Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have brought people together in unprecedented ways. In literary circles authors can get directly in touch with their fans, other authors and even their reviewers. This has been an amazing advantage for writers. By responding to fan messages, chatting on blogs and forums, and generally establishing personal contact, many of them have been able to create and grow fan bases for their work.
But as critic Jacob Silverman notes in his article on Slate.com, this personal connection can have its drawbacks. For as literary circles – writers, editors, reviewers and fans – become ever more tightly bound through their social networks, it is becoming harder to offer honest feedback.
Silverman uses the example of Emma Straub, an author who, through her generous, funny and kind persona on Twitter, has garnered a following of over 9,000 users. He notes:
…let’s say you’re part of this web of writers, fiction-lovers, literary editors, and readers in the social-media world and you’re assigned a review of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. What if you don’t like it? Or what if you like it, but not unreservedly? Are you willing to say so? Would you be willing to critique Straub’s novel after watching her life scroll out on social media over the last year—indeed, after likely being the recipient or admirer of some small word or act of kindness on Straub’s part?
I agree with Silverman that there is a danger that the tight-knit social networks that nurture literary circles can become worlds unto themselves. Small acts of criticism or disapproval can take on magnified proportions. I call it the Facebook Echo Chamber and I believe it is distorting our sense of what is considered good literature.
Silverman puts it better:
…if you spend time in the literary Twitter – or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.
In Nigeria this “echo chamber” effect is complicated by the fact that there is no real structure for objective, professional literary criticism. Literature professors and students who may have the knowledge and background to do it rarely review commercial literature. There are very few literary journals, and newspaper reviews are normally written by enthusiastic reporters or laypeople who are often personal friends of the authors. This is further complicated by the patronage networks that undergird all of Nigerian society. An enthusiastic review of a mediocre book written by an important personality can go a long way – and you want to be careful who you offend in case they become “somebody” tomorrow.
Don’t get me wrong, writers and their critics have always had complicated, often personal, relationships. And many of literature’s most famous feuds began with a scathing review – or two. But we cannot deny the poor quality of much of the literature being produced in Nigeria. Part of it is our poor education system and our lack of a reading culture, but another part of it is that our standards are so low. We don’t really know what constitutes good Nigerian literature.
If we want to improve the quality of our literature, we need to improve the quality of our criticism. This means stepping beyond the Facebook Echo Chamber. It means having more knowledgeable reviewers who are willing to set aside personal considerations and tell authors the truth about their work. It’s going to be hard and those who are its pioneers may initially be shunned as malcontents and party poopers. But I don’t see any other way.
I’m not advocating harsh put-downs or personal attacks; such reviews are more likely to discourage than improve. But I am saying that we need to step back and be more objective. If an author’s work is objectively sub-par, and 99% of his or her cheerful and enthusiastic social network were just too polite to tell the truth, while the remaining 1% who didn’t want to falsely praise it simply chose to say nothing, then that author will never get a true reflection of the work’s worth. And, as far as I am concerned, that does no one any favours.