In a relatively calm year for literary drama, (we were all too busy worrying about the collapsing republic, I guess,) it was a fun few days on Twitter when a short story made everyone lose their collective shit. I love talking about literature online! It reminds me of when online was fun! However, it became immediately less fun when it appeared that the only acceptable response to “Cat Person” was to revel in its perfection and reliability.
As soon as people came forward with objections to the story, others took to the mantle of attacking the dissenters. I’m generally game for a fight, but instead of defending the writing of “Cat Person” itself, people were dismissing the criticisms of those who expressed opinions anywhere on the spectrum of “meh” to negative. People who were nonplussed by the writing were lumped in with the men whose reactions were recorded in infamy in the account Men react to Cat Person.
In what world is a woman sharing her critical opinion of a piece of writing the same thing as a man trashing a female narrator, or defending the repellent antagonist? These are very different reactions, but it’s a kneejerk habit on the internet (not just the literary internet, all parts of the stupid internet), that any dissenting opinion can be lumped in with the ‘trolls’ and the ‘haters.’ It’s pointless to engage with the trolls, they say, which is true, when the designation is accurate—but critics are not trolls, and categorizing the two together eliminates the space for productive and fascinating dialogue. This attitude allows both the creator and the ad hoc army of defenders of the creator to dismiss critical questions about a work, its craft, and its function, instead of engage with them.
I read “Cat Person,” like everyone else, the week it came out. Two months earlier, I’d read Leopoldine Core’s masterful story “Hog For Sorrow.” Though its protagonist is an amateur erotic massage therapist rather than a college student, both protagonists are young women attempting to navigate male-defined narratives and reflecting on their place within stories. The themes and interiority were similar, but to my read, Core’s work was deeper, more nuanced, eloquently precise, with the je ne sais quoi that makes a story move from “It was good” to “I will think about this every day until I die.”
“He, like, reprimanded me for eating a corn muffin.” [The protagonist says.]
“What an asshole.”
“It was like he wanted me to be dead. Like I was interfering with my potential hotness by living.”
This line slaughtered me, in its simplicity, in it’s horror, how it encapsulated in just nineteen words what I have felt for my entire life when men watch me existing with revulsion.
I did not have a line I could recall from Cat Person that shifted my gravity, but I reread the story to look for something I might call a favorite. This is the closest I came:
“Yeah, right, she thought, and then he was on top of her again, kissing her and weighing her down, and she knew that her last chance of enjoying this encounter had disappeared, but that she would carry through with it until it was over.”
Having also had bad sex, I of course felt the specific recognition of resignation upon reading this passage. But it didn’t change me. It didn’t bring me to a new sense of understanding and insight about the extremely demoralizing ways that men and women interact. It just made me think, “yep.”
In a piece for the New Republic, critic Jo Livingstone said that defenders of the story “snarled at the unimpressed’s incomprehension of Roupenian’s achievement.” That being her grasp on the internal monologue of a woman. This strikes me as a blanket reduction. Of course there are people of whom this is true, but at least in the circles I quietly spoke about the story, we understood the achievement of bringing a reader into the mind of a woman full well, and had read others achieve it before, at a higher pitch, with little recognition from either the literary community or the general public.
In “Adrien Brody,” Marie Calloway also wrote about the strange dynamic created through the exchange of virtual communication prior to a real life romantic reckoning. She also wrote intimately about the experience of an older man falling from a place of elevated mental grace despite his initial persona. She brings the awkwardness of the encounter alive. When you’re reading, you can feel the anxiety mounting in your own nerve endings.
It all comes down to taste. “I felt annoyed he was only focused on his own feelings, after he had just shot a load on my face.” [Says Calloway’s protagonist.] This guts me in a way that nothing in Cat Person did. The story is by no means perfect, it’s raw and bare and there are moments of confusing dialogue. Even so, women have been writing candidly and clearly about men and their behavior in modern dating for a long time. It’s certainly possible that “Cat Person” is the first time so many have been exposed to it: I wasn’t surprised when my journalist friends were bowled over by the story: they don’t spend their days seeking out groundbreaking literary fiction. But the ‘literary twitter’ crowd does do precisely this. Why then the nearly unanimous blind adoration? Is it possible that “Cat Person” is the first time so many have been exposed to it?
The underlying commentary in “Adrien Brody” on power differentials, age differences, intellectualism, and man children, is a conversation that Calloway began long before it was in vogue. A close reader recognizes the ways that her male counterpart consistently, subtly, underestimates Calloway as a writer and thinker throughout their interactions, but you’re never hit over the head with his condescension.
