Critical Reads August 10, 2012: The Miss Congeniality Edition
“What if someone spit on me at a party and ruined a perfectly nice flower crown?!”
Perhaps, this week, no article was more discussed in the literary world than Jacob Silverman's middle finger to social networking love-festing, "Against Enthusiasm." This didn't exactly win him votes for Miss Congeniality, especially since one of his case-in-points was Emma Straub, who responded on her Tumblr and was backed by the always passionate Roxane Gay. Silverman wasn't without his defenders, however, as Ron Charles of the Washington Post seconded his opinion. Finally, it was with great sadness that I learned this week of Carol Ann Fitzgerald and Marc Smirnoff's terminations from one of my favorite magazines, The Oxford American, following charges that Smirnoff was acted too friendly to an intern. Smirnoff and Fitzgerald did not take the charges lying down, however, firing back quite un-congenially on their blog, Editors in Love.
Against Enthusiasm (Slate)
According to Jacob Silverman, it's not a dog-eat-dog world anymore, at least when it comes to the realm of literary social networking sites. Criticizing the mutual back-patting that literary Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook have become, Silverman writes, "if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you'll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer's biggest fan. It's not only shallow, it's untrue." In this attack on phonies that would make Holden Caulfield proud, Silverman calls for more criticism and less congeniality, spitting in the face on "recommendation machine" reviewing. And perhaps this line of argument wouldn't have sparked quite the controversy it has if Silverman hadn't taken one major hostage: the (deservedly) beloved epitome of niceness and effervescent charm, Emma Straub. Hence...
In Celebration of Enthusiasm (Emma Straub's Life in Pictures)
In response to Jacob Silverman's "Against Enthusiasm," in which he began by describing Straub's great facility for inspiring support in the literary community through good old-fashioned niceness, Straub wrote "In Celebration of Enthusiasm." Stressing that she's a fiction writer not a reviewer, Straub does not depict herself as a perma-sweetheart but instead describes her own social networking practices: if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Straub reads books she doesn't deserve hoopla, so she doesn't add to the hoopla in those instances. And she rebuts Silverman with her trademark humor, the sarcasm of which doesn't even seem acerbic, writing, "I don't envy critics their job, as I am deathly afraid of confrontation of any kind. What if someone spit on me at a party, and ruined a perfectly nice flower crown?!"
Twitter Isn't Killing Books (Roxane Gay)
One of the reasons I'm generally interested to read what Roxane Gay has to write is that she doesn't beat around the nice bush, and that is true once more as she takes a strong stance on "Against Enthusiasm." Gay notes that Silverman seems not to have read any of Emma Straub's work, though he targets her as one in an "epidemic of niceness in online book culture," and that he does not really talk about books so much as the bookish people who Tweet their enthusiastic little hearts out. Here, Gay does miss the mark somewhat; Silverman isn't criticizing anyone's books so much as he's criticizing the self-perpetuated crisis in book criticism. Gay is at her best, however, when she argues that criticism shouldn't function through binaries, shouldn't just be about whether a book ought to be labeled "good" or "bad" but about how a book achieves the effects sought and won by its author through language.
Has Twitter made book reviewers too nice? (Washington Post)
Unlike Straub and Gay, Ron Charles at the Washington Post was all for Silverman's "Against Enthusiasm." Charles focuses more on the conundrum of the working critic. Sure, we can say that no critic has to write a good review, but sometimes the critic's career is indeed contingent on playing nice. "When you really, really like a book, your review appears on the front of the Arts section and high on the Arts homepage, and a link to it gets tweeted around the world, and people ‘like it - in every sense of the word," Charles writes. However, "try telling the truth. . . . You cannot fathom the silence that greets an unenthusiastic review of a mid-list literary novel." This, of course, is if the review even makes it to print. I can personally attest to writing reviews that were scrapped for taking negative stances on books that were receiving accolades or deemed "epic" by superiors who hadn't even read the books themselves. The crisis of criticism isn't merely about the subtle coercions of social networking sites. It's also about the publications who pander to them.
The Scandal at the Southern Magazine of Good Writing (The Atlantic)
Anyone who's ever been to my apartment has probably been subjected to the experience of having me shove the Oxford American's Barry Hannah Tribute issue in his or her face, then listening to me read passages from it ad nauseum. So it really has been heartbreaking for me to learn of the recent sex scandal at the publication, which has resulted in the magazine firing founding editor Marc Smirnoff and managing editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald. According to one intern, Smirnoff sexually harassed her, and without Smirnoff and Fitzgerald, the publication's December issue will be edited by a guest editor. Despite the terrible allegations, I hope that the excellent work the Oxford American has published will not be tarnished by this scandal.
How We Lost the Oxford American (Editors in Love)
Following their terminations from the Oxford American, Carol Ann Fitzgerald and Marc Smirnoff have issued a whopping 53-page defense on their blog Editors in Love. The two in no way go the route of discretion, instead disclosing a number of text messages and emails sent by members of the staff, including one written by senior editor Wes Enzinna. The details become rather confusing, as charges of sexual harassment are lodged by many parties; Enzinna accuses Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald accuses Enzinna, an unnamed intern accuses Smirnoff, and Fitzgerald suggests Enzinna tell Smirnoff that Enzinna rejected sexual advances from her to save his job when it is in danger. It's messy. It's damning. And most of all, it's not at all congenial.