Earlier on Twitter, I was talking about the idea of "niceness" in literary circles. The thing that catalyzed this was a blogpost of breathtaking ignorance made by someone responding to a two-year-old discussion she just found out about, which was itself inspired by an article on Slate about whether there's too much kindness and enthusiasm in online literary circles.
The best summation of the idea under discussion is possibly contained within this excerpt from the original article
...but 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.
Now, I spoke about this on Twitter, as I said. As you might have guessed, I have a different take on what's happening in the online world.
First, we must consider that there isn't just one "online literary world", but many. Communities on modern social networks are ad hoc, always changing, and overlapping by nature. While I'm sure there's some amount of "networking" for its own sake, mostly people are just reaching out and finding connections with people they have a connection with.
The author of the article--one Jacob Silverman--allowed for the possibility that the compliments people pay each other and the kind reviews they give each other are genuine, but he's still sure that they have a chilling effect. Won't new people who enter these circles feel the pressure to conform?
Well, again, the key distinction here is that there are circles
. Plural. Multiple. More than one.
People wind up in a circle of people saying nice things about each other mostly because they have nice things to say about each other. Authors and artists end up forming mutual appreciation societies mostly due to mutual appreciation. We are not just creators, we are also consumers, and thus fans.
Criticism still happens. The institution of criticism will not be ended or even significantly eroded by authors enthusiastically welcoming and supporting other authors. I think if Silverman paid a little more attention, he'd notice that not only do writers tend to be the most supportive fans of other writers, we are also among the most critical consumers of creative content. He sees the barriers between critics and writers eroding and thinks this will take the teeth out of criticism, but that's a loss of barrier between people. The two different forms of discourse--writers talking shop among ourselves, and criticism--are still wholly separate, except where they always overlapped (constructive criticism, workshopping, et cetera).
Silverman also decries this culture of enthusiastic support as being "clubby", as in, there's an in-crowd and an-out crowd. This is the point on which I disagree most vociferously. The writing world has always been insular and clubby; what we are saying now is how social media makes it less
so, not by ending the clubs but by making more of them, by creating a more level playing field between them. Yes, this is the "multiple overlapping circles" thing again.
When you see a group of authors, editors, and assorted creators who seem really tight and really enthusiastically into what they are all doing... well, that's exactly what you're seeing. And the last thing you should think is, "What strategy should I employ in order to get in with this group of people?" Because it's either your scene or it isn't. And I don't mean that in an exclusionary "you don't get to sit with us" sort of way. I mean that the world is full of scenes, it's made of scenes, and some of those scenes are made for you. If you're sitting there figuring out who you think the Queen Bee of THE hive is so you can get inside without getting stung, then this is not your scene. Those people didn't politic their way together. They didn't plot and maneuver and manipulate their way into a tight little circle. They found their scene. They made their scene.
Or to put it in less dramatic terms: they're a bunch of people who like each other and like each other's stuff. Nothing more, nothing less.
If you want in on that, all you have to do is find the people whose work you can be equally enthusiastic about, and then be do so. Find the people who appreciate you. And this isn't always easy, but the way we make it easier for everyone is by encouraging this culture of enthusiasm, of welcome, of support.
And no, I don't mean suck it up and pretend you love everything. I don't even mean if you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything at all. You can critique. You can pan. You can dislike.
But the way you find your place in the sun is by going to where it's bright and warm, not where it's cold and dark. Find your positive place. Find the people you can be positive with, and who will be positive with you.
And believe me, we all need places we can go and be met with enthusiasm and support.
Because the thing is--and other people have written about this in response to the original article--but the thing is that no matter how enthusiastically welcoming and positive the online circles you're looking at seem, that doesn't mean that this is all the internet has for the people in them. The idea that any public-facing person on the internet is actually living in a protected bubble with nothing but positivity coming their way can only come from someone living in such a bubble themselves, but that is not true for most people, and won't be true for most writers.