Why We Read Strangers

Elizabeth Gumport knows her stuff.  That’s obvious from her piece in n + 1, “Against Reviews.”

But that’s not why I printed a copy (yes, I am a Luddite) and carried it around to think about.  It’s because Gumport asks a brilliant and necessary question.  Why must we read strangers?  I seriously love this question – and I seriously hate that I can’t answer it.

Gumport tells us how the rise of literacy and book production in the 17th and 18th centuries was accompanied by a rise in book reviews, profoundly changing the relationship of artist to audience:

This unprecedented outpouring of reviews meant that for the first time an author’s fortune was determined by the general public rather than by a private patron. This comparatively vast new audience was perceived by many as a serious threat to social stability. No longer could an author identify or anticipate her audience’s reaction. Her readers were too many, and they were strangers to her.

This feels right to me, this shift in audience.  Also, I’m weirdly nostalgic for the pre-shift state of affairs. Gumport reminds us that those one on one patronage relationships were often erotic as well as artistic, but that only underscores her point.  Before the rise of book production writers knew their readers personally, sometimes very personally.  Writing and reading existed as a facet of intimate, personal relationships. 

I kept remembering the first time I read Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and how beguiled I was by the frame, by the young men and women telling stories to each other in Fiesole while Florence writhed with plague.  What could be more intimate than telling stories while escaping death?  Telling stories to your friends, about your friends, with your friends, making alternate imaginative lives for escaping a reality that’s become another kind of death?  This is sacred stuff.  Survival stuff.  We lost some of our humanity when we ceded the cultural spaces in which such stories and intimacies happen.

Now, in a real sense, writers write for nobody in particular and for everybody in general, or at least for everybody in general in a corporate-defined marketing group. The rite of passage to get to write for your marketing group of choice, particularly if your group is literary fiction, is to write pointless reviews that nobody reads. “Like hazing, reviewing is inflicted by the old and popular on the young and weak, who are told that before they can succeed at their chosen pursuit they must endure certain traditional trials.”  Exactly.  I would add to those trials surviving the typical MFA program with one’s creativity intact

Gumport understands what a crock book reviewing is and so does everybody else who’s honest about it. She knows that reviews are essentially ineffectual advertising.  They serve no real purpose.  They don’t sell books, and Gumport reminds us that most of the time only the author and her friends read them. Also, there are too damn many reviews, sometimes so many that, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, “the clash of completely contradictory opinions cancel each other out.”

Yes.  Yes.  Sure.  But here’s why I’ve been carrying her piece around.  This:

Imagine a literary culture in which the relationship between reader and writer was as intimate and direct as the relationship between poet and patron. This would not be, and never was, a recipe for health or contentment—most marriages are unhappy. But the “passion” that Arnold thought needed to be neutralized could proudly speak its name. Why should a writer be ashamed to write for someone she knows? Why should her friends and enemies feign a lack of interest in her work? Affection, attraction, admiration, rivalry, resentment: all are aphrodisiacs, and heighten our interest in what’s before us. Nobody insists we fuck strangers—why must we read them?

Here’s why.  To quote Linds Redding, “The creative industry operates largely by holding ‘creative’ people ransom to their own self-image, [and] precarious sense of self-worth.”   The machine wants reviews, although the machine hasn’t the dimmest notion of whether reviews sell books, or will sell a particular book.  Not to mention that reviews are bought and sold.   Also, it is so well known that writers are praised by their sock puppets and dissed by their rivals that serious readers don’t take reviews seriously.  Amazon is trying to crack down on reviews by friends and enemies of the writer to avoid the many recent embarrassments like this one, but it doesn exactly care whether its reviewers read strangers.  Amazon doesn’t even care if you’ve actually read the book you are reviewing.  It really doesn’t.  As long as you don’t actually know or aren’t in competition with the writer, you can make up anything you like. 

Technology has made reviews irrelevant.  Any serious reader who checks out a reading sample on line – and what writer doesn’t put reading samples on line – will know if a book is for her or not.  And there’s an end.  It’s really that simple.

But godammit, if your ego needs to consider yourself a “real writer” you better get reviewed because  . . . well, because that’s what you do.   So everybody chases the damn things.  The other side of this is that writing for people you know doesn’t work very well if the people you know don’t enjoy reading books.  And in our increasingly illiterate, media-driven culture, that happens to be the norm. The people you know may be perfectly lovely, but damn few are going to devote hours to reading your book (unless they think it’s about them, then you won’t be able to pry them off).  Same goes if they hope it’s about them and isn’t.  Then you won’t be able to stop the “reviews.”

One reason so many writers anonymously praise themselves and ask their friends to do it too is that friends aren’t naturally going to read and comment unless begged, and strangers usually aren’t going to bother either.  But the machine wants those comments, because well, it does.  So there’s always room for young writers to waste themselves writing reviews.  It’s like that meme about the monkeys and the ladder that started life as an illustration of why businesses keep doing things that don’t work.  The newcomer who sees things differently doesn’t get the fruit – she gets mauled.

