Pulp Friction

The Real Internet Impact of “Reviews”

Bad behavior draws attention. Living in the United States, you learn this early. In the Reagan-Bush years, marketing experts picked up on this awareness and, turning on their heels away from families with some semblance of behavioral standards, started to work brattiness into our media landscape.

Thus, we woke up in the early 1990s and found ourselves landed with Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Maury Povich, and people screaming, “Your mama is a tramp ho!” among other edifying remarks. And things haven’t improved markedly in the past two decades. We went on to develop talk radio, the Fox television network, and Big Brother, if we’re brutally honest about it.

But the Internet is the icing on the cake. While all these other areas feature nobodies or celebrities behaving badly, the Internet landscape has the compartmental quality of highlighting working people behaving badly within their professional capacities, not merely when they miss a flight and are in range of a cell phone camera.

My fellow blogger Pelotard resurfaced yesterday with an account of one such individual: a self-published writer who, shall we say, took issue with a mildly negative review of her book. I have to start by saying that I think it’s a tremendous thing that certain reviewers are dedicated to paying attention to the self-published author. This is a benefit to novice writers that should not go without gratitude – for, honestly, we have no inherent right to be read.

BigAl, the reviewer, was far kinder about Jacqueline Howett’s ability to butcher the English language than I was about bestselling author Camilla Läckberg’s editorial inconsistencies – which is doubtless because he is a professional reviewer, whereas I am a professional editor (among other things). Ms. Howett responded in the comments with an amazing progression that began as an uncomfortable display of wounded ego and accelerated into all-out brattiness on a par with the Hong Kong airport display above.

I wish I could say I am surprised by such behavior.

Pelotard happily chose to be useful, and his blog addresses what to do if you make such a public ass of yourself. (He is a father and, I suspect, rather used to temper tantrums.)  Perhaps less usefully, I found myself probing the relationship between reviewers and writers – or other artists – in this Internet age.

Not just the aspect that what you put out there will stay there (do I really have to repeat that, after the aging Chinese meltdown incident I have posted above?), nor the much-acclaimed tendency of things to go viral, in both good and bad ways. What grabs me is more a question of scope: whether this sort of thing is actually new, or just the unpleasant result of being forced by technology to become an über-social animal … and meet the masses.

Once I got past the “wow” of Ms. Howett’s rant – and past wondering whether there weren’t still, in England, little old ladies who would slap such a person and tell her to pull herself together, and if this might not be the reason the United States has inherited her (and, as an aside, whether she pays taxes) – I found my memory tickled by an anecdote regarding 18th-century English dramatist Richard Cumberland. (From the gift of a Forgotten English calendar this year, I have gained considerable acquaintance with historical tidbits such as this.) This singularly petty individual ran afoul of Irish writer and politician Richard Sheridan, when Cumberland said of Sheridan’s School for Scandal, “I am much surprised that the audience should laugh so immoderately at what could not make me smile.” Sheridan (according to Kazlitt Arvine’s 1883 Cyclopædia of Anecdotes) “coolly observed that Cumberland was truly ungrateful for not smiling at his comedy, as he had seen a tragedy of Cumberland’s at Covent Garden Theatre … and had laughed from the beginning to the end.”

The point, of course, is that negative reviews are nothing new – nor is an artist’s unhappiness at the same. Volume 62 of The Chautauquan (1911) demonstrated that the Edinburgh Review, “famous for its unbiased, often scathing expression of opinion,” raked Lord Byron’s collection Hours of Idleness over the coals (“His effusions are spread over a dead flat, and can no more get above or below the level, than if they were so much stagnant water”). Byron responded with English Bards and Scotch Reviewers – and achieved his first literary “hit” in the bargain.

Still must I hear? — shall hoarse Fitzgerald bawl
His creaking couplets in a tavern hall,
And I not sing, lest, haply, Scotch reviews
Should dub me scribbler, and denounce my muse?
Prepare for rhyme — I’ll publish, right or wrong:
Fools are my theme, let satire be my song.

By what I have seen of her writing and her ability to channel her emotions, I don’t hold out much hope for Ms. Howett achieving a similar success. Nor do I expect much from psychic and writer Victoria Laurie, though I must credit her with getting the gist of the appropriate response. Indeed, I was disturbed by the “Dear Author” blog’s willingness to suggest that authorial vitriol is necessarily legally actionable – although in the ever-sensitive world of academia, this approach has been embraced in nasty episodes of professional sabotage such as that of Soviet historian Orlando Figes, who trashed his “rivals” pseudonymously on Amazon.com.

