On Niceties and Negativity

On Niceties and Negativity

Who doesn’t love random cute dog photos? This is one of my dogs, Ruairi (Rory) Boy.

One of the most inexplicable things I read last week (and there were a lot of them) was Jacob Silverman’s critique of readers and writers in Slate, in which he claims that both groups are far too nice online, and makes a rather bizarre argument against enthusiasm. 

Whereas critics once performed one role in print and another in life—Rebecca West could savage someone’s book in the morning and dine with him in the evening—social media has collapsed these barriers. Moreover, social media’s centrifugal forces of approbation—retweets, likes, favorites, and the self-consciousness that accompanies each public utterance—make any critique stick out sorely.

Is this Silverman’s backdoor method of slamming amateur reviews such as myself who enthusiastically evangelize about books we believe in? Is it just another example of the literary establishment being threatened by regular ol’ readers’ influence? Perhaps it’s push-back against a publishing climate which requires that authors self-promote and engage (gasp!) directly with readers? Does he have a problem with the success of so many female authors via social media?

I won’t speculate as to the motivation behind this anti-enthusiasm manifesto, but for me as a reader, all of those messages ring loud and clear as the real root of Silverman’s piece. But mostly, I am very bothered by the following premises of his argument: 

  1. That readers and reviewers online are expected to only be cheerleaders of books and authors; and
  2. That we need more negativity.

I am also extremely troubled by two other points in Silverman’s piece that aren’t as overt: 

  1. That this culture of niceness is women’s fault; and
  2. That negative opinions are somehow more “true” than positive ones.

There’s something to be said for being nice. 

I, quite intentionally, use my real name online and I’m pretty easy to track down. As someone who works largely in digital space, I think it’s important that I am transparent in what I do online (how can I teach people how to use online tools, if I hide behind a manufactured online persona?). As a result, I try really, really hard to act like a decent human being online. That includes being “nice.” Sometimes I fail. I get annoyed at my city government and gripe about it, I have a tendency toward sarcasm and I get worked up about things I care about pretty easily. But, I try very, very hard to be nice, to be decent to others, online. I don’t think places like Twitter are the place for direct criticism—it’s a place for conversation. 

Silverman would like us to be a whole lot less nice and lob criticism at folks in 140 characters or less, but because I don’t have a constructed identity to hide behind on Twitter (or on this blog or on Goodreads, et al), and I have to function in multiple roles in online spaces (I’m not a professional critic—I’m an avid reader with a blog), I make an effort to conduct myself decently and be “nice” when I talk to or about people online. You won’t see me @-reply an author and tell them all the things that didn’t work for me in their book, and I also don’t expect an author to @-reply me and detail everything I got wrong in a review. (For what it’s worth, I have had authors message me privately, which has led to really great conversations—but that’s a very different thing, and it’s something that’s always taken place via email because 140 characters sure doesn’t leave a lot of space for nuanced discussion.) 

The importance of playing nicely in online spaces became very clear to me earlier this summer when an author contacted me via a public tweet because I had expressed disagreement about an opinion piece he’d written (I didn’t address him by @-reply, he quite obviously searched for the article’s title on Twitter), and he wasn’t so nice. In fact, he was pretty condescending and combative. If he’d been a bit “nicer” in his disagreement when he reached out to me, I’d probably have a very different opinion of him—we could have disagreed, but done so in a different way. The delivery is just as important as the message, oftentimes.

The reality is that in today’s world, the wall between consumers (in this case, readers) and businesses (in this case writers and publishers) is a lot lower and I’d rather our interactions be respectful, productive and, yes, “nice.” (And, yes, self-published authors who started That Site, this is advice you should take to heart. Ahem.)

Believe it or not, it is possible to disagree with someone, or even not like what they do, and still be “nice.” (For an example of this, check out Rebeca’s excellent review of Bella Andre’s I Only Have Eyes For You—she did a great job of critiquing a book that didn’t work for her, but was never mean, and always respectful, and yes, pretty damn “nice” about it.)

Furthermore, in my experience, negativity is the fastest way to grow blog traffic and garner Goodreads “likes.” 

I mentioned on Twitter last week that one of the things that makes me very sad is that whenever I write a negative review of a book, it invariably will be shared, tweeted and commented upon much more extensively than if I enthusiastically endorse a book.

For example, my post about Pushing the Limits, which was a book that really didn’t work for me, received 25 comments (a lot for us) and was the most popular review of the last two weeks. Every single time we post a negative review, this happens and we receive a traffic spike and more than the usual shares.

All of the CEFS contributors try to select books for review that appear to be a good match for our tastes, so we don’t post nearly the number of negative reviews that some sites do (we also rarely review “did not finish” books). However, I can look through my historical web statistics and point to the days we posted a negative review, because there’s an abnormal traffic spike. I suspect that if we strived to review more books we didn’t like, our traffic would be better (not that I’m complaining about our traffic—I’m pretty thrilled that so many of you stop by regularly) and more people would know of Clear Eyes, Full Shelves (again, I’m not complaining, I’m very, very happy with our level of readership).

