It seems like Laura Miller’s recent piece on “litchat” has been getting a lot of play. I don’t quite get it. My take is that it’s a bunch of straw men recruited to help carry a preconceived and pretty standard-issue idea about the “perils” social media.
First, let’s get one thing clear. People in industries gossip. I would guess that this is probably truer of the arts than most industries, but whatever, that’s what people do. The Internet did not create this. The difference is that now you can catch more of that conversation over social media; albeit, a very, very small fraction more, and one that’s pretty well watered down of the best material. But there’s no doubt that some the shiving and axe-grinding does make it on the the Twitter-sphere, etc.
To leap from that to social media gossip “absolutely shapes the formal reception of a writer’s work” seems a tad bit much. Yes, I’m sure that at some point some critic somewhere read a thing on Twitter that pissed him or her off and lent a tiny bias to a critique. But I really doubt that all the crazy pullquotes from whatever latest thing Jonathan Franzen said has unduly influenced the critical reception of his novels. For one thing, the gaffe of all gaffes—the Oprah “snub”—far from impacting Franzen negatively took his career into the stratosphere. And for another, all the vitriol spewed against Franzen on social media hasn’t stopped his latest book from getting stupendous raves from many, many leading venues.
But more to the point: does the massed gossip on social media really stack up against things like: hundreds of thousands of dollars in publicity budgets, billboards on Times Square, major media appearances with audiences in the millions, or even just your garden variety Times Book Review cover story? Just to give a little perspective: Laura Miller has roughly 30,000 Twitter followers. The weekday circulation of The New York Times is a tad under 2,000,000. So let’s not forget how provincial, obscure, and limited is our corner of the social media world.
The tendency that I see most often—social media be damned—is toward evaluating a writer on the basis of the books. Yes, many a conversation with friends has digressed at some point into that latest thing Franzen said, but I almost never see people generalize from that to an opinion on his books. No, the people I know who talk about Franzen (or whomever) have read his books; they discuss him on the merits of his writing and wouldn’t dream of evaluating him based on some tabloitesque headline. They’d look like fools if they did. It may be that my friends and acquaintances are just an unduly enlightened species of litchatter, but I doubt it.
Miller also talks about the backlash she sees on social media over authors that are over-hyped, and this is where she gets back to Wallace. Well, it’s true, there is plenty of envy to be seen on the Internet, and there are also plenty of high-fives, earnest praise, and well-wishes. I’d say much more of the latter than the former, by my count. In fact, I’d say that, if anything, the “litchat” that I tend to see is more toward the purpose of bringing unfairly neglected writers to better attention than toward deflating the famous.
Moreover, is it really such a bad thing that readers are skeptical in the face of marketing hype? Miller takes the case of young writers who doubted that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest could really be as good as the hype claimed, but what damage did this do to his reputation, reception, or career? The fact that Wallace was so clearly not forgotten must surely give some evidence that whatever the skepticism exhibited by the literati of the day, the quality of Wallace’s work managed to prove them wrong. All great writers should be so fortunate.
On the whole, what strikes me as the strangest thing about this piece is this idea that David Foster Wallace wasn’t thought of terribly well before his suicide—and that this was somehow the doing of “litchat” pre-ordaining a reaction to his work. That seems to give far more importance to gossip than it’s worth. The piece starts with Miller explaining how, before Wallace’s suicide, few people could possibly believe that David Foster Wallace was her favorite living writer. And then, later on, Miller proceeds to recount the many people who dismissed him to her face without ever having read the books as too cold, too intellectual. Maybe this says more about the company Miller keeps, or the conversations she chooses to remember, than the prevailing notions about Wallace and his work. After all, Jay McInerney compared Infinite Jest to Zola in the New York Times Book Review—not exactly the stuff of overly cerebral writing deprived of humanity and emotion. Likewise, David Kipen in the LA Times mentioned its well-developed characters, called Wallace a genius, and predicted that posterity would be kind to the book. And for another thing, I don’t quite understand how Miller’s claim that “Wallace was not widely regarded as ‘great’ during his lifetime” can be squared with the later claim that the Times called him the “voice of a new generation,” nor the enormous crowds that would turn out for Wallace’s appearances and his enviable sales.
For my own part, the people I have spoken to about Wallace, both before and after the suicide, have evidenced very different impressions of him than those that Miller recalls. Certainly by the time I began paying attention to such things, my impression of the conventional wisdom of the literary world was that he was a big deal. He had been compared to Pynchon endlessly, won the acclaim of Don DeLillo, was published in major national magazines, and was backed by editors for a string of lengthy, often dense books that weren’t exactly prototypical bestsellers. Very few writers get that treatment.