Given Cumberland, Sheridan, and Byron, I can’t be as surprised as the author of “Red Adept Reviews” at the fits of pique artists are capable of showing. What seems to be at the bottom of things is the Internet. The technology changes the volume and accessibility of such responses. Where newspapers and magazines have always had a certain control over the responses they choose to let out, the Internet has the potential to withhold nothing.  So even if the New York Times,Washington Post, and other respected U.S. newspapers moderate and edit their comment boards (as I do), Yahoo! news, blogs, and Facebook have wider ranges for what they will allow.

When I worked in the 1980s for the national news magazine of the then Lutheran Church in America, the editor regularly selected letters to print and others not to print. We couldn’t have run all of them if we wanted to – and believe me, with some of them, we didn’t want to. This was not because they were critical of us but because they were absolutely off-the-charts crazy: lengthy tomes that included everything from elephants to Armageddon while trying to brand us as communist sympathizers who put harlots on the cover to entice sex offenders.

Some things are not helpful for balanced discussion. The best you can say is “Thank you for sharing.”

What the Internet has done is not simply to preserve writers’ tirades for posterity; see the 16th-century sparring between Martin Luther and “the Leipzig Goat” Jerome Emser if you are still in doubt (available on the Internet but well preserved without it). It is not simply that it makes it possible to spread one’s wrath widely. My father uncomfortably recalls two Lutheran pastors, one of whom poked fun at another’s published work for the fact that the author’s wife appeared in every picture. The author sent around, by mail, a vile attack on the mocker, which my father believes to be the only piece of writing he has ever burned.

What the Internet does is multiply the number of these incidents, potentially by the number of users. It allows us to be instant (say, videotaping an airline  passenger’s tantrum and uploading it at once) and repetitive (why on earth couldn’t Ms. Howett stop responding to the review?).  Hence, it prolongs our encounters with more badly behaved people than we had, optimistically, thought to exist in the world.

Thanks to this tool, we have more insight into the mind-sets of more people than most individuals outside the editorial, medical, psychiatric, and law-enforcement professions ever encountered. And lo and behold, we find that we don’t like many of the 6.8 billion people in the world.

The flip side, of course, is that many of them … don’t like us.

It is here that I have to counter some tendencies to feel sorry for Ms. Howett, the HKIA passenger, and others who have demonstrated a lack of self-consciousness about their behavior. I completely agree with The Guardian‘s Charlie Brooker that if you “can’t muster a more inventive way to express yourself than typing ‘OMFG BITCH YOU SUCK,’ then you really ought to consider folding your laptop shut and sitting quietly in the corner until that fallow lifespan of yours eventually reaches its conclusion.” (My thanks to the excellently written account in “GamesBrief” for leading me to this.) But I also believe that the sensitivity toward the ego of the person who puts him- or herself out for scrutiny is in danger of becoming another type of pathology: an “I’m OK, you’re OK” suffocation that indulges brattiness with sympathy.

The negative review can be the impetus for greater creativity, as well as a creative work in and of itself. To me, the world would be less without Bernard Shaw’s 1895 review of Henry Irving’s performance in J. Comyns Carr’s King Arthur. (“I sometime wonder where Mr. Irving will go when the dies – whether he will dare to claim, as a master artist, to walk where he may any day meet Shakespeare whom he has mutilated, Goethe whom he has travestied, and the nameless creator of the hero-king out of whose mouth he has uttered jobbing verses. For in poetry Mr. Comyns Carr is frankly a jobber and nothing else.”) Not only is the writing itself elegant, but it provides a balancing insight into a work of the time – as, in shorter form, does Dorothy Parker’s pithier 1931 remarkThe House Beautiful is, for me, the play lousy.”

Perhaps the greater danger in this era of Internet friends and fans is that of stifling the critics in an over-emotional concern for people’s sensitivity. For we still live in a world that, frankly, is not a warm and fuzzy place – and in which an ability to laugh at oneself and take it on the chin is a necessary survival tool.

Behold! — ye tarts! — one moment spare the text —
Hayley’s last work, and worst — until his next;
Whether he spin poor couplets into plays,
Or damn the dead with purgatorial praise,
His style in youth or age is still the same,
For ever feeble and for ever tame.
Triumphant first see ‘Temper’s Triumphs’ shine!
At least I’m sure they triumph’d over mine.
Of ‘Music’s Triumphs’ all who read may swear
That luckless music never triumph’d there.

Lord Byron