Interesting week, this last one. A rediscovered F. Scott Fitzgerald story, “Thank You for the Light,” originally rejected by The New Yorker as “so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic,” was finally published by the magazine. (It’s actually a sad, hard-edged little portrait with a surprise metaphysical twist at the end.) Jonah Lehrer, powerhouse young neuroscience explainer for the masses, resigned as staff writer from this same magazine after it was shown that he fabricated quotes in his recent best seller, Imagine, which has now been pulled from publication. Honestly, from everything I have read, I still don’t know how he thought he would get away with it in this age of Internet-facilitated scrutiny. Hubris isn’t a good enough reason. Maybe too much imagination?
Meanwhile, ebook distributor Smashwords (“Your ebook. Your way.”) placed four authors on the New York Times eBook Fiction Best Sellers list: Colleen Hoover (Slammed, No. 8; Point of Retreat, No. 18), R.L. Mathewson (Playing for Keeps, No. 16), Lyla Sinclair (Training Tessa, No. 17), and Bella Andre (If You Were Mine, No. 22; Can’t Help Falling in Love, No. 23; and I Only Have Eyes for You, No. 24). Genre fiction first, literary fiction next? (See “NYRB Lit: An E-Original Series That’s Aiming To Redefine Literary Fiction.”) I hope so. Meanwhile, no one can predict what, exactly, will happen next, but the rules of publishing are changing.
Finally, in a world of gung-ho e-developments, I’d like to share a cautionary tale on book talk that Jacob Silverman, contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review and a columnist for Jewcy, published in Slate. “Against Enthusiasm: The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture” argues cogently that as social media erase the line between author and critic and we’re all together in one big soup, friending, following, rah-rahing, and thumbs-uping one another and one another’s works, critical thinking has suffered and a thoughtful, considered discussion of books is going by the wayside. Here we’ve been complaining that people can be too egregiously nasty online, but apparently not in the book world. From the folks Silverman cites and the comments he has received so far, he’s clearly struck a chord.
Let’s just remember that there is a real difference between tweeting and offering a review on, say, the Millions. I’ve trolled though plenty of online book talk and have found a goodly number of sharp comments (not always cogent, but that’s another story). Yet I did moderate a panel at the BEA Bloggers Conference last June called “Critical Reviews” that focused partly on encouraging attendees to have the guts to speak out, even say they hate a book, a source of anxiety particularly when a book has been sent by a publisher.
During the question-and-answer session, it struck me that the big difference between what I do (as a “professional” reviewer) and what many online book talkers/reviewers do is not content, though like Silverman I ponder how posting online affects the writing (and indeed the thinking) process about books. The difference is business structure. Like every established publication, LJ has a long tradition of telling publishers and authors that we can’t promise any review, much less a good one. And if I am threatened with firebombing after publishing a negative review (a surprisingly rare event in my 26 years at LJ), there’s a lawyer to back me up. Not so for your average blogger; online is out there in a lot of ways.
Jan Harayda (One Minute Book Reviews), who organized the “Critical Reviews” panel, commented that to keep things clean she won’t even accept books for review from publishers. She reviews post-publication, and she gets the books from the library. (Let’s hear it for Jan!) Perhaps this is why I’m not the world’s best tweeter and don’t have a Facebook page: I’m holding back from the online bear hug, literary or otherwise. But however dangerously cozy the literary online environment is, it also yields a pack of good information and discussion on books that one misses to one’s detriment.
What to do? No big solutions here, but remember that there’s a difference between criticism and book chat and that we still haven’t worked out the parameters in an e-environment that’s fast, furious, and long on selling whatever it is one has to sell. As I hoped to point out in “Every Reader a Reviewer,” a story I did a couple of years back (positively ancient by today’s standards, I know), the real critical act comes not from the tweeter or blogger or online reviewer but from the folks reading those tweets or blogs or reviews. Is this review just too gushy? Conversely, why the mindless hatchet job? Weird, there’s nothing here to suggest why this book is the best thing he’s every read. Weirder still, she says she’s not into paranormal romance and she likes this?
Now frame your response in 140 characters.