My Mother Always Told Me Nice Is As Nice Does

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At Slate, yesterday, Jacob Silverman wrote a piece denouncing the pernicious trend of “enthusiasm” he detects in the online literary universe. (BREAKING: People might still like and read books.) He holds up the writer Emma Straub’s Twitter feed as exhibit A. Her 9,000+ follower count seems to offend him, given that she’s not, I don’t know (but I’ll venture a guess) somebody like Joshua Ferris, or Adam Levin, or Jonathan Franzen, i.e. someone he imagines is deserving of such an honor.  That’s not a knock on those authors, by the way; I mention them by way of raising a question about why it is that he wants to imply that Emma Straub has not “earned” her popularity with her — published! well-reviewed — book of short stories.

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but it strikes me as telling that Silverman originally formulated his argument in reference to “ladyblogs,” which is, I must say, a subject on which I see no call for the opinions of people who do not identify as women. But I digress.)

Silverman does try to backtrack a little, say maybe Emma’s new novel is good (it was picked for the Rumpus Book Club, after all) and also he’s pretty sure she’s nice but he’s already stepped in it considerably by, among other non sequiturs, denigrating the flowers she likes to wear in her hair. Perhaps one day we’ll read essays like this that offer equal time and attention to the ill-fittedness of the jeans many male authors wear. But I’d have to say I’d prefer dispensing with criticisms based on attire altogether, and not because it isn’t “nice,” but because it’s rather stupid. Tell me what you think of the book; the carping about attire is strictly middle school.

Putting aside that point of form, I must also say I had no idea anyone was reading my Twitter or Tumblr accounts, or anyone else’s, as a critical vehicle. I mean, the predominant theme of my social media accounts is my cat, and the songs I sing to her (to her dismay) throughout our days holed up in our tiny studio. I assure you I am not trying to stuff my musical and feline tastes down your throat. (Though I will probably react badly if you insult the cat because she is beautiful.)

Unless I clear my throat first – or the equivalent – over there, I’m usually just riffing. I follow what I hereby deem Roxane’s First Law of the Internet: “Do what you like.” If what you like is to write criticism in 140-characters or less, well, do that, I guess. Though be prepared to have others think that’s kind of weird.

Like anyone else, I do wish people would get over this notion that they ought to do anything else, anywhere, online or off. Don’t pander. It’s not worth it. But there’s no reason to assume that we know which people are being honest, and which aren’t.

For example, over at Bookslut Jessa Crispin, a person I tend to be in lockstep accord with on most everything, says an essay I wrote for Slate about Sheila Heti’s book is an example of this new culture of “nice.” Jessa is wrong here, though not because she is wrong about the problem of feeling pressured not to criticize friends, and friends of friends, and of course professional acquaintances or people who could give you a leg up. She’s wrong because she’s attributing to me an intention – to be “nice” to Sheila Heti – I simply didn’t have. I liked the book, and I thought it was interesting that certain gatekeepers – of a sort! – didn’t. I thought the way they criticized it was interesting. So I wrote the essay.

Which raises another point: for all my apparent devotion to The Cause, I was still criticizing a couple of men who are, for better or for worse, in the sort of gatekeeping positions that, in her schematic, should have made me inclined to flatter and cajole. And I have to say: I’m not usually viewed as a charter member of the Nice Club.

I don’t know if my propensity to not care particularly who I criticize, so long as I think I am doing it intelligently, is helping or hurting me. Mostly I just try to be intelligent about it and hope that people understand that my disagreements can also come from deep respect for other aspects of their work.

I do know that though I write a lot of criticism it’s not the only kind of writing I want to do. I sort of feel about it the way Michelle Orange said she did in a wonderful essay here long ago: I do it because it pays the bills, and it seems to be what people want to buy from me, but I do tire of it, sometimes. I would like to be more than a critic, myself. And I can’t lie and say it hasn’t occurred to me that I might be sabotaging my ability to do other things. What if I’ve been blackballed, I think.

But I say that in full, fervent belief in the usefulness of criticism, and in very little fear that any of my criticism is truly “mean,” though it has been called that. (I have an inbox full of emails from aggrieved readers willing to attest to that – mostly men, though one did recently write in to let me know his girlfriend hated my Slate essay more than he did, so, well, I wouldn’t want to get too gendered about it.)

I generally try not to comment on what people look like, and I try not to act like a crazed loon with an agenda to BRING HIM LOW. (Though I love Renata Adler as much as anyone should I always felt she let too much of that creep into “The Perils of Pauline.”) But I don’t lie about what I think of their work. If they make a stupid argument I point out that it is stupid. Why I need to go beyond this is rarely clear.

Often, it’s a matter of phrasing. It’s simply that I believe that saying “This book was written by an asshole” is not, on principle, particularly informative. Nor is it a fun sentence to write. One of my favorite critics is James Wolcott, and the reason I love him is because he would never put it that way.  He would say something more like this, about a terrible columnist who tried to spice up his column with French:

My own French is rusty, so I’m not sure what the proper French equivalent for “fucking embarrassing” is, so forgive me, but really–The Washington Post is not only the most powerful paper in the nation’s capital but enjoys an international reputation, and here’s one of their premiere columnists blithering away like Mayberry’s Howard Sprague with a carnation in his lapel.

Though of course there Wolcott’s treading a line between philosophical disagreement and outright insult, but keep in mind: what he is criticizing here is a person with actual power. It’s a person who influences minds and hearts from the position of the op-ed page of The Washington Post – i.e., who is something of a critic themselves. It is not a not-critic with a Twitter account and a novel Wolcott hasn’t read to promote.

This whole issue of friendship and reviewing is a different matter, and one that has nothing to do with vague abstractions about “online culture.” Silverman claims, almost completely ahistorically, that “Rebecca West could savage someone’s book in the morning and dine with him in the evening.” If he has evidence of this on a general scale, I’d love to see it. There are perhaps one or two examples, but I’m a bit of a West nerd and I haven’t the faintest clue who he could be talking about. Plenty of people hated West. And by the way, she tended to excessively flatter those who were close to her. There is plenty of unnecessary love given to H.G. Wells in her work, mostly because of their affair.

These problems are what they are, which is to say probably inescapable. Hurting people may just be part of what happens when you write about them or their work. Half of Janet Malcolm’s books are about this, nevermind all the interviews Sari Botton’s conducted here at The Rumpus. It’s always a risk. What matters is the intelligence of the calculation you make when you take it.

If what you want is a more vocal and energetic critical culture, so be it. All boats rise, you know. But don’t pretend that that will be best achieved by more bare name-calling and bitchery on the internet, for god’s sake.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →