The Limits of the Viral Book Review

The Limits of the Viral Book Review

Why are literary critics fixating on one quality nowadays?

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Have you read a book review recently? The ones that make the rounds, dropped in DMs and threaded down Twitter timelines? They all fixate on a certain quality. Critics—and the authors they cover—seem to be obsessed with self-awareness. Writing about oneself isn’t new at all, but what’s current (and quickly growing stale) is the overtly self-conscious way contemporary writers have chosen to go about it.

Katy Waldman at The New Yorker reads the phenomenon through the lens of contemporary politics, writing, “As the cracks in our systems become increasingly visible, the reflexivity trap casts self-awareness as a finish line, not a starting point.” For her, reflecting on the self in our times means being forced to examine oneself, but instead of addressing one’s privileged position within a system, for example, writers frequently cop to being complicit—and therefore complicated. Voilà, end of story. Lauren Oyler at Bookforum finds the modish, fact-checkable blandness of contemporary autofiction rooted in authors’ efforts at being “the least godlike figure around.” These writers, she argues, forgo editorializing in order to fulfill a desire to be perceived as a “good person” by readers who, “under the terms of popular, social-media-inflected criticism, [are] now judge and jury, examining works for their political content and assessing the moral goodness of the author in the process.” Molly Fischer, writing in New York magazine and referring to Waldman’s and Oyler’s reviews, along with a recent essay by Ryu Spaeth in The New Republic, describes the worst aspects of self-aware writing as such:

The problem is the defensive postures that all the self-awareness seems to produce, among characters and the writers who create them: squirmy half-apologies, self-deprecating irony, piously articulated desires to do better, and, perhaps, an implication that self-awareness is “enough”—that simply acknowledging one’s luck amid the world’s cavalcade of injustice might count as doing something to make it better.

In the same essay, a review of Eula Biss’s recent book Having and Being Had, Fischer recalls Amanda Hess’s piercing observation from 2018 identifying “the obligatory paragraph in much online personal writing now—the one where the writer flogs herself for her privilege, ticks off all of her structural advantages, and basically argues against herself writing the piece.” It’s noteworthy that Hess concludes her tweet by describing this type of paragraph as “weird.”

And it is weird—not necessarily that such disclaimers exist but how they’ve formally come about. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, self-awareness, as a literary tic, doesn’t arise out of thin air. Publishing one’s writing demands that one admit to wanting and needing readers; all this genuflecting occurs for some kind of audience. Authors become self-aware in response to something, so what is that thing? To understand this, it behooves us to look at the ways authors have become more annoyingly self-conscious, because not every type of revelation begets a piteous apology. As a recent wave of literary criticism seems to demonstrate, this self-awareness falls neatly along political lines: Even within their texts, authors find themselves in the position of navigating their privilege, some of which very well might have helped land them the book deal.

Waldman’s thesis on self-awareness—smuggled into a review of the Irish novelist Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times and the influence of her heavily name-checked predecessor Sally Rooney—leads almost directly to the question: How should politics be depicted in art? For example: Which characters and what kind of characters ought to be rewarded within the universe of a novel? And along what value systems? For novelists like Rooney in particular, who outside her writing life professes to be a Marxist, interpreting their fiction has become a tricky balancing act. The project of critiquing fiction is always multifaceted. Shall we read a novel as an allegory? A playbook? A cautionary tale? Or is it intended to be a mirror?

The mode of reading, which is ideally directed by the novel’s formal choices and decisions, dictates the angle of criticism, which in turn offers various ways for new or unfamiliar readers to encounter the text. Increasingly—and most obviously with critics’ response to Rooney—the awareness of an author’s politics has worked its way into the interpretative text. This is, at best, a helpful way into a book. If we happen to know and agree with the politics of an author, we might be excited to see how it plays out (if it plays out at all) in the world of the text she has created. But conversely, do writers’ politics undermine their project if the text isn’t a perfect reflection? Flip that question, and it becomes: Does writing, say, a sloppy book reflect negatively on a writer’s politics?

In her review, Waldman delivers this devastating line: “Rooney, like her characters, seems content to perform awareness of inequality, even to exploit it as a device, but not to engage with it as a profound and messy reality.” It’s certainly true that in her books, dinner party conversations and excerpted e-mails aside, the politics of Rooney’s characters are curiously bloodless, appearing as an aesthetic while the real conflicts of the books—the engines that propel the narrative—are frequently television-esque devices like misunderstandings (Normal People) or love triangles (Conversations With Friends). Yet we’re not really privy to Rooney’s political life or even her material one, except for what she reveals in interviews or nonfiction essays. Does the construction of her novels reflect on her personhood? Does knowledge of her politics imply we might have preferred the text constructed differently? Dancing along this line of inquiry—one that probes for evidence of an author’s ideological preferences and inconsistencies—naturally presents the temptation to get in a dig at the author herself, which critics have always been fond of doing and audiences, especially, of reading.

Take Merve Emre sniffing at Durga Chew-Bose’s “experiences of bourgeois living” in the latter’s debut essay collection, in an article for Boston Review from 2017. Emre concludes that Chew-Bose’s peripatetic, sometimes whimsical style of inquiry leaves her cold, asking, “What should we make of writing that serves primarily, and sometimes exclusively, to present the author as a more admirably complicated type of human subject than others?” An excellent question and one at the heart of many recent pieces of criticism on the problem of the reflexivity trap, yet it’s unclear just what Chew-Bose’s lifestyle, bourgeois or not, has to do with it. The review seems weaker for the mention.

Or there’s Oyler’s viral review of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror for the London Review of Books, which archly characterizes Tolentino as having “so many friends that she is simply drowning in wedding invitations.” Not to mention the audacious line used in one of the first promotional tweets for the review: “I get the sense that [Tolentino] must feel overwhelming pity for ugly women, if she has ever met one.” Never before has literary criticism had such an avid online audience, and as Oyler notes in Bookforum, even readers who don’t read books for a living have become, well, judgy. It corresponds that this audience is particularly thirsty for negative reviews, perhaps because most positive reviews in mainstream publications are anodyne fodder for blurbs and marketing, perhaps because it’s exciting to see a critic dismiss precisely that buzz. Either way, pans get clicks.

It’s still fun to read a bad review, provided you’re not the subject. Last year Parul Sehgal handily skewered Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This, a lackluster short story collection boosted by the success of “Cat Person,” writing, “This is a dull, needy book.” That line could have been said to go viral, too. And of course, there are reviews so famously vicious that the story of their publication gets told and retold all the time, like Renata Adler’s evisceration of Pauline Kael, then The New Yorker’s movie critic (and Adler’s coworker), in The New York Review of Books in 1980.

What Adler and Sehgal’s negative reviews have in common is that they leave speculating about the author as a person, for the most part, out of it. Though her critique is scathing, Sehgal refrains from taking a jab at Roupenian herself; Adler poses horrified questions about Kael’s gross-out, punitive worldview vis-à-vis her film criticism, but the questions are founded in Kael’s writing, which Adler extensively quotes. What this species of negative review shares is a generative aspect, posing questions about the direction the work takes and the ways it has succeeded or failed on its own merits; in the best criticism, this applies not only to the texts in question but also to the social and political functions of art more broadly.

In contrast, recent criticism prefers to elide the distance between author and subject. Because we’re so focused in particular on the cracks in our systems, we look to art to provide some way of existing amid these cracks. Any time is a good time to discuss power and privilege, but now feels especially pressing; we have already identified that so many structures have failed and are in the uncomfortable position of trying to decide whether to reform or abolish them. Yet it’s unclear just how we want this political awareness—and its real-world responsibility—represented in our literary culture. It seems apparent that we don’t want morals, hand-wringing, or socialist realism. Have we become especially critical because we are hungry for examples of how to live and find these texts wanting? The tack many critics have taken is to look for inconsistency.