Was it Byron that wanted a woman who was clever enough to appreciate his genius but not clever enough to compete with him?  Good luck with that one.   It was somebody, and I’m sure anyone still reading this post is more than capable of tracking down the source.  But that desire is so 19th century.  Let’s update it.  Don’t we all want friends who appreciate us but aren’t competing with us, who are excellent at what they do but not at what we do?  Friends who will read us?  Good luck with that one, too.

Between the exploding atheist/secular subculture that worships the ghost of Mr. Gradgrind and takes pride in disrespecting anything that isn’t based on observable facts (which often includes fantasy, myth, disruptive literary works), religious fundamentalists who aren’t supposed to enjoy anything non-Biblical (which often includes fantasy, myth, disruptive literary works), corporate America which has convinced everyone else that only corporate-produced art (including fiction) is “good” (i.e. if it makes money for a corporation it’s “good”), a decaying intelligentsia that could appreciate challenging books and navigate the culture’s gaps but is too busy playing survival at minimum wage jobs and too burdened with student loans to care – well, there aren’t too many strangers out there to fuck anyway.  Or friends.  Anyone left is your competition.  Get used to it.

Anyone who is smart enough to appreciate you is competing with you.  None of us chose this state of affairs.  Telling tales to each other in Fiesole is much more compelling, and god I wish we – us so-called “creatives” – were doing that.  To be spinning tales calculated to entertain an intimate circle of friends, to joyfully inhabit each other’s worlds!  My god how intense, Romantic, fulfilling, enhanced would that circle of friends be?  What emotions would get rediscovered that our culture has obliterated?  How would that affect the wider culture?  The workplace?  The voting booth?  The law? The way we are with each other?

Boccaccio’s youths were merely avoiding death with their shared fiction.  But hold their self-images hostage to remaining in the heart of Florence’s raging plague and every last man jack of them would risk death, because that’s what humans do for vanity, for their self-images.  Do you think I’m overstating the power of self-image?  Athletes said in a well-known survey they would dope even if it would kill them; their self-images as renowned athletes were of more value than their lives.  It’s no different for any endeavor that carries the potential of public recognition – humans go nuts to the point of destroying themselves to get some of that.   Unfortunately, the arts are no exception.  It sucks.  I know.

So if your self-image is hostage to getting reviews you get reviews even if you have to write them yourself.  Or you write reviews for strangers that nobody reads because you’re told it’s the only path to one day being allowed to validate your self-image as a writer.  Or, like some authors, you diss your rivals and praise yourself.  Whatever it takes to get strangers to fuck you affirm your desperate self-image.  It’s ghastly.

There are always exceptions.  In a country of 315 million, there have to be.   But I’m not writing about exceptions.  I’m writing about the general rule.  We are all writing for ourselves, but god help anyone who’s honest about it.  So the question becomes – are you going to write reviews of strangers that nobody reads, or your own goddamned beautiful passionate work that nobody reads?  I mean the latter only as a working assumption.  Any given writer may or may not attract readers.  But if the writing doesn’t matter to the writer solely for its own sake, without hope of external validation, then it doesn’t matter.

If you can’t write for yourself, if you can’t write for those shadows creeping along a silent wall and measuring out your time on this earth in increments of everything else you could be doing, if you can’t write while knowing you are destroying your time on a beautiful madness that nobody will ever validate and many will mock – then please don’t call yourself a writer.  Real writing isn’t for sissies. It’s more than putting words on the page.  It’s denying everything else to be able to put those words on the page while knowing that the mess of language you’ve created is all you’ll ever get out of it.

It’s a state of almost Buddhist-like nondesire for validation coupled with an Apollonian drive for excellence for its own sake.   It’s a way of being in which having friends would be cool, friends with whom you could share stories and create private fictional worlds and languages – an almost spiritual bonding – but the last ticket to Fiesole sold out centuries ago.  Perhaps you can get there in your dreams.  But we do have empty seats on Facebook where you can swap Grumpy Cat memes with fake friends.  Even the occupied seats there are empty.

Ms. Gumport (or is it Dr. Gumport now? – if so, congratulations!) we both come from fairly educated circles.  But I don’t know too many educated people who spend their time reading novels or reviews, unless they work in an English department and have to.  It’s bigger than us.  It isn’t 1832, and as I wrote elsewhere, novel reading is essentially a 19th century activity.  

It’s lovely if you can do it.  Unfortunately most people can’t.   And that’s why, as you elegantly put it, we’re supposed to “fuck strangers.”  A lot of writers simply don’t have a circle of friends with literary inclinations, and most people can’t make peace with the monkish solitude I described above. 

This is from Laura Miller’s “The Case for Positive Book Reviews” which was published in Salon:

Today, the average work of literary fiction appears and vanishes from the scene largely unnoticed and unremarked. Even the novelists you may think of as “hyped” are in fact relatively obscure; I’ve got a battalion of perfectly intelligent cousins who have never heard of either Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers. Sure, they know who James Patterson is, but they also know he’s no artist. They’ve never read a book because it was praised as a work of genius on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, and they are oblivious to the existence of James Wood.

As for those people who have heard of today’s best-known literary novelists, the vast majority haven’t read their books.

And you think that people you know are likely to read yours?  Really?  “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” wrote Hemingway.  Damn.

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