In a story in yesterday's New York Times, Tara Mohr wrote about how women handle criticism that began with an anecdote about performance reviews. “Across 248 reviews from 28 companies, managers, whether male or female, gave female employees more negative feedback than they gave male employees. Second, 76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only two percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.”
The bottom line? “If a woman wants to do substantive work of any kind, she’s going to be criticized – with comments not just about her work but also about herself,” Mohr wrote. Those comments can have a devastating impact. “Criticism stings for all of us, but women have been socialized to not rock the boat, to be, above all else, likable. By the time a girl reaches adolescence, she’ll most likely have watched hundreds of films, television shows and advertisements in which a woman’s destiny is determined not by her own choices but by how she is perceived by others. In those hundreds of stories, we get the message: What other people think and say about us matters, a lot.” In the Age of the Internet, where everyone with a phone or a laptop has a soap box, “this criticism often also becomes vulgar, sexualized and angry.”
Vulgar, sexualized and angry. All of that should sound familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to literary criticism and the latest Internet explosion.
On Thursday night, literary blogger Ed Champion unleashed a series of tweets at the novelist Porochista Khakpour, saying that unless she apologized for removing his post from her Facebook page, he'd publish the name of a man who'd allegedly taken nude photos of her, without her permission.
If Champion's name sounds familiar, that's because in June, Champion published an 11,000 word takedown of Emily Gould and the “middling Millenials,” which was less a review of Gould’s first novel, FRIENDSHIP, than a review of Gould herself.
It was not a good review. Champion reduced Gould to an animal, describing her as “a dim bulb,” “a torrid hoyden hopped up on spite,” and, most infamously, a “minx” with her “head so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage, it’s often hard to see the sunshine.”
The response, in both cases, was loud and almost unanimous. Champion, the public agreed, had gone too far. In June, he threatened suicide, pledged to go off-line, disappeared for a while, then came back and appeared to be on good behavior…until late last Thursday. This time, Twitter suspended his account, and Champion hasn't been heard from since.
It’s a great illustration of social media doing exactly what social media at its best should do – defending the victims, putting wrongdoers on notice, giving people a platform to talk about what they’d suffered and what steps should be taken.
But, while we look at the specifics and the individuals, it's also worth considering the general, and the big picture. Ed Champion’s words and actions did not appear in a vacuum. They happened in the context of literary criticism as it is now; in a climate where it is acceptable and commonplace for mainstream critics to conflate characters with their female creators, to review not just books but women, and to find them wanting.
We saw it when Alessandra Stanley clumsily tried to praise television producer Shonda Rhimes, first by calling her an angry black woman and then assuming that all of the characters that bore a superficial resemblance to Rhimes (that would be the black ones) were merely versions of their creator.
In his review of Caitlin Moran’s HOW TO BUILD A GIRL Dwight Garner assumed the book’s heroine was a version of Moran herself, an “uncool girl from the hinterlands” who used pluck and smarts to pull herself up and out. Even in a largely positive review, Garner couldn’t resist swiping at Moran for her failure to be Jennifer Egan or Zadie Smith,the same way James Woods seems powerless to resist telling Donna Tartt that it’s not too late for her to put away her childish things and become "the very different writer she might still choose to become."
In a review of Anya Ulinich’s LENA FINKLE’S MAGIC BARREL, we get author = protagonist again, with Claudia la Rocca noting that Ulinich’s “life on paper bears a striking resemblance” to her heroine’s, and telling us that Finkle is “nothing if not a narcissist,” deluded enough to believe that there’s an audience for a 361-page illustrated exploration of her sex life. The book gets praised, faintly – “it’s a fast read but not a dumb one…pitched toward the same pop culture consumers who are drawn into the best serial shows.”
(Side note: there’s a dissertation, or at least a listicle, to be written about book critics who truly believe that comparing someone’s novel to TV is absolutely positively the most damning insult you could deliver).
Author-as-protagonist showed up again and again in reviews of Gould's FRIENDSHIP, where the working assumption was that the blogger heroine of the book was a slightly-altered version of Gould. This gave reviewers permission to write about Gould’s life, to quote from old blog posts and interviews, not the book, to make it all about her instead of about what she’d created.
And It Happened To Me. In a “close reading” of my work – the kind of critical attention that Salon book critic Laura Miller sneered I “demand” Miller wrote that an “obsession with prestige and exclusion haunts (my) characters” and is mirrored by my own “craving’ for the NYT’s “validation.” Miller wrote that she “found (her)self praying” that a character “portrayed with…cruelty” wasn’t based on anyone real. She slammed my “fictional alter ego” for “ingratitude and selfishness,” and wrote that Cannie Shapiro, “like Weiner herself” resents all the people she imagines to be looking down on (her).” There’s not even a question that Cannie might be fictional; not even a hint of doubt that Cannie is me. Nor is there any sense that a book review should review the book, instead of asking whether or not you’d enjoy hanging out with its heroine and whether you find her likable -- even though Miller has previously been quite insistent that likability is not the criterion by which a critic should judge a woman's work. Miller’s point wasn’t just that I write bad books and that they’re about bad people, but that I, myself, am ungrateful, selfish and cruel.…and, look out, because she’s got the nine-year-old blog posts to prove it!
