On Circlejerking 0 Comments

On Circlejerking

Pretend for a moment—or maybe you don’t need to—that you’re a fledgling writer. Piss-poor and self-conscious almost to a fault, you’ve just received word from your publisher that your first book of creative work is about to flurry onto the shelves of the very bookstores you yourself frequent on a weekly basis.

First of all: that’s cool man, congratulations, etc. You’ve done something most people only talk about over late night highballs; you’ve shown that stone-age English teacher what you’re really made of, and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ve made the most of your enigmatic writerly persona and picked someone up in the beery aftermath of that writers’ festival reading. But following a few hazy weeks of casual hedonism, there comes the stinging realisation that something comes after this honeymoon period of delightful ego-stroking. The actual reception of the book you actually wrote. Oh Jesus—what if people don’t like it? What if it turns out you’re a talentless hack? Who’s going to be the first to find out?

Well, if the reputable online journal Los Angeles Review of Books is anything to go by, pretty much nobody. At least, nobody that people will want to listen to. According to this blog and this Twitter interaction from editor Evan Kindley, the website has an unwritten policy whereby they refuse to publish disparaging reviews of first-time authors. If a debut book rubs them the wrong way, they just let it slide and turn it into the office coffee coaster. The LARB is home to the kind of newfangled critics afraid of hurt feelings and dirty hands. Instead of putting the inept in their place with constructive, considered critiques, they leave their books to accrue in the dusty storerooms of airport newsagents in their own sweet time.

I can understand this to a degree. After having chosen or stumbled into an already overcrowded profession notorious for financial precariousness, emerging writers just don’t need well-respected publications telling potential book buyers that they’re just kind of shitty. A bad review really does have the capacity to irreparably damage a book’s reputation as well as the possibilities of it winning awards, and by consequence, the chances of people actually reading it. After the thankless, coffee-guzzling hours spent labouring over laptops and scattered reams of scrawled paper, even a marginal profit would probably seem like a gift from above.

This critical hesitancy, however, is also symptomatic of a broader cultural narcissism where lit-types are content to just let the bad cohabit with the good. How often have you seen people pat others on the back while withholding their honest criticisms, or neglect to formulate those criticisms in the first place? (Obviously, I don’t exclude myself from either category.) There’s a sense that condemning another writer’s work could cast you as an elitist—the worst kind of social faux pas nowadays—or simply a jealous prig. But if we’re serious about cultivating good writing rather than maintaining an insular social sphere founded on you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, criticism is a necessary burden.

I don’t want to suggest that as soon as a reviewer or critic detects that a book has problems they should immediately launch a vendetta and ensure that nobody else ever has to open its covers. As Parul Sehgal of the New York Times Book Review pointed out in a recent panel on the subject, “a good critic never … exaggerates the flaws in a text.” I just want to suggest that we take stock of how we look at criticism. In no way should a review function as a sales pitch, nor as an opportunity to score brownie points with the writer. A review should thoughtfully engage with the thing in question, and ultimately articulate an original, thoughtful opinion on that particular thing’s merit. Phrases like “bitingly funny” and “ethereal beauty” sound appealing and will probably get people to buy the book and all, but most of the time they’re just regurgitated from press releases, and don’t really get anybody anywhere.

Have the days of the unflinching critic and the cantankerous, outspoken author just up and disappeared? Whatever happened to the unafraid William Faulkners and Mary McCarthys getting up on soapboxes and ripping into the amateurs? Unfortunately, there’s now plenty of talk about the death of the novel, but nobody seems to be willing to step on any toes in order to jolt some life back into it. Look, okay: books matter. They are an important part of the universe. And if we want to keep filling the universe up with goodness by producing good books that really matter, then the ability to shelter our egos is really super important. Because otherwise, this current state of bland niceness is a self-defeating curse.

Sean Watson is a writer and editor studying literature at the University of Melbourne. He subedits the arts section of Farrago Magazine, edits poetry for Voiceworks, and interns at The Lifted Brow.

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