On Twitter people mostly play nice because if you say something cutting about someone, they’re likely to know in about 15 seconds. Their front pocket is going to vibrate. Contumely alert! Tweet wars are incredibly depressing. It’s like battling by throwing one frozen pea at a time. I like Twitter. If you learn how to calibrate it, the conversation is fizzy. I don’t think the Twitter world spills over much into the critical world.
What’s hurt critical discourse is that there aren’t as many book review sections. It doubles the burden on anyone reviewing for the Times. You often feel like yours may be among the only national reviews a book gets. It’s as if you’re taking its yearbook photo.
When I was an editor at the Book Review, the idea of writing for the Times would make some writers freeze up. You’d assign them a book, then you’d talk to him or her on the phone a few weeks later and they’d say, “Why did you send me this steaming pile of dog waste? This book is criminally bad.” Then the review would come in and it would be eight paragraphs of the most tedious plot summary topped by a word like “lyrical.” I was often in the position of gently reminding reviewers, “You’re not writing this for the author’s mother. You’re writing it for the tens if not hundreds of thousands of serious and inquisitive people out there who will be reading you.”