Mark Athitakis Newsletter #22

Don't @ me.

Front Matter

Don’t let that blue checkmark on my Twitter account fool you---these days I don’t feel like I’m using Twitter well, let alone professionally. I’m not one of those people who can routinely deliver a witty line that’ll get more than ten likes, and most of what I write there escapes my memory a day after I wrote it. But I still think about this tweet I wrote in 2012:

At the time, I was responding to a Tumblr post (and later a Slate article) about the kind of “Read my awesome friend’s awesome book!” boosterism that’s a major province of book twitter. Twitter is designed for sharing things—-it encourages you RT things you agree with and which you hope others agree with. That, in turn, encourages cheerleading, if not for a book, than for the particular literary camp that you’re in. And now that we’ve had Twitter for more than a decade, that sharing has entrenched itself as close to the default of what online literary conversation is—sharing your enthusiasm, and hoping others agree with it.

As for conversations about books beyond that, I’ve…kinda given up on it? The politics of the moment have back-burnered them, or for better or for worse subsumed it. In the years since I wrote that tweet, the sense that Twitter is an affirmation engine hasn’t abated, but there’s also a sharper edge to all that affirming, an increasing sense that not only are we all supposed to be here to voice our enthusiasms, but that criticism will not be abided. I’m not talking about the keening that you occasionally see from the froggier portions of Twitter where people complain that they can’t make off-color remarks without being dragged; stupid, bigoted comments deserve to be dunked on. But lately I’m being strenuously reminded that I mustn’t tag an author in a negative review, as if that act weren’t just poor manners but an egregious offense. (And hey, why are you tagging the author in your positive review? Why is doing unpaid labor as a writer’s clipping service OK?) Even if you’re not tagging a writer, not-positive thoughts are usually delivered under some kind of subtweeting rubric; not naming the author, screenshotting the bothersome passage rather than quoting it. Remember that piece a few years back about literary culture and how we needed to burn it all to the ground? Everybody loved it on Twitter. In my DMs and others’? Not so much.

Twitter-as-affirmation-engine does good things---sells books, connects people with similar enthusiasms. Spark conversations? Not so much. This point came up again last week when novelist John Boyne tweeted this:

You will not be surprised to hear that if you ask people on Twitter if they prefer Twitter, they will tell you they prefer Twitter. Fine. But it was frustrating to see book reviews take it in the teeth for not being enthusiastic in an acceptably Twitter-y way. A representative sample of Boyne’s replies: “Newspaper reviews reveal far too much”; “I never trust reviews. I don’t know who knows who”; “Professional reviewers are filtered by editors”; “Tweets by people whose taste you trust work for me better than press reviews”; “I’d rather get a book recommendation from a ‘regular Joe’ than a newspaper book review.”

All of those comments are based on the notion that book reviews are somehow poisoned or suspect. (Why can’t you trust a reviewer’s taste? Do you really know “who knows who” better on Twitter?) I understand the world we live in—-visuals sell, enthusiasm sells. I am not above a galleybrag myself. And I don’t wish to bite the hand that feeds—-tweets affirming ol’ Five-Like Mark have gotten me work and moved a few copies of my book. But I’m struck by how many people responded to Boyne’s tweet as if he were establishing a zero-sum game—-that in the name of affirming a “random tweet,” a “commissioned newspaper review” had to have its status lowered. Why can’t both have status? And why talk about this solely in the context of selling books? Twitter is still an affirmation engine, but it’s designed to affirm some ideas more strongly than others.

What I’m Reading

Jennifer Finney Boylan looks at “Peanuts” through the lens of queerness and unrequited love—-the strip is, she notes, “one broken heart after another.” T.C. Boyle recalls growing up with a schizophrenic friend. Michael Harris delivers another lament about our dying attention spans, though it’s less panicky than most and alert to the fact that reading isn’t a natural act to start with, forever subject to changing outside forces. Scott McLemee braves the written artifacts of Lyndon LaRouche’s diminished, pathetic cult on the event of his recent passing; Rob Harvilla celebrates Pavement’s enduring, enchanting cult on the event of the 25th anniversary of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Anne Trubek, who generously put out a good word for this newsletter earlier this week (Hello, new readers! I affirm you!), maintains a few newsletters of her own, including an engagingly nutsy-boltsy one about running an independent press.

What I’m Writing

At Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, I’ve written a brief appreciation of Robert Christgau’s essay collection, Is It Still Good to Ya? “Practically every piece is rooted in the notion that music is a prism through which we can better understand race, society, and politics, especially in America. For Christgau, artists old (Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, Chuck Berry) and new (Gogol Bordello, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z) evoke a vision of American life that’s been embraced or attacked over time, and will continue to shift.”

The book—-which still deserves a full-dress review—-is a finalist in the criticism category of this year’s NBCC awards, which will be presented in New York on March 14. If you support book reviews, please consider buying a ticket for the NBCC’s fundraising party immediately after the awards; just click the big red button the NBCC homepage. Random positive tweets need no assistance, but commissioned book reviews can use all the help they can get, and the party is the best NYC literary party I attend. (It’s the only NYC literary party I attend.)

End Notes

Like Dean Christgau says, “It’s fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green.”

Thanks for reading. Send opinions you dare not share on Twitter and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter, because I contain multitudes, that’s why. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.