Over on Goodreads, my biggest personal frustration is the same—my most negatively rated books also have received the most “likes” and therefore the most eyeballs have seen those reviews (I don’t have piles of friends on that platform, but I have a number of friends who do and when they “like” one of my reviews, a lot of people see that activity).

If I had my druthers, my Goodreads reviews that spotlight books that I love but haven’t gotten as much attention as they should (for example: The Sharp Time, Come See About Me, Cinnamon Rain, Miracle, etc), would receive as much enthusiasm as those that are negative. That’s what I want people to know about me and my reviewing, that when I evangelize about a book, it’s because I really believe in it and I want to share that enthusiasm with others.

(Note, this is not me saying that I agree with Goodreads’ assinine new policy that’s aimed at burying negative reviews—it’s me saying that I wish folks would get as excited about things that are awesome as they do about things that, you know, aren’t so awesome.)

I suppose I could just only talk about the books I like, but that would be dull and inauthentic (and y’all know that being honest and authentic is pretty important to me). My personal reviewing policy is that I write about books that I feel strongly about for some reason (sometimes it’s just because I feel strongly about a specific element of a book, for better or worse); when I’m indifferent, I usually don’t bother. But, I do make the effort to “like” and share and comment on reviews in which the reviewer clearly feels passionately that a book is worth reading. 

While I’m referencing my own experience with reviewing, I could point to posts on some of the popular book blogs where there will be hundreds and hundreds of comments on negative reviews, and just a few on positive. Which leads me to think that a lot of reviewers experience the same thing. (And my highly unscientific poll of blogging friends says this holds true with their reviews as well.)

Why? I’m not really sure, but nevertheless…

People engage with negativity in online spaces. 

The celebration of negativity certainly isn’t limited to the internet culture of the book world, by any means (in fact, it’s probably less extreme in our world than in a lot of other spaces).

I’m a big sports fan, and contributed occasionally to a very cool basketball blog and co-host a nifty little podcast that’s kind of about sports. So, I used to consume a lot of sports media. (Note the past tense.) In that world, the content that is rewarded is the nastiest, lowest common denominator. Many, many avid sports fans love it and it generates pageviews, and therefore cash for the producers of that media. On any given day, a mean-spirited, link-baiting column about sports makes the round on the web (currently a ridiculous column about how female athletes cry too much is the B.S. du jour) as the thing that sports fans are talking about—sports media consumers eat this stuff up. In our culture, so many people love to see others ripped apart and reward that kind of content.

Like I said, the book world is usually a kinder space than that of sports infotainment, but from where I sit, the alleged “epidemic of niceness” that Silverman laments simply doesn’t exist. Niceness is the outlier in many online spaces, and I don’t see the broader book world as much different. Sure, there are loads of people who are very enthusiastic about books (or other products) they are excited about online, but when I fire up Twitter or Goodreads or Facebook, my perception (and I don’t have anything else go to on but that, really) is that “niceness” is not what engages a lot of people. You only need to look at the traffic generated by The Atlantic’s link-baiting, inflammatory-headlined online book coverage.

I wish I understood why negativity resonates so much, but I really don’t—it seems like a cultural phenomenon that’s amplified by the reactionary nature of online communications. 

I love enthusiasm—it shows that people care.

I’m weary of excitement being derided and dismissed by people who want to restore the good ol’ days in which (white, male) critics sat at big wooden desks and meticulously ripped apart books (by white, male writers) as part of the ecosystem of literary gatekeeping. Sure, there’s a place for criticism (though I  adamantly believe that literary criticism as it exists now is often very, very flawed in its practice), and I think it’s important, but in terms of author-reader relationships (which is the specific type of enthusiasm Silverman targets), enthusiasm about books and reading is a wonderful thing.

Why is excitement about something—in this case books—looked down upon as less intelligent and less meaningful than ambivalence or dismissal? Oh, right… caring is dumb.

If I go out on a limb and tell people that they should spend their money on a book because I love it that much, that means just as a much as if I suggest that perhaps a book’s not what I’d hoped.

If I nudge people away from The Lifeboat, that opinion isn’t any more significant than if I push people toward The Day Before. Like any review (and, yes, I believe this also applies “real critics”), positivity and negativity are both subjective, based on personal preferences, my own background (both educational and experiential) and, frankly, personal taste.

Negative is not better than positive. It’s not more real. It’s not more honest. It’s not more credible.

As a reader (again, this is what I’m assuming is at the core of Silverman’s issue—that silly little [girl] readers like me have influence in online spaces), I’m not going to stop eagerly anticipating books that intrigue me or effusing about novels that I love just because some people view positive reactions as somehow less truthful and real than those that are negative. I’m not going to be more negative just so that some people will perceive my reviews as more legitimate. 

And I’m not going to apologize for my enthusiasm.

For the “Too Long, Didn’t Read” crowd, I will summarize my thoughts:

  • am not saying that I have a problem with criticism or critical reviews.
  • am not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t criticize.
  • am saying that this “epidemic of niceness” doesn’t exist.
  • am also saying that people who have a problem with niceness are people I don’t really want to be around. 
  • am also saying, “Hooray for people being enthusiastic about books and reading.”

I also suggest checking out these following responses to Silverman’s anti-enthusiasm argument:

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