Dwight Garner applauds Jacob Silverman. I agree with Garner. As he says, “Marx understood that criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.”
I believe in being kind to people, but undiscerning enthusiasm doesn’t do anyone—writers or readers—any good. A “negative” review doesn’t have to be scornful or mean. You can critically examine a book with respect. There’s an important challenge in articulating why a book does or doesn’t work. It’s not about “liking” or “disliking” a book so much as determining whether a book succeeds on its terms. My favorite books are driven by voice and language and tone. I love precision (I’m a big fan of Muriel Spark, Mavis Gallant, Joan Didion, Charles D’Ambrosio, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, and W.G. Sebald, among others) and profound psychological insight (my beloved Alice Munro springs to mind). But I also recognize that for a police procedural, say, narrative pacing and plot are the most critical elements. I love Tana French’s atmospheric writing, for example, but what makes her books work is her meticulous plotting. A book sets out its terms on the first page. As readers, we immediately know if the writer has authority. To me, the best books burn with urgency: it seems as if they had to be written. The prose is bone deep, you can feel it to your core. There are other books that are well-crafted, but seem to rest on the surface, never quite penetrating that deep and magical place that feels necessary and true.
As part of the literary community (and I do believe it’s a community, even if it can be full of back-biting and mean-spirited gossip at times), I believe I have a responsibility to support other writers, editors and publishers. Not out of some self-serving desire to score points with those people, but because in a world where fewer and fewer people really care about books, those of us who do care need to band together. I love to read. I read an average of three books a week. I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a kid. I’m a writer, but I’ll always be a reader first. I buy a lot of books. I buy them from independent bookstores. I automatically buy books written by friends and acquaintances. Because they are colleagues. Because writing is hard. Because I admire anyone who keeps doing it. But I will not go out of my way to praise a book—online or anywhere else—if I don’t fall in love with it. I go to friends’ readings and spread the word (via twitter, etc.) about their events. I congratulate them on their book deals and mean it—I’ve never been one to waste time with professional jealousy. There is room in the world for many different kinds of writers and books.
But I’d hate to live in a world in which every book were praised. I love reviews that burrow deep into the prose and examine it on the sentence level. I love reviews that make the kind of critical distinctions that Garner talks about. We need reviews like that. Good criticism (the sort that really engages with the text) is an art. Reading good criticism has made me a better writer and reader.
No one likes everything. Taste is subjective. Honest dialogue doesn’t have to be mean. As a writer, I want to support my colleagues, but I’d like to think that support can come without diluting our critical faculties. I’m not making a case against enthusiasm. I’m making a case for enthusiasm with integrity. (In other words, I won’t call a book “one of my favorite books of the year” unless it is, in fact, one of my favorite books of the year.)
I’m the first to admit that this is a hard landscape to navigate. If you value loyalty, as I do, you can’t help but cheer for friends and mentors. It can be hard to maintain critical detachment about a book written by someone you know. Or edited by someone you know. The more people you know—and with social media, we all “know” a lot more people—the harder it is to stay impartial. All these links become especially obvious on twitter, where people tend to automatically RT promo tweets about books by writers who share their agent, or their publisher, their MFA program, or their bed—the more people you feel loyal to. And as a supporter of books in general, I’m glad to see any book get talked about. But if everyone is praising each other and retweeting every gushy promotional tweet, twitter loses the authority of individual voices and gets downright boring. I’d hate to see twitter turn into a sea of blurbs. (Side note: I love the word ‘blurb’ because it sounds exactly like blurbs make me feel: squishy and awkward and grateful and cynical all at once.)
When presented with a friend’s less than adorable offspring, my uncle used to say, “That’s a baby!” He couldn’t bring himself to lie and say, “that’s a beautiful baby!” about a child that was not, in his opinion, beautiful. This may seem ridiculous, but I understand his compulsion to maintain the integrity of his taste.
My baby is my book. I don’t think it’s perfect. In fact, I’m constantly tormented by all its flaws. If you like it when it comes out next summer, by all means, tell people. But if you don’t like it—and you, dear reader, are entitled to your own opinion—please don’t pretend that you do. Say what you think. Or, say nothing at all. (I tend to keep my mouth shut about books that don’t move me.) I don’t want any false praise.