The Popularity of Negativity

by Zack Graham

Christian loves culture. It’s how he spends all of his time. He champions good books (with the exception of graphic novels), reading the books he likes twice, even three times in a row. He listens to podcasts. He spends entire days “at the movies,” going to double and even triple features at a single theater. Culture is Christian’s life, and writing about culture is his life’s work.

There are, however, lots of things Christian does not love. He does not love Joshua Ferris. He does not love Jonathan Safran Foer. He does not love A Little Life. And, most of all, he does not love something called “the algorithm.”

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“The algorithm” is a term the critic Christian Lorentzen assigns to the evil force responsible for the dampening, dumbing, and softening of criticism, which he laments in a recent feature for Harper’s Magazine. Lorentzen is known for taking shots, and over the course of the piece he offers criticism of no less than The New York Times Book Review and New York Times Books Editor Pamela Paul; Isaac Fitzgerald and his captaincy of BuzzFeed Books; Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s; The Sopranos, and modern television generally; the form of the “quick Q&A”; listicles; New York Magazine (his former employer)… and so on. It comes as no surprise that Lorentzen’s treatise on the state of criticism has ruffled the feathers of so many critics.

The piece, “Like This Or Die,” is so ambitious that it is pointless to argue about whether it’s right or wrong. Instead, in the spirit of the communal positivity which Lorentzen so vociferously despises, let’s try to determine where Lorentzen and his algorithm have common ground.

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“The algorithm” is Lorentzen’s stand-in for late capitalism. Over the course of a 7,800 word piece that references 61 writers or editors and 24 publications, he somehow manages not to explicitly state this. Money (or at least the sometimes delusory promise of it) is the great force lurking behind a company’s decision to pivot to video, or the reduction in ‘X’ kind of coverage, or the increase in ‘Y’ kind of crap-sicle. It feels like the publishing industry has been steadily sinking for as long as it has existed, and modern technology, as we know, exerts a deleterious effect on our attention spans and our willingness and/or ability to engage in feats of sustained intellectual endeavor. In short, I’d argue, declining public interest in the publishing industry’s traditional outputs, which has accelerated the industry’s fiscal decline, has caused Lorentzen’s nefarious “algorithm,” and not the other way around.

The results of these deflating forces on criticism, according to Lorentzen? Brevity, a lack of intellectual depth, and a sickly sweet positivity everyone knows is fake. 

Guilty of these tendencies? 

Most English-language newspapers and magazines. 

Why? 

Because that’s where the numbers lead the owners, the publishers, and the editors, Lorentzen argues. 

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think we’re missing some pieces. For one, most reviews are positive because publishers and editors don’t want to hammer a debut novel, for example, that won't really sell many copies anyway. Secondly, let’s just be honest: most writers write positive reviews because, when it’s their turn to put a book out, they don’t want the writers who they dumped on dumping on them. This fear emerges, in part, because writers believe a negative review or two will reduce the number of books they sell. 

As it happens, I believe that assumption is false. And, what’s more, here’s where Lorentzen and his algorithm can coexist: negativity can sell! Negativity can be fun. What’s so bad about Thomas Chatterton Williams and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornell West going after each other, regardless of whose side you take? Why do we have to leave all of the fun to artists like Drake and Pusha T?

For evidence of the potential salability and popularity of negativity, look no further than the very article I’m writing about. “Like This or Die” is probably the most widely read and talked about article Harper’s has published in recent memory. And it is full of negativity. It teems with trademark Lorentzen barbs so cold they make you shiver. Why do we have to decry an attempt to tear the shallow, saccharine veneer from our reviews and our social media posts? Why can’t we all get smarter and meaner, together?

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Now let’s think of Christian in a different way. Let’s think about Christian as the sort of critic you know exists. You might know Christian personally, and you might not. Regardless, you could be more like him than you think. 

Christian loves books more than anything. When a shitty book comes out that everyone heaps adoration upon for seemingly no reason other than the fact that the industry has decided that this is the book of the moment, he gets angry. He read that book. It sucked. Why is everyone and their mother flipping out about it? So he composes an angry tweet about the book and posts.

But when you have that feeling, and you compose your angry tweet about the book, your finger hovers above the blue button. Is it really worth it?, you ask yourself. What if I lose followers? What if I get cancelled?

C’mon, people. Let’s push the button.

Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in Rolling StoneGQNewsday, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle, and is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.