, an inertia based on an inescapable sense that to attempt to dilute their effects on me into some synoptic and analytic form would be to risk diminishing those very effects.
How does this appreciative silence dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it casts me into a grey area in Silverman’s proposed remedy for the cloying enthusiasm of online literary criticism. In attempting to countervail that enthusiasm, Silverman contends that a better culture of criticism “would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. [Its participants] wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions.” What Silverman wants to see, then, is greater openness to frank evaluations of mediocre literature. Frank disapproval is one way of responding to mediocrity, of course, but my preferred response is dismissive silence — the very sort of silence that Silverman rejects. “[S]ome publications don’t publish negative reviews,” he complains,
[because they treat] even considered pans as hatchet jobs. Time‘s Lev Grossman has said that he won’t review books he doesn’t like. He recently published an essay titled “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation,” which he drained of any details that might be used to identify the book or the writer. For quite some time, NPR.org’s main books feature was called “Books We Like,” and negative reviews were discouraged…
Silence is obviously a problem for Time and NPR. As venues with a defining interest in current affairs, their literary coverage is necessarily chained to the current publishing market and is thus rendered inadequate by a failure or even a calculated refusal to issue a verdict on works that achieve transitory cultural prominence solely by way of marketing processes. For literary blogs, however, the absence of a necessary interest in current affairs means that silence is an affordable response to underwhelming books and, for me, a silent response is one that holds an increasing appeal. If a venue for literary criticism is unconstrained by fealty to the vicissitudes of the market, then it suffers no need to warn readers away from a particular title. If literary criticism does not suffer that need, then those who write it are therefore free to assume that the only titles worth writing about are those that are first worth reading, and those who read it are induced to assume that any title worth reading about is by definition worth reading in full.
Rather than following Silverman’s cues and engaging in the wholesale demolition of books that leave me unsatisfied, I want to disengage from a literary culture utterly beholden to marketing and instead work in a form of literary criticism that operates on the assumptions above. Silverman wants a literary culture in which “we all think more and enthuse less,” as if thoughtful and enthusiastic responses to literature were somehow mutually exclusive. I’d prefer a response in which the articulation of thought is predicated on the experience of enthusiasm, a response in which enthusiasm for a book does not need to be expressed in words because its mode of expression is the very act of using words to articulate one’s thoughts of a book.
Where I find myself now is a position in which, professionally, I can concentrate my critical efforts exclusively on this blog even though, personally, I am not sure that my efforts would do justice to the very works of literature to which I most want to devote them. I’m able now to spend much more time on these pages than I have done over the last year or so, but what will appear on them is likely to be less occasional and less responsive to discourses of the moment than what has appeared here so far. My hope is that, far from advancing a situation in which enthusiasm for literature is cloying and shallow, the medium of the blog can allow for a mode of literary criticism that emerges from enthusiasm, that treats close attention to textual details as a symptom of literary appreciation rather than a path towards it, and that thereby positions the intellectualism of critical analysis as the appreciative extension of the sensuality of reading.