You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. ~Arthur Polotnik
Imagine how many fewer world crises there would be if the people in power would simply remember their manners. Imagine a political race where opponents focus on applicable content and not resort to abysmal mud-slinging. They are the poster children for bad manners and we lose opportunities to listen to any real debate on real issues. (This happens worldwide and not just here in the United States, so don’t think I’m singling out our race to the big vote in November.)
Merriam Webster defines manners as “social conduct or rules of conduct as shown in the prevalent customs”. Manners are no longer only applied to real life situations but to our virtual world as well. Being writers we live an awfully big part of our lives in this world. Prevalent customs are still being formed as these new neighborhoods and villages continue to evolve. There are distinct differences between this world and the one of brick and mortar. I was surprised to have some of these distinctions pointed out to me this week and the possible backlash it may have on writers.
A blog that I like to follow, The Passive Voice, offered a rebuttal to another article written by Jacob Silverman entitled “Against Enthusiasm”. Mr. Silverman has taken the stance that honest criticism in the literary world is a dying thing and we are not any better for its demise. Passive guy vehemently argues that point. Being the polite, mild mannered person that I believe myself to be, I was quite surprised at being able to see both sides, but leaning towards Jacob Silverman.
Mr. Silverman believes that we are in the middle of an epidemic of niceness in this new online book culture. He cites an example of an author who has her first book coming out soon, but already has a loyal following on Twitter running into the thousands. The author is funny, delightful and engaging in this arena of social media. Because of that, she is retweeted, liked, and plus 1ed. (I don’t even know how to write plus oned!) A well known literary website follows her and has already picked her book for their monthly book club without ever having read a single word!
So far I’m congratulating the author on being a brilliant and personable marketer, then I come to his point. What if you are a reviewer or critic and you are part of this vast web of writers and fans? Are you willing to honestly critique the author’s work after watching her life unfold for the last year or so? What if you had been the recipient of some of her attention? What if she had praised you or had mentioned you with affection in a tweet? How honest will you be? He goes on to state that if you spend any time on Twitter or wading through blogs, you will drown in the “relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing all books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.” Mr. Silverman believes that it is shallow, untrue, and will create an atmosphere where writers are more admired for their personal biographies or how they manage social media rather than standing on their own merits of being a good writer.
This made me stop and think.
He goes on to say that social media, which seems to be built largely on those retweets, likes, favorites etc., is akin to being a part of a worldwide slumber party. Anyone who doesn’t want to be on board the sugar train may be marked as unlikable or worse (gasp) unfollowable. So why is that positivity so bad? I like to be complemented. I like that my writing world is a warm fuzzy place to be. When I get published, I’d like my friends to toot my horn just like I’ve done for them. I don’t think anyone reading this blog would say differently. However, the constant applause makes it harder to hear any kind of dissent. While painful to hear, it is that voce of dissent that pushes us to be better and to make for a more “vibrant, useful literary culture”.
Passive Guy completely disagrees with this view point that was also shared by Dwight Garner in the Times. PG pulled a quote, “What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics- perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.” Passive Guy believes this sounds like the strap wielding father who tells the kids they’re being beaten for their own good. He goes on to point out that this is the absolute menace of criticism- that it represents a hierarchy that lords over the unruly artists.
I understand and agree with his viewpoint as well.
As with most issues in life, the loudest voices are often those on both sides of the extreme. I believe cutting someone’s work to the bone is not necessary. I also think living in a world where only sweet fairies give kisses isn’t reality either. I think good, honest, constructive criticism is necessary (although painful, I’m the first to admit). This is what pushes us to dig deeper and write better because we all want to be praised. We all want people to find value in our work.
If we only have positive feedback, I would suggest two things. One- much of what you hear if a lie or a colored truth. Two- we believe the compliments and become complacent. What do you think?