Monday, August 13, 2012

Screw the Epidemic of Niceness

I've been battling a particular stripe of unease for a while ago, trying to decide how committed I am to the stand I have taken, how defensible that stand is, and whether it matters. 

And then Jacob Silverman comes along and addresses the subject head-on in his essay "Against Enthusiasm: The epidemic of niceness in online book culture." (Thanks to Mike for pointing it out to me.)

Jacob Silverman, critic, writer, and, yes, Jeopardy champion
Silverman addresses the increasingly hysterical epidemic of fawning praise heaped by authors upon each other - and its roots in increasingly voracious self-promotion. (And fear. Giant, overflowing, noxious buckets of fear - about the direction of the industry, about one's sales, one's future, one's talent.) 

Okay, oops, I guess I showed my hand there. If you know me at all, you know that I loathe self-promotion. I'll go a bold step further and say that it detracts mightily from any sort of honest discussion we might have as practitioners of our craft. The minute you put out a "follow back?" vibe - no matter how subtle, no matter how well-intentioned - you're out of the game, at least as far as I'm concerned. You're a huckster, not a critic; a peddler, and no kind of sage.

But if one wishes to stay employed, can one really refuse to play?  As Silverman says, "Not to share in the lit world's online slumber party can seem strange and mark a person as unlikable or (a worse offense in this age) unfollowable."

And I've dipped more than a toe into these murky waters. Though perhaps not as frantically as some, I've sent out "buy my pal's book" tweets and blogged and posted about friends' good reviews and new releases.

I like to think that it's different when I do it. For one thing, I only do it for people who are genuinely my friends, and NEVER (i am fairly scrupulous about this) because I think doing so will advance my own interests. And, I am careful to congratulate, not praise, unless the praise is genuine.

For instance, just last week I posted here about some friends' new releases. Neither of these friends write in genres that I frequently read. As it happens, I have read them both, and they both truly are gifted authors. But the purpose of the post was, as the title implies, merely congratulatory - and, I suppose, me doing my very small part to spread the word, because I love them and hope for their success.

Early this year, I was speaking to a room full of people and I used the words "odious" and "whoring" to describe the practice of review trading. (Two people agree to say nice things about each other's books in any of a variety of forums, often without having read each other's work.) Then I worried I had crossed a line and obsessed about my comments for a while. Then I decided I truly meant it.

I have some dear friends - people I care deeply about - who are unstinting with their praise for, well, seemingly everyone, and particularly those who might wield influence in social media. Every time I read their post or tweet - even if, and perhaps *especially* if, I am the recipient of the praise - I feel a little sick. I feel like the dialog has been tarnished just a little bit more. And I certainly doubt everything they say.

See, I feel that when we say we love a book, we really should LOVE it. We cherish our words; we make our art with them; do we really want to diminish our voices by making them empty?

I know I'm suggesting an impossibly high standard and I'll fail it myself. But I pledge to try. See, I plan to be around for a long, long time and I plan to keep reading and thinking and learning. Some day, I swear to you, I will write the equivalent of Updike's NYTBR reviews, in whatever format exists at that time. And I want you to trust that what I am saying reflects what I believe, and not just what I think you want to hear.


Mysti said...

I vote that you stick to your guns. It's well documented that people follow voices they can trust (uless you have a, say, General Mills-sized budget!), and you have to earn that trust with consistency, integrity, and accuracy.

Especially on the internet we tend to filter out those whose praise is calculated and inconsistent with the truth. I know that you'll always praise based on merits (and provide details of those merits).

GunDiva said...

You mean you just want to be honest with your praise, not cheapen it by handing it out to everyone? How could you?!

(Know I'm completely kidding and absolutely agree with you.)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Mysti, GunDiva, thanks for the encouragement :) It is just so easy to get caught up in that culture, especially when many of the people doing it are well-meaning. I mean, there are people who are obviously self-serving, and it's easy for me to ignore them. But then there are lots of people who are just plain *nice*. Raised midwestern, I absolutely identify with them...and it takes a huge amount of focus not to automatically join the chorus.

Reina M. Williams said...

While I agree with you, I find it difficult to evaluate who is genuine or not from the Internet, or even in person. I tend to not write negative reviews, but that doesn't mean my positive reviews are false. I could go on, but then I'd be rambling. Also, I dislike self-promoting, but find it necessary in this's a tough balance to find, being genuine and pro-active, writing and marketing.
Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Sophie.

Jane George said...

Hey there,

Sorry I'm chiming in late. Silverman's article irritated me just as much as being asked to vote for a book I haven't read on a GR listopia does.

Our culture is one of extremes these days. The 'epidemic of niceness' may well be a reaction to the epidemic of snark that preceded it online. And both are inauthentic in their way.

IMO front-cover, author blurbs have no more integrity than a sham review exchange, especially if the authors share an agent or editor.

Authors who genuinely support each other because they believe in the work is a different thing. That's all we can do, right? Except maybe bolt the door on the ivory tower.