We are cultured to understand ourselves based on exclusion: I am an American because I am not British, German, French, Hungarian, etc. And within the initial cultural distinction, we fragment further into trades, political interests, hobbies, etc.
Before the age of the internet, the lay person was largely left out of cultural dialogue that was primarily controlled by academics, artists and politicians. Beat-appreciators could attend academic salons or poetry readings and make snide comments to their companions about the relative merit of any one artist, but there was no forum for those comments to reach the artist himself or larger literary community. As a result, literary insults were often exchanged between writers and entered our cultural memory (Ex: Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”). But in the age of the internet, the idea of a “lay person” has become almost irrelevant in the zeitgeist. The identity of “literary critic” is no longer reserved for a person on staff at a newspaper/ magazine/ journal with a liberal arts education who is paid for her/ his comments. A “literary critic” can be an Amazon reviewer, a blogger, whatever. The phrase “Everyone’s a critic” has become practically literal and writers/ artists can now respond to their critics on an incredibly personal level.
The para-social experience in the culture of celebrity has, in some ways, transitioned seamlessly into the literary world. Contemporary readers want to know about author’s lives and feel free to comment on them. Some of the flaming remarks on Tao Lin’s Facebook profile after his divorce with Megan Boyle were made with the same fervor or inanity as entertainment magazine readers’ comments on the Kim Kardashian/ Kris Humphries divorce, but unlike K&K, Tao freely offered to answer any questions from his fans/ friends on the internet. Most people are guilty of subscribing to the para-social perspective at least some of the time. I have added at least a dozen writers whom I have never met IRL as friends on Facebook and I take great pleasure in reading their status updates about their writing, the funny things their kids say, drama on book tours, etc. I don’t delude myself into thinking we’re really friends, but I do feel as if I know them or know a part of their lives. Perhaps because we feel we know these people, we feel entitled to comment on their work, entitled to our sometimes malicious opinions.
In 2005, Anne Rice’s Blood Canticle received an impressive number of negative reader comments on Amazon and Rice responded with a 1,200 word rant: “Your stupid, arrogant assumptions about me and what I am doing are slander… You have used the site as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehood and lies… Be assured of the utter contempt I feel for you.” This is kind of a reversal of the para-social experience. The writer thinks it is her responsibility to respond to her fans who have a personal relationship with her work.
Diversity in Discourse
The base assertion in any literary insult can be summed up as, “X has no value.” To say something has no value is to insult the audience, to attempt to divert an audience or prospective audience from a text and persuade them it lacks merit. This is a kind of pedestrian gate-keeping. We attempt to control the information the audience receives because it is in our own best interest that our audience agrees with our taste, but it can also stifle discourse.
I would argue that writers, even fiction writers, are documenters and do not create markets in the same way that corporations fabricate a need for products like the Forever Lazy or a cake pop maker through marketing. Writers attempt to respond to the cultural moment, so if a text has an audience, then it is highly likely that it is responding to some aspect of the human condition or a concern of its era. Ex: As much as I personally dislike the Twilight Saga because I find Bella to be an un-empowered and flat character, I cannot deny that the series responds to the human desire to be effortlessly exceptional and the hope that we will find something that will lift our lives out of mundanity. Even the tritest rhyming love poem that gets 400 notes on Tumblr from teenage girl bloggers is responding to some need or curiosity in the audience, even if that is just a desire for saccharine puppy-love. I take no pleasure in reading either of these works, but that is because I exist outside of their target audience. The power of the internet is that audiences are free to be fragmented, and therefore more representational than ever before. Steve Roggenbuck, one of internet literature’s more recognizable figures and founder of Internet Poetry, has said as much: “[the internet creates] big opportunities for types of poetry that are maybe not respected in academic institutions but which actually have a big potential readership.”
Marie Calloway was recently in the middle of an internet literature values-based argument around a confessional non-fiction piece about her sexual encounter with an older male writer originally published on her blog and republished as fiction by Muuuuu House under the title “Adrien Brody.” Soon after, she was contacted by at least one literary agent, featured in The Observer, The Rumpus, Gawker, and sh-t-talked about online as a slut and attention-whore. Kate Zambreno pretty well covered a major shortcoming of the harshest critics’ comments: this kind of writing has been done by men for decades and their ethics/ literary are not questioned, so what is wrong with women addressing the same curiosity? This is valid, but I think another major issue here is that perhaps these sh-t-talkers exist outside of Calloway’s target audience and therefore do not have the background to learn anything or find any entertainment in her work.
