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Recommendations for 09/09/2012

A short list this week, but I have more to say than usual about the first item. And so:
  
Unintentional conversation: “Against Enthusiasm” by Jacob Silverman, and “Goodbye Reader!” by Ned Beauman
Silverman’s piece got a lot of attention (as articles about literary criticism go) a few weeks ago by arguing, essentially, that there is too much back-patting and not enough serious criticism in the literary world today. He suggests that, because so many authors maintain a strong social media presence, and so are “known” to more people and in more contact with one another, nobody wants to say anything mean about anybody else— with the result that we hear only recommendations and endorsements, but never takedowns. In essence, the quality of the work has gotten confused with the personality of the author. He also claims that the tools of response in social media— the Like button, the favorite, etc.— limit our responses to positive ones (though it seems to me that if these elements have this effect the real problem is that we don’t want to do more than click a single button). Silverman ends by suggesting that

A better literary culture would be one that’s not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement. It would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. We wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions. If we all think more and enthuse less, when I do truly love Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, you’ll be more likely to believe me.

Ned Beauman is, as you will know if you’ve have been paying attention to this blog, the author of two of my favorite books of recent years: Boxer, Beetle and, just this July, The Teleportation Accident. If you have read one or both of these books, you immediately got the sense that Beauman is somebody with an irreverent sense of humor, with perhaps a tendency to transgress the boundaries of some people’s taste. He apparently got some blowback recently for an interview in the Guardian in which he said that

But what seems to stick in my mind is praise from the wrong people. Obviously this is incredibly elitist and snobbish, but then that’s my prerogative as a novelist. The people who wrote four-star Amazon reviews were almost more annoying than the one- or two-star reviews, because of the way they looked at the book… I wanted to take all the caveats they had and really emphasise those things, to slough off as many of them as possible.

In this more recent piece for The Awl, he expands on this idea, saying:

One of the weird things about publishing these days is that there is an enormous appetite for snuggling into the interior world of the writer—through readings, interviews, Twitter, creative writing programs, essays like this one—almost as if the book itself is not the point of it all but rather an inconvenient membrane dividing the writer from her public; and yet there is still no appetite whatsoever for considering some of the less congenial truths of the writerly experience: That praise can be more dispiriting than criticism. That we don’t necessarily respect every single one of our readers. That sometimes we write to repel as much as we write to attract. Occasionally, in interviews, you can hear these attitudes humming in the background, but they’re not often admitted, even though to deny them is to deny that writers are human beings with human psychologies.

This sounds a lot like what Silverman is arguing: that we tend to understand the relationship between an author and his or her audience as a personal one, requiring adherence to the same kinds of social norms that obtain with friends and colleagues and acquaintances, when really we should think in terms of a relationship between an audience and the work of an author. Sometimes this is a hard line to maintain—especially, as both writers note, when you can send a message to an author on Twitter and reasonably expect a response within a few hours— and there are certainly instances in which criticism of an author’s work has become an attack on the person him- or herself. But we do not have to be polite to books as we (ideally) are polite to people, and so good criticism requires that we at least try to maintain this distinction. 
Beauman’s ultimate point, though, is that some kinds of compliments— form some kinds of people— can be taken as an indication of a problem with the work. This will depend on the author’s goals, but if you write a book and someone says to you that “it was great to read at bedtime, since it didn’t make me think too much,” you might very well not see that as a good thing. Similarly, if somebody with whom you have fundamental disagreements about important moral or political questions likes you work, that could very well mean that you are not clearly saying what you mean to be saying. As Beauman puts it: 

The single biggest surprise to me as a debut author gaining an audience for the first time was the extent to which people insist they can’t enjoy a novel without any likeable characters. (Which rules out Lolita, Heart of Darkness, The Trial, Animal Farm, The Stranger, Rabbit, Run, A Clockwork Orange, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jealousy, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Last Exit to Brooklyn and much of the rest of the twentieth-century canon.) This is a useful example, because when someone demands likeable characters—I know I’m generalizing scandalously here—that’s often representative of a broader inhospitality to a lot of the things I prize in fiction: confrontation, ambivalence, paradox, subversion, total moral candor. And a great Amazon review from someone with literary values that you suspect to be utterly incompatible with your own can mean two things. It can mean you have written a book of such resplendent universal appeal that it converts even your adversaries. I don’t think that’s very likely in my case, otherwise my sales would be a lot higher…Or it can mean that you’ve been pandering—producing work that you don’t honestly believe in, just because you want to caper before a mass audience.

In other words, when I talk about sloughing off certain readers, it’s not that I have anything against those people, or that I’m too good for their money, or that I don’t want them to enjoy their reading at the end of a long day. It’s because if I can write a book that those people don’t particularly care for, that will be an indication—not a proof, but at least an indication—that I’ve finally produced an uncompromised expression of the values to which I aspire as a writer.

Silverman and Beauman are not quite talking about the same thing, though they clearly share some thoughts about the consequences of authors being so much closer to their readers. In different ways, though, they are dealing with the question of what to do with positive feedback, and with the fact that the absence of a negative response may not tell us what it seems to about a particular work. Some people should not be expected to like certain kinds of work, and we should never expect that everybody will like anything. When it seems like this is happening, something has gone wrong somewhere.  
Photo Set: “Skateboarding in Kabul”
As far as content, the title pretty much says it all: photos of kids in Kabul skateboarding. There is an NGO working there that provides boards and builds ramps for people to skate on, and they have recently released a book about what they are doing. I don’t know that skateboards are the key to peace in Afghanistan, but they can’t hurt— and anyway, the images are pretty cool. 
Video: “Yosemite HD” by Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty
High-definition time lapse video of a few days at Yosemite National Park. It is pretty much what you imagine, but that is pretty awesome. 
Website: Google Earth Fractals” by Paul Bourke
I can’t be the only person who became fascinated with chaos theory after reading Jurassic Park, though I’ve never met anybody else. In any case, I think chaos and complexity and fractals are approximately the most interesting thing there is, and I am perpetually trying to find a way to make use of this stuff in my own research. These are fractal satellite images found with Google Earth. They are fun to look at in themselves, but what I really like about the site is that it provides the KMZ file (Google Earth’s data format), so you can go straight to the location and do all that spiffy zooming around that is, let’s be honest, the main reason we all downloaded the program.

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