While I find it very exciting (and positive!) that the naughty vs. nice criticism debate has so thoroughly made the rounds, I’m starting to wonder if people have forgotten that the internet isn’t just about commenting and connecting; it’s also about doing things differently. To me, the fuss isn’t really about being too nice (frivolous) or mean (unproductive). The real issue is that people demand better writing from their criticism: criticism that demonstrates an honest, thoughtful engagement with the book at hand regardless of attitude or posture.
Let me be very clear: personally, I think meanness and cruelty can be exceptionally funny. But I have my suspicions that in this day and age, in the panicked pleas for attention, attitude often usurps critical engagement because that approach gets hits. My issue with the much despised William Giraldi review of Alix Ohlin is that I learned more about William Giraldi — how important it is for him to show us how smart he is — than the books he was reviewing. Book reviewers (traditional ones, anyway) can totally go ahead and be scathing and super mean, but they should be tearing the book apart so we know what’s wrong with the book, not what’s right and self-righteous about the reviewer.
But! We don’t have to live like this. This is the internet. We don’t have to play within the rules of naughty or nice. The Times Literary Supplement,Harper’s, and sometimes the New Yorker still contain very good, serious reviews, but we can also help foster a literary environment that is more interested in exploding the conversation than ending a dialogue at "good" or "bad." Take any shitty book and analyze the decision to write it in the first- or third-person — and then discuss how this may mirror or contradict the "modern experience" of the grocery store, text messaging, OkCupid. How does the author grapple with new media, and how do those choices affect our sense of authenticity? Throw the book into the mortar of anthropological linguistic analysis of pronoun usage. Identify the author’s tics and psychoanalyze the crap out of the poor person who made the mistake of showing their book to you.
There are countless games to play beyond Billy-said-he-likes-it-but-Suzie-said-it-stinks. The Millions, Flavorwire, and BrainPickings have shown that there is serious fun to be had plowing through literature, whether it's top ten lists, favorite quotes, or essays on craft or writer's conferences, and there's no reason we can't invoke that same sense of seriously engaged, enthusiastic play when it comes to reviewing. What I want from criticism is thoughtful engagement with books, the ideas they spread, and the processes by which literary effects come about. While traditional book reviews can and will still accomplish this, there is ample space for criticism that is concerned less with assessment and more with exploration — with enlivening the ways we talk and think about books.