The Hype Machine
At the same time Marie Calloway was being at once lauded and flamed for “Adrien Brody,” a minor internet writer named Hazel Cummings posted a collection of image macros titled “Worthless,” a no-holds-barred series of photos laid over with satirical text lambasting a number of internet writers well-known in certain alternative literature internet-based communities. I will refrain from commenting on the content of Hazel’s e-book, and would instead like to discuss the rhetorical techniques used in her refutation that certain writers have value.
In a Facebook comment, she explained her concern that the writers pictured in the ebook took away attention from other, more worthwhile writers on the internet and proceeded to list several female writers including xTx, Frank Hinton, Chelsea Martin, some others and (seemingly randomly) me. For the following few days, Hazel received a lot of negative comments from fans of Internet Poetry. This kind of criticism addresses a decades old concern associated with new media that the sh-t will drown out work of “value” and threaten culture at large — that any kind of assertion that certain texts have greater inherent value than others promotes a myopic worldview that romanticizes the Old Boy’s Club of literature, the perspective that only some people are in the privileged position of being able to determine whether a piece of art is good or bad and the plebeians must accept what is given to them from on high. Consider that Wordsworth was considered trash/ totally weird by many in his time given that blank verse was such a departure from formal poetry; some publishers feared the popularization of the trade paperback would lead to the death of the industry; the internet is feared by old people and people who don’t understand successful filtering, or something. It is easy forget that new technology or new forms are tools with no inherent good or evil.
The internet is, in many ways, still in its infancy and we are still learning to use it as a tool. If readers miss texts that would be more valuable to the audience they belong to, then that is a problem of media literacy and of filtering rather than a problem with the internet itself. A tool only has value based on how any given user utilizes it. Another concern Hazel expressed about internet poets and Tao Lin is that they are blinding their audience to their surroundings through marketing, but this assumes a lack of agency in the audience and implies that the audience is not literate enough in its use of media to recognize when it is being marketed to. If the audience does indeed totally lack that ability there is a much larger cultural problem at hand than any that could be created by a dozen or so online writers and their friends.
This is not an argument for the merit of Internet Poetry as literature, but an argument that those considered part of its school have a valid artistic perspective. American culture is largely anti-intellectual. Given that and other factors, poetry has ceased to be viewed as “of the folke,” a means of historical preservation or entertainment; poetry is no longer commonly read or heard by the uneducated. It is common knowledge that poetry collections almost never turn a profit for publishers, no matter the press’ size or the poet’s relative acclaim. So, logic follows that for poetry (and, to a certain extent, literary fiction) to avoid sinking into obscurity and irrelevance, it must return to the streets. There will always be a place for intellectual poetry as long as the humanities are preserved in institutions of higher education, but to restrict it to academia is much more threatening to poetry and literature as art than any one writer or micro-movement can be.
Defining ‘Criticism’ for a Generation that Grew Up ‘Flaming’
Defining something of value as anything that speaks to an audience might seem to eliminate a place for review or critical writing, but I think there is still room for this. We can argue for a poem/ story/ novel/ film’s relative effectiveness in addressing elements of the human condition or in working within the form established by an artistic movement. This is what I would call instructive criticism, but it would seem that some critics in the emerging generation of writers have distorted constructive criticism. Some users go to HTMLGiant just to read the comment section, which is often filled with post-ironic sarcasm and hateful remarks. The same could be said for the comment section of Thought Catalog and countless other literature and culture blogs. This discourse of internet comments learned is akin to flaming learned in early web forums and chat rooms. When flaming begins to be considered equal in effectiveness to rhetoric, review and criticism cease to be productive and instead focuses on silencing other speakers.
Constitutionally or legally speaking, the first amendment of the American constitution grants citizens the right to free speech, which comes with an implied right to be heard. But that implied right to be heard simply means that no other body, person or government, can restrict your right to speak. The right to be heard does not imply a requirement that any audience has to listen. If the audience doesn’t like what it is hearing, it should either turn its ear away or engage with the speaker through constructive discourse instead of insulting the dignity of the speaker through vitriol. If we’re going to be mean, let’s at least be intelligent about it.
Writers have had a reputation for their clever insults and spirited discourse, but unless flaming is once again separated from criticism, then it is highly likely literary analysis will descend into dumb rage instead of cultural expansion.