Authorial Fragility and the Enemies of Poptimism

It's good when critics dislike things

A hostile audience throwing a selection of fruit, bottles, hats and other missiles at an unfortunate...
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Christian Lorentzen
Most Things Suck

I don’t pretend to know why anybody does anything. Why did Richard Joseph, a graduate student at McGill University, write a piece calling into question the motives behind literary hatchet jobs and why did his editors at the Los Angeles Review of Books give it the bland headline “Everyone’s a Critic,” when the piece is in fact about a few specific prominent critics? I do not know. Why did Yair Rosenberg, a political journalist, write in his Atlantic newsletter that the problem with critics is that they’re alienated from the appetites of actually existing audiences? I do not know. Why did a prominent novelist who claims not to read reviews of her work tell a New Yorker writer that she doesn’t “think much” of one of her harshest critics and follow that assessment with “I hate his writing.” Impossible to tell.

Poor critics! In Joseph’s account, they are craven seekers of clicks launching personal attacks against memoirists and novelists. In Rosenberg’s, they are slaves to the winds of Twitter, declaring artists such as Lin-Manuel Miranda and J.K. Rowling moribund even though the people still love them. These arguments cast critics either as sadists acting in bad faith or as spineless conformists trapped in myopia-inducing digital consensus bubbles. Against this backdrop, it’s somewhat refreshing to hear an author say she hates the guy who panned her last book. Whoops! She merely hates his writing — nothing personal.

Joseph argues that hatchet jobs are little better than nasty gossip. (He presents this as a novel insight and doesn’t mention that “higher gossip” is a common term for criticism, biography, and the novel itself.) He comes to the defense of Jia Tolentino and Sally Rooney, two authors who have received overwhelmingly positive reviews in the strictly quantitative sense. He suggests that negative criticism largely comes from highbrows putting middlebrows in their place. It’s an old argument, one he largely borrows from an Australian scholar, and I suppose it’s one mode of negativity that’s out there. However, it seems to me a case of blaming critics for having taste. Joseph further asserts that critical hostility has caused authors of fiction to be unduly self-conscious. He cites a passage in which Alice, a character in Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, complains about her image as it’s mediated through author profiles:

I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. I hate her ways of expressing herself, I hate her appearance, and I hate her opinions about everything. And yet when other people read about her, they believe that she is me. Confronting this fact makes me feel I am already dead.

Poor thing. But literary publicity and success have always been part of Rooney’s subject matter as a fiction writer: the opening pages of Conversations with Friends are about being profiled, and Normal People ends with one character getting into an MFA program. In the new book, Alice becomes so wildly famous that she has to check into a mental hospital — it didn’t work for me. But it sends Joseph into a real tizzy:

There is something distinctly disquieting about this passage, because it is clearly Rooney, herself, speaking to not only her critics but to all of us in this literary ecosystem. Reading this, I felt ambushed, as if someone I’d been cheerfully gossiping about for years suddenly confronted me on the subway. It’s a mirror held up to the online frenzy of capital-D Discourse, revealing its essential ugliness and inhumanity.

Oh, please. In the first place, Alice is talking about her profiles and interviews, not her reviews. She is driven insane by her own publicity, in which she fully participates and from which she makes a lot of money. She has not chosen to behave like Thomas Pynchon. Joseph is a sucker for Alice’s authorial fragility, which is Rooney’s most effective means of generating sympathy for a cold and uninteresting character who spends much of the novel writing whiney letters to her friend full of summaries of Wikipedia pages she’s read. There’s also some mechanical fucking and whimpering.

It seems strange to me that people have to invent ulterior motives for critics who don’t lavish every new novel, film, television program, or art exhibition with slobbering praise. Disliking most of what you see and hear seems to me the natural way of things. All the more pleasure when you find something that grips your attention. Reading novels and watching films and looking at paintings and sculptures are hedonistic activities. Negative reviews are simply the expression of displeasure. The critics who write them don’t tend to be normal people because if they were their reviews would be boring and either nobody would print them or nobody would read them. In any case evaluation isn’t the ultimate point of criticism, though in the crude slipstream of social media it’s usually taken to be.

Rosenberg understands himself to be on the side of pleasure or at least enjoyment. He’s making an essentially poptimist argument that when the critics’ consensus is not congruent with the audience consensus, something is wrong with the critics. I hate poptimism because I hate being like everybody else and I think most extremely popular stuff is bad (Taylor Swift, superhero movies, almost all TV shows), so I am not sympathetic to Rosenberg’s argument. However, his enemies here aren’t critics with idiosyncratic taste that parts ways with the mainstream, but enforcers of the Twitter and TikTok Moralizing Consensus. He defends J.K. Rowling, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Parks and Recreation against various cancellations, garment-rendings, and pearl-clutchings. I have never seen or read any of the works in question because they all look corny to me, so I can only understand the conflict on a meta level.

It’s usually fun to watch a brawl between factions when you hate both sides — in this case, prudes and narcs vs. cheerleaders and fanboys — but I find the constant repetition of these arguments depressing. Why the perpetual niggling over the political viewpoints and personal behavior of writers and artists? Why the slavish interest in popularity and box office receipts? Why do people post lists of books they’ve read at the end of the year and why are they all reading the same books? Coalitions and mass movements are necessary in politics. And a government needs ethics committees and inspectors general. But art and criticism ought to be zones of indifference to consensus and permissiveness within reason. If we all end up hating each other, that’s for the best, and no harm in saying so.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in Brooklyn.