If women aren’t really writers, just reporters; if their characters aren’t really characters, just lightly fictionalized version of themselves, it stands to reason that critics review not the books but the women themselves. Female authors cease to exist as people and become merely text. They can be dissected, investigated, critiqued, picked over and pulled apart, without fear of consequence. They are fair game. They are things. Shonda Rhimes isn't Shonda Rhimes, she's the Angry Black Woman. Anya Ulinich isn't Anya Ulinich, she is a Great Female Narcissist, and I am a status-obsessed mean girl, and Emily Gould is a “snarky little trollop” (that's not from Ed Champion's piece, but from an anonymous blog comment quoted in Michiko Kakutani’s review of FRIENDSHIP in the New York Times).
A bad review is a review of a book. As scathing as it was, William Giraldi’s much-discussed review of Alix Ohlin confined itself to the work, not the woman.
Compare that piece to Giraldi’s attack on FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY, which was really a bad review not of the books but of EL James, and, to a lesser but still troubling extent, her readers. Romance as a genre is a “mind-stinging preponderance of crap,” and James is a “charlatan amorist” who doesn’t have a right to her nom de plume. “I’m made distinctly queasy by uttering the sacral American surname when referring to this empress of inanity,” sniffs Giraldi, “so let’s use her real name, Erika Leonard. She who has done so much to help debase our culture should stand revealed.”
Why do critics write book reviews?
John Updike believed that the critic and the writer share a role and social responsibility – “to life people up, not lower them down.” “Thoughtful criticism,” Updike wrote, “is in itself an art and a creative act.”
Daniel Mendelsohn, one of the modern era’s most respected critics, agreed. In “A Critic’s Manifesto,” he wrote that that the critics he read growing up were not “trying to persuade me to actually see this or that performance, buy this or that volume or take in this or that movie... all of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments.”
Clearly, there’s a gap between what criticism is supposed to be and what it’s become. Whether it's Giraldi’s take on the “moronic craze” and “drooling enthusiasm” for the FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY books, Kakutani’s assessment of Gould's heroine as “narcissistic, entitled, self-dramatizing, snide, self-pitying and frequently petty, prideful and envious, “ Miller’s reading of me as resentful and ungrateful and my heroine as “obsessed with prestige and exclusion,” Champion’s calling Gould a “torrid hoyden hopped up on spite” – there’s something else going on.
These are not reviews as art. These are not reviews meant to enrich or enlighten, or steer readers toward or away from a purchase.
These are reviews meant to shame and silence. When William Giraldi writes that E.L. James “she should stand revealed” or a critic tweets her review at its subject to make sure she sees it, or a book blogger threatens to release the name of the man who took nude photos of a novelist, the intent is the same – I see you for what you really are, and I will reveal you. I will expose you. I will shame you. I will shut you up.
What happens when a woman writes a book and finds not her work but herself on the reviewer’s chopping block? What happens when you get called a “torrid hoyden” or a big fat meanie, or when someone says, “apologize or I’m going to expose you?”
Porochista Khakpour spent a chunk of her weekend in a police station. She cancelled a class she was going to teach.
Emily Gould wrote, “I have a hard time even talking about how terrible the week that he published that rant was for me. A lot of people have tried to tell em that the net effect was positive for my book, but it put me in a position of talking about that rant instead of talking about the book. I hate that. I hate that that happened. I’ll never get that week or month or set of opportunities back; he poisoned them all. The worst part is that as cartoonishly evil and misogynistic and mentally ill as he is, there are still people are are like “well, it was a book review.” “Critics are allowed to call someone a bad writer.” Or worse, that it was a “subtweet war” or a “literary fued.” It was none of those things. It was an attack on women, meant to make us feel threatened and fundamentally unsafe in the online and physical spaces we inhabit. It is so bonkers that we even have to point that out or defend that point of view still, now, in 2014.
I felt fear doing events around publication. Not stage fright, fear for my physical safety. Instead of planning celebrations I was arranging with bookstores and my publisher for adequate security at events. I felt worried that the location of my apartment had been revealed in so many profiles. It’s not like I experienced physical trauma or was tortured but I felt under attack. This wasn’t something that “happened on the Internet” or something that could have been avoided by “just unplugging.” Talking to readers, doing events, and promoting books online is my job. I still haven’t sorted out what kind of damage was done.”
As for me? I wish I could tell you that I was savvy enough to recognize that I was getting trolled with a piece of click-bait that was so clearly meant to shame me and to shut me up for what it was and thick-skinned enough to ignore it, even as respected critics and writers gleefully retweeted the piece, and Miller accepted giddy Twitter high-fives for writing it. But I’d be lying.
I wasn't afraid that someone was going to show up at a reading and do me harm. I was ashamed. I felt awful. I felt like canceling my upcoming book tour.
Whether it’s an enraged blogger likening you to an animal, or a well-connected book critic calling you a bitch, the story ends with another woman not giving the talk, not teaching the class, not hitting “publish” on the blog post.
Tara Mohr believes that women need to learn to handle criticism, to unhook themselves from the ingrained need to please. But if we've got to learn how to take it, maybe it's time for critics to learn to do a better, or at least less sexist job of dishing it out.