Perhaps this is simply a part of the classic pattern of pioneers being derided and criticized. In an interview with Tao Lin, Sarah Nicole Prickett said of Calloway: “I just don’t know if she’s a writer yet, that’s all. Maybe she’s a writer. I don’t think she’s doing anything else. I will say that she seems to be a slightly better writer than a sex worker.” She continues: “She doesn’t seem like you would have a conversation with her and she would be quick, like she would be able to connect things.”
The pattern continues: several years pass and the ideas expressed by said pioneers are ready for mainstream consumption, and behold as writers who are less formally experimental and more easily digestible achieve staggering success for a derivation of the formula. Five years later, “Cat Person” gets adoration and a seven-figure book advance without the controversy heaped upon the author, and critics of Calloway (Prickett, again,) call “Cat Person” “ingeniously done.”
I’m absolutely thrilled that our culture has come far enough in the past five years that we can recognize the social importance of women’s creative work, but I don’t think that needed to come at the expense of space for nuance in criticism. We should be able to acknowledge the social importance of a piece of literature simultaneously with critically examining its issues as a work of art.
After reading the interview Roupenian gave the New Yorker, “Cat Person” feels at times more like a blunt psychological analysis built for a social reckoning than a piece of fiction. People praised the candor and naiveté of the narrator’s callous observations about Robert, but that unfiltered view is at odds with the idea that the narrator is so pernicious that the story’s events are understood simultaneously with their occurance. This simultaneous reckoning made it feel like a social argument, which is perhaps why some people mistook the story for a personal essay. It’s fine to have stories that are valuable for their social capital rather than their prose, but it’s also fine to critique how that decision manifests in a work of fiction.
This isn’t to say that I disliked “Cat Person”—but what it is to say is, I believe it’s possible to critique writing while fully believing in its importance as social literature. A story can be well-portrayed but not exquisite, and saying so doesn’t inherently make you a hater or a troll. It’s accepted in the art world to acknowledge the importance of a work while questioning it’s technique, and if we believe that literature is art, which I do, the same should be true of literature.
All the Tweets I’m seeing about that New Yorker story are people jazzed because they could RELATE to it and I mean, is that our new standard for literature? Relatability? I prefer the Joy Williams school of “everyone is a damn alien and we die alone” writing.— Amber Sparks (@ambernoelle) December 10, 2017
While relatability is an achievement that should not be diminished (it’s incredibly difficult to write something that causes so many people to see themselves), Sparks is right in that it’s not the only thing we should be aspiring to. The idea that criticisms of the story are directly in opposition to acknowledging its social importance puts literary criticism on a line instead of a graph, where good and bad are predetermined by a set of arbitrary ideals rather than acknowledging that what is functional in one story can diminish another.
Working through half-drunk bottles in a case of wine at dinner with bookish friends, the conversation turned to A Several Years Old Very Popular Book That I Did Not Love. I looked around the table, gauging the likelihood that my revelation would be ill-received: ex-lover with whom I’d expressed reservations about said book before: fine. Friend who works at a literary website, with whom I frequently discuss dissident opinions of popular books: check. Poet who had expressed interest in planning events that disrupted the literary quorum: probably also fine.
After this short assessment, I decided it was worth the risk:
“I didn’t really like Bad Feminist.”
I was prepared to immediately backtrack, but one friend said “me neither,” another nodded in agreement, and the third didn’t look up from their pizza. Though we each had our own opinions, our qualms with the book were relatively similar: it was a good primer on how to think in the modern world, paired with funny and at times incisive pop culture commentary, but the level of praise heaped upon it seemed outsized for a book that explained relatively commonplace tenets of feminism in indistinct language.
Despite my tepid reaction to Bad Feminist, I don’t consider myself to be in any sort of anti- Roxane Gay camp. I admired An Untamed State, and Gay is truly an exemplary “literary citizen”—she’s a strong curator, a champion of other writers, and I’m always excited to read her takes on both skirmishes in the literary world and books in general. So why does it feel so anathema to reside in this gray area, where I am not a superfan or a hater?
What strikes me as strange about this conversation and the many similar ones I’ve had, in retrospect, is not the content of our critiques of a book, but that I was so conditioned to anxiety about expressing my opinion that I felt uncomfortable revealing a simple statement of personal taste in front of three people whom I consider to be friends. Why did I feel the need to create an impromptu whisper network for something so innocuous?
I often employ the blessed whisper network of the Twitter DM when it comes to potentially incendiary opinions, but that night I got to wondering: why? Shouldn’t the concept of the whisper network be reserved for abusive men and other potential dangers, rather than expressions of personal taste?
Perhaps I felt my critical whisper networks were necessary because I’ve witnessed what sometimes happens to critics dissenting with popular opinion—the tendency for reactions to focus on slandering the critic rather than engaging with the content of the criticism. Speaking of which, remember when Lena Dunham called Merve Emre’s piece “Two Paths for the Personal Essay” “rude, patronizing bullshit?”
