by Bethlehem Shoals
I have never understood how critics, outside of the few tenured at operations with their heads above water, manage to make a living. I say this as someone who, for several years, more or less got by writing about music. The primary audience for criticism seems to be other critics, or at least consumers with, for lack of a better word, “critical” sensibilities. But maybe I’m denying the awesome, fundamental power of the written word. Criticism — and in this, I would include any form of review or preview — passes judgment so that others might be free, or at least spared any inconvenience.
Naturally, this is an essay about Twitter.
This fall, my friends and I had our second zany sports book published. Our first, which came out in the fall of 2008, was an unexpected hit — at least by the modest standards under which publishing operates these days. I’ve been told several times that, in today’s industry, there is no way in hell a vanity project like The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac would ever have seen the light of day. But, owing to a snappy website, lots of pleading emails to writer friends, and some grass roots notoriety, we managed to, as they say, create buzz. It went on to sell in bookstores, but that thing was born on the Internet.
Back then, the basic unit of Internet buzz was the blog entry. Blogs, which today seem so quaint, gave you the chance to stretch out and make case for… well, whatever the oppressive world of printed matter wouldn’t give you the space to do. When it came to books, a blog post was, at minimum, a relatively stable bit of online enthusiasm. Like happy locusts, or any locusts at all, enough of them could keep you up at night, or blot out the sky. The best ones, though, were well-considered reviews that — even when they didn’t carry the imprimatur of a famous name or publication — put into circulation an account of your book by someone who had read it. Acknowledgment is one thing; that’s why authors lose sleep over landing in the NYRB. Blogs, though, allow for a wide, wide net of coercion, or if you want to be democratic about it, a variety of critical accounts.
Criticism isn’t just a way of conserving time and energy. It’s also an important translation skill. It’s easy to piece together a review that relies solely on comparisons and referents; it’s also bad writing and altogether useless for anyone who doesn’t already know the author, or run in exactly the same circles, taste-wise. A review is, in theory, helpful. That’s what language is for: it makes a movie, record, book, or film into a universal. This kind of communication is tied into consumerism, to be sure, but it’s also part of why — even as all authority comes crashing down — criticism matters. People want to understand, or be advised.
Seriously, remember when all there was to do was blog? Or when, as was the case in 2008, blogging and the space, freedom, and imagined relevance it offered were the model of Internet participation? I know that Facebook existed, and Twitter probably did, too, but there hadn’t quite been a sea change. Yet.
Buzz is a form of transmission. When blogging still held any currency, a book (like ours) would show up there in a way that anyone who happened upon it could readily understand and react to accordingly. I’m not sure if that always made for criticism, but the same principle was at play. While blogging communities did tend to work as self-contained enclaves, they still functioned in a way that would allow an outsider to latch onto their content. They may have been exclusive, but they weren’t exclusionary. Simply put, this made it a lot more likely that one post would beget another; at the very least, it increased the possibility that someone blogging about your book would lead some as-of-yet-unidentified stranger to run out and buy it.
Let me preface this by saying that our second book is doing just fine. So please don’t go reading this as sour grapes. But this fall, I’ve noticed that buzz seems harder to come by. I could blame this on the novelty quotient of our first one, but instead I’m going to blame Twitter and Facebook — in large part because I’m not the only person to feel this shift in his professional life.
As much as social networks like Twitter and Facebook are now expected to blend seamlessly into our everyday lives, help overthrow rogue nations, or bring about increased funding for worthy causes with the “like” button, their capacity for expansion — and action — depends on trust. It’s like my hypothetical all-name-drop review, but without any sign-posts that you could follow if you felt like it (or wanted to prove you were down). If the blog review belonged to any and all audiences, the “like” button, or a quick shout on Twitter, matters only as much as the author already holds credibility. Networks can merge and connect, but only with a contact point, an intersection, or an overlap. The review — which, incidentally, was never as transitory as everyone’s over-stuffed timelines — sat there and invited viewing. Tweets and status updates matter only to those already in the loop, and even then, there’s a chance they will be missed.
Of course, there are exceptions to this, but the scale is daunting. End up a trending topic, or get thousands of “likes”, and people will start to wonder what they’re missing. However, that’s a far cry from a single post being able to stir curiosity. It’s like we’re moving in the opposite direction, maybe back toward the days when a finite number of outlets made mention of a select group of works. Except now, there’s constant buzzing, with everyone empowered to weigh in. Their worth, though, depends solely on an ungodly accumulation of efforts — unless, of course, you never want to make it out of the Internet ghetto that spawned you.