The Limits of the Viral Book Review

From The Nation:

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The Nation

PG notes that, at least in the United States, snottiness has become much more prevalent over the past several months.

He also wonders how many readers really care whether “the construction of her novels reflect on [the author’s] personhood” or not or whether “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.”

Why have so many people adopted the habit of criticizing others for “evidence of [their] ideological preferences and inconsistencies” lately?

Has the philosophy of “live and let live” completely died? Has the culture moved into an age during which only one view or opinion is the proper one?

Has who is a kulak and who is not become the most important categorization of another in a binary society?

Or, perhaps, is this just a collection of symptoms of a new and dangerous wave of mass derangement?

PG is, unfortunately, reminded of the precursors to mass movements and hatreds generated by Hitler and Mussolini over 70 years ago.

4 thoughts on “The Limits of the Viral Book Review”

  1. I wouldn’t read any book so reviewed, and probably wouldn’t read the book if such a review approved of it. So the one useful purpose of such a review would be a negative signal.

  2. 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

    Rooney is an author being critiqued. At some point the subject stops being the book (or any book) and zeros in on the author instead. What is important to this reviewer isn’t a book, it’s an author and his/her politics. This critic does not really want to review books, this critic wants to subject authors to ideological tests.

    The only reviews I trust at all are user supplied reviews on Amazon, and even those must be looked at carefully.

  3. So glad that you mentioned the kulaks – the peasants that were blamed for all that was ill with Soviet Russia. That’s just one example of history that is completely ignored by schools today.

    It’s a shame; when I was in school, we got BOTH sides – both what the Left was promoting, AND eyewitness testimony from those who opposed those regimes. We were permitted to debate the positions, without penalty.

    Not now. Most schools push hard Left on history, readings, and viewpoint permitted. Anyone disagreeing with the officially approved viewpoints is ridiculed, marginalized, and threatened. Check thefire.org (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) to read some dreadful examples of abuse of power in education.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.