Calling the piece “rude patronizing bullshit” does not actually do anything to refute or defend the rigorous arguments that Emre made against Too Much and Not the Mood, Durga Chew-Bose’s book that Dunham was attempting to defend. Calling Emre rude doesn’t do anything to praise Chew-Bose’s work, or respond to Emre’s critiques. Calling someone patronizing, or pretentious, or any garden-variety insult without evidence, is a common way to respond in the age of the internet, but it does nothing to create an actual dialogue about the work at hand, which is what Emre was attempting to do. I myself found much to admire in Chew-Bose’s book, but I also didn’t disagree with Emre’s analysis—another occasion of finding myself residing in a gray area, and feeling the pressure to pick sides as if literature were a battle rather than a quorum.
I understand the impulse to shit on things that are expressing an opinion akin to rejection, but it’s unhealthy for the culture of criticism. It’s fodder for a scene where you can’t critique work in any circumstance, without hearing the accusation that you’re a bad faith crisis actor.
And whether we’re being dishonest about our own opinions or attacking other people for theirs, we’re hanging out squarely in the state of generalized zeal that Jacob Silverman described in his Slate essay, “Against Enthusiasm.” I talked to Silverman about what has or has not changed since he penned the essay nearly six years ago: (Full disclosure, we are friends.)
“There's fear that negative criticism can bury books or even endanger the livelihood of a writer. But that may be giving too much credit to reviews or overlooking the many larger systemic challenges that face a writer trying to carve out a living. Of course critics aren't supposed to be cheerleaders. And if the practice is to be valued at all, we have to make room for artful, honest, well-argued dissent and criticism. Reviews are often seen as a way to spotlight writers, rather than subject them to any kind of fair assessment or critical scrutiny.”
The line between trolls and critics is becoming ever blurrier as we’re inundated with New York Times opinion columns that read like a Facebook rant from a high school friend who went too hard on the ketamine. When some supposed experts write irresponsibly, it is easy to write off any negative opinion as the trash talk of a career hater. Online culture makes the attitude “tell anyone who disagrees with you to leave you alone” acceptable, but the effect is a latent and stale critical discourse.
Sometime in the fall, I went to that weird waterfront area in Williamsburg with the fun loungey chairs and settled in to read a new galley before taking the ferry to my shift at a bar in midtown. I was excited about this galley for the usual reasons: good buzz, small press that I like, writer Twitter tweeting praise.
I started reading and was, nonplussed. I wasn’t filled with rage, but I didn’t have the same joyful reaction that everyone else seemed to be having. Perhaps Her Body and Other Parties just wasn’t to my taste. I didn’t want to see The Shape of Water and my coworker said, “But it’s like a fairytale for adults!” and I said, “Precisely.” That’s not my bag.
I still rated the book four stars on Goodreads because I would feel like a monster if I didn’t. But feeling like a monster for ambivalence is weird. I’m generally a compulsive truth teller—or, in the words of my friend Candace, I “shamelessly share my drama with anyone because who gives a fuck.” Why then, do I suppress my personal opinions about books?
The book received nearly universal praise upon its publication, so I kept my reservations in their usual hangout: the DMs. As a friend, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said to me, “There is a tremendous dearth of honest criticism, to the extent that one can feel a bit insane when you read a bad book, can't find anyone who will compliment it in private, but all the reviews are positive.” Said reservations were, once again, not cruel or earth-shattering: the SVU story everyone loved was derivative of, and less interesting than, “Sexual Offenses,” Elissa Washuta’s SVU essay in My Body is a Book of Rules, and stories like The Husband Stitch seemed didactic, like a creative presentation of how fucked up a phenomena is than a narrative. Pastiche is legitimate, but I’m hesitant to agree that retelling creepy children’s stories with fucked up gender dynamics and making those more obvious is revolutionary. No one seemed to publicly share these thoughts, and I was starting to feel a bit insane.
Still, I didn’t feel that voicing my less than stellar opinion was worth the potential drama and nitpicky internet fights that would potentially ensue. (She types, as she pens a nine page essay that will inevitably cause drama and nitpicky internet fights.) And this is what saddens me. That we’re masking our opinions under the veneer of generalized praise, at the expense of an interesting dialogue about what our work is capable of.
As author, critic, and editor Lincoln Michel said, “On the individual level, I understand why no one wants to write negative reviews when barely anyone will read them, the people who do will get pissed at you, and in the end you don't even get paid enough to buy dinner that night.”