Yet there’s no one personal perspective that could reconcile all the systems in which we find ourselves entangled. It brings to mind the comic by Matt Bors in which a laboring peasant muses, “We should improve society somewhat.” A modern-day reply guy pops out of a well and responds, “Yet you participate in society. Curious!” Well… we do live in a society. Are we implicated in it? Sure. But I’d rather see how people earnestly navigate that messiness instead of watching them dart around.

This new, arch mode of rhetorical criticism is co-constitutive with a growing body of writing that can be characterized primarily by its defensiveness. I imagine the logic goes something like this: “I don’t want to be critiqued the way other people are being critiqued, whether in reviews or more generally on social media, so I’ll write something that’s beyond critique by saying it’s a device or an exercise.” In some cases, it arises as humor, as in Andrea Long Chu’s Females, which sets itself up as a bit and throughout which it’s unclear just how much she means what she says. In others, it feels like a kind of neurotic overwriting—the laughing specter of the author, preventing the reader from getting an earnest grip on the text. Encountering such work is like reading a book written at arm’s length; the criticism of this writing can feel equally dispiriting, naming all the problems that the work seeks to negate through sidestepping. One thing seems clear: Something is missing in the work of both critics and authors. Where, in a time that seems to call so desperately for them to be visible, are the stakes?

As a whole, it’s a good thing that people are concerned with ideology and its expression in creative culture. It’s good to look at how our cultural products emerge from interconnected systems; it’s good to observe how our politics have a life within the things we make. It’s good to know when culture acts as a way to prop up systems of oppression, like when a novel’s premise is overtly racist or a memoir exists to rehabilitate the image of a politician. Generative negative criticism highlights these discrepancies and, in doing so, reminds readers of the political life of a work outside its style or form. What I’m curious about in criticism lately is a concern not of genre—fiction and nonfiction are but two heads of the same animal—but of the overlap between the life of a creative work and the life of its author. It seems that mingling personal politics with the interpretation of art leads to a misreading of what we ask of writing.

There doesn’t need to be a moral justification for writing, just as there need be no justification for any kind of art. But what do we learn from writing that refuses to reveal its stakes? What is the future of cultural production that is crouched in defense from the second it enters the world? Watching a writer engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid criticism is less interesting than watching her meaningfully grapple with an idea, and what’s more, as readers, we have a lot to gain from watching someone think through it all.

I have never craved knowing how something feels—materially, I mean, like within a life, within a body, within a person—more than I do now. I don’t care if it’s “wrong” or if the author’s politics aren’t perfectly aligned with mine. I’d rather know what it’s like for them. And so the charges that certain critics levy at these self-aware writers aren’t wrong in that aspect: A blinkered reflexivity can’t be the pat conclusion of a moral arc. But rather than hector writers for being squirmy or self-excusing, what if criticism encouraged more self-reflection, not just self-awareness, and we all gave up trying to look to literature for absolution?

One lesson we have begun to learn amid this ongoing dialogue about power and privilege is that we are all, at some point, both being exploited and exploiting others. In the midst of this, I can’t help but think of the many writers, especially female writers of color, who have written or spoken of their hesitancy to write publicly at all. Did their voice matter? It seems that the people who find themselves asking the question are rarely the people who need to interrogate their privilege.

In this moment we crave understanding. Right ways of writing that might transmute into right ways of being. But I suspect we’re looking in the wrong places. Trying to reconcile material actions with the world of a novel or even a memoir is not going to get you very far. What if we stopped trying to force literature—or authors—to teach us?

What can art show us? It can make us feel less alone. It can describe a feeling. It can lift up stories we haven’t heard before, told from the point of view of people we haven’t heard from before. It can be revenge or merely vengeful. It can entertain, stupefy, propagandize, and perhaps even illuminate with startling clarity. But for any of this to happen, art needs to have a place for the reader to witness the stakes of what’s happening. That space seems to be rapidly diminishing.

Here are my stakes. If I really wanted to do the most good in my life, I’d go back to the anti-violence agency that provides services to survivors of abuse. But I quit that job to write. I’ve looked back longingly, but I haven’t yet returned. So there is a question here of what art can do. What is its purpose, and what can it teach us? I write to answer that question, too.

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