Gay is right: It's not that book criticism is new, nor is lamenting about the state of it. But there is a new question of authenticity and responsibility here, and it very much seems to have to do with the Internet as we know it. The more authors share themselves via social media, for example, the more tied writing and personality become—not that that's all bad; publishers clearly think it helps sell books, and probably it does in some cases at least. At the same time, there is danger in all this sharing, or the potential for it to go wrong, for example, when an author clearly states feelings, and, perhaps, fans respond in a way that they hope will support their beloved writer.
Yet book reviews are not science; they are, by definition, a matter of opinion. They can be negative or positive or somewhere in the middle, but the thing that makes them right—the thing that makes them valuable—is honesty, conveying a point of view deeply felt by the reader. Yes, a certain kind of fairness and open-mindedness is expected as well, but why read something without an opinion? And on the Internet, everyone can have an opinion. The scope and breadth and accessibility it provides for anyone to have a voice who wants one is unprecedented. It is in this place, where backlash can beget backlash on both sides, for those criticized as well as those doling out the negative comments, that the book review now so frequently exists. It's a place where voices we might not have heard, the voices of unpaid bloggers and commenters and at-home critics, can be as loud as anyone else's online, and their punishments for saying the wrong thing as harsh as those might be for the professionals. Call it the new equality, for good or for bad. It's not always nice and it's not always mean, but it is a free for all.
Silverman wrote of the so-called niceness epidemic, "Whereas critics once performed one role in print and another in life—Rebecca West could savage someone's book in the morning and dine with him in the evening—social media has collapsed these barriers. Moreover, social media's centrifugal forces of approbation—retweets, likes, favorites, and the self-consciousness that accompanies each public utterance—make any critique stick out sorely." Perhaps this is true, but in all this talk of niceness we've suddenly forgotten the immense power of retaliation, the outrage that can ensue when someone says something that others consider wrong, the near-immediate ability to extract a Twitter apology that we've seen again and again online. Every social media action is likely to create another social media action, whether that's defense, anger, demands, a blog post, a Tweet, a Facebook response, a like, a negative Amazon comment, or any other number of other reactions that can happen online. The question is not "Are we too nice?" There are very few people who can resist the ability to lash back once the first strike has been made. It's too easy, just a tweet, just a Facebook post to your friends, and suddenly, warring forces have been motivated, lines have been drawn in the sand. The question is, how far do we go?