Five years ago, Isaac Fitzgerald took up the helm of editor at Buzzfeed Books and somewhat famously (as famously as you can get in the world of book chat) proclaimed that he would not run negative reviews of books. In true call and response formation, the literary internet replied: Tom Scocca’s infamous On Smarm (RIP Gawker,) parodic op-eds from the New York Times Opinion section (also RIP, if we’re being honest.) The reactions ran the spectrum you’d imagine: supportive to lukewarm to eye rolling.
A perusal into the current offerings of the Buzzfeed Books page over the past two months offers this: around seventy lists, thirty five quizzes, forty posts about Harry Potter, between five and ten excerpts from forthcoming books, ten publishing industry news tidbits, and ten strong, fascinating essays by incisive writers.
To be fair, Buzzfeed is a site where lists and quizzes reign, and it would be unreasonable to expect the books section to negate these elements entirely. But the proportion is nevertheless saddening: I loved the interview with Laurie Halse Anderson on the #metoo movement, the Akwaeke Emezi essay on writers of color creating their own canon, the Lisa Ko essay “Who in America is allowed to be ordinary?” These are vital works that move the conversation forward, but they can get lost in the pile of lists, quizzes, and “Which Harry Potter Auror Are You, Actually?”
In many ways, this reflects my feelings on the conversation around books in general: apt criticism is alive and well, but it becomes obscured in the hype machine: tweets with the (quotetweet) THIS!!!! formation, the fear of stepping on toes overriding the benefits of a honest dialogue, timeliness as a priority over the evergreen, niceness over nuance, publicity over criticism.
I don’t consider opinions that are extensions of my specific personal taste or criticisms with evidence-based foundations to be mean. I do know many writers personally, writers who either already have books or will likely have books come out in the next few years. Herein lies another problem. “I just don’t believe in treating books like they’re fragile simply because authors’ egos are,” said Charlotte Shane in an interview with LitHub.
Just how much do authors actually care about the opinions of acquaintances, random other bookish people? Are we placing too much weight on the personal impact of a negative review, or has the mutual admiration society made any negative opinion feel more cutting than an interpersonal slight?
Liking or disliking something isn’t a moral judgment. It’s not a character assassination. The expectation that any book will be universally liked is both unrealistic and incompatible with the nuance it requires to evaluate a work through a critical lens.
It’s truly fucked up how hard it is for authors, and writers in general, to make a living. Of course, when someone writes a book they deserve to make money, which happens by selling books, and books are more likely to be sold when said book is getting positive rather than negative press.
But I’m arguing for the acceptance of the gray area, for the latitude to explore feelings about a work that don’t fall squarely into like or dislike. Would that really discourage people from buying books? Can you really engage with a work if you’re only spouting praise and adoration? It’s possible that a culture with lively debate about books would actually increase sales—I’m more interested in forming my own opinion of a book that has mixed reviews, rather than one that is universally praised or universally panned.
Last summer, my mentor organized a meet-up for several of her former students at a rooftop bar in Brooklyn. Throughout the course of the evening, the four of us present revealed that we were all fans of Jonathan Franzen. A cardinal sin in literary Brooklyn! We didn’t dislike the man, we were actually all admirers of his work. I will keep sinning and invoke the words of the most hated man in literature.
“The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of.”
I can see how that passage would seem overdramatic in the context of books. But this is how I feel about books. This depth of love, this operatic drama, is how I feel about reading: it has brought me through the most difficult times of my life and the thoughts of the writers I adore have helped me become the thinker, writer, and social human that I am.
I don’t think it’s possible to like every aspect of any book. To really love a work of art, you need to be willing to engage with its flaws as well as its strengths. You might feel affection or understanding for the flaws, but pretending they don’t exist is an exercise in denial. From the creator’s standpoint, criticism hurts, but it doesn’t kill. I’d rather have someone engage in a debate with me about my work, show that they really read it and deeply reckoned with my ideas or my sense of craft, than to laud it with generic praise. What does praise really mean if it isn’t contrasted with interrogative candor?
In a review of a recent collection of Martin Amis criticism and correspondence, Ryan Chapman said: “Amis includes close-read critiques of novels in the Austen, Bellow, Roth, and Updike bodies of work, with a bite and a nuance generally absent from today’s review sections. Raves and takedowns are easy (and they get clicks). The middle path demands a deeper conversation with the text and a greater explication of the critic’s theory of literature.”
We need a thriving willingness to reside in this middle ground, despite the discomfort it can engender. Barring the end of the world, each author’s latest book is likely not their last. We’re performing as if each book the last word. So long as we’re still alive, we have the opportunity to grow our work and reach new levels of creative actualization. That’s the culture I want to live in, one where we can honor the importance of our own and our beloved work without taking criticism as a personal affront.