Robert Silvers: Be Specific, Talk About Everything

I just wanted to raise one small quibble with an apparent contradiction from Mark Danner’s New York interview with New York Review of Books‘s founding editor Robert Silvers (April 15, 2013). Fifty years ago, his one editorial dictate in their review’s coverage was that while they obviously couldn’t cover every book, “Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation.” It’s a feeling I share; for instance, about a recent co-production between Playwrights Horizon and Primary Stages (The Call) was so shallow and cloying that I felt no need to talk about it . . . until, that is, reading some of the praise heaped upon it by critics who I know have seen better, but who were more than willing to turn an at-best passable production into a must-see.

As Silvers goes on to say, “There’s no point in reviewing a book if you can’t find someone whose mind you particularly respect,” and given the quantity of printed material — not to mention the infinitesimal grains-of-sand content of the Internet — critics owe readers more than a mere review; they ought to be discerning about what even gets covered to begin with. (I think I mentioned this a month ago in response to an author’s suggestion that the Times was somehow doing the world a disservice by not covering the content of Fifty Shades of Grey.) Just because you’ve gotten a free copy of something, are you now obligated to write about it, especially if the old saw that no press is bad press holds true? (The flip side of this, of course, is that if there’s even a shred of something of value, you ought to address just that, and therefore save the rest of the world the time it would take to read the full version.)

All well and good, then, until Silvers starts talking about the new forms of language that are currently slipping through the cracks. I don’t disagree that if there’s an Oxford Book of Essays and of Aphorisms, you might someday get to one consisting of Tweets (and there are Tumblrs already dedicated to the worst usages and devoted retweeters of the cleverest). But here’s the troublesome part:

With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate…. But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sense of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity–then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism.

But as we’ve already established, just because you’ve created something doesn’t meant that it merits recognition. Despite the feelings of proud parents, not every child is a miracle to the rest of the world; you may be a unique snowflake, but who cares when you’re buried under six feet of them? When the very thing you were looking for in the first place is obscured by a miasma of confounding content? It seems to me that expending more words in discussing a tweet (especially more than the length of a tweet) is akin to cleaning up air pollution with a powerful super-vacuum . . . that is powered by a massive coal-burning power plant that produces even more smog than it takes in? Remember when your parents once told you that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all? Let’s go a step further: if you don’t have anything transformative to say, don’t bother, especially when setting your words down in permanent ink. So few cave paintings remain from our Stone Age days; perhaps that’s because much was lost, or perhaps that’s because our ancestors saw the need to preserve only their most important work — because they were content to let a thing speak for itself, ultimately, without the marginalia, the discussion, the idle, time-filling chatter of a type of critic (myself included) who is not actually generating anything original of their own. In writing this, in latching in to a single paragraph, perhaps out of context, I am demonstrating the very point, especially if you’ve read this far, moreover if you plan to leave a comment.

As Eminem once rapped, “Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got somethin’ to say/But nothin’ comes out when they move their lips/Just a bunch of gibberish/And motherfuckers act like they forgot about Dre.” We’ve got sites that don’t generate a lick of original content, or those that aggregate the work of others with limited editorial oversight or structural thought. We’ve got BuzzFeed and Reddit actively writing to whatever the consumer is currently interested in, abandoning (or down-voting) the content that doesn’t immediately go viral. It isn’t the flood of good books that Silvers should worry about (in that even that subset cannot be entirely covered), but the even greater deluge that floods that flood, and, like an exponential demonstration of those fractal triangles from chaos theory, ever-increasing masses that hide what we’re looking for, calling attention instead to the void left between subjects.

I’m lost, myself, within the constraints of this very post: I’ve gone on too long. We cannot both be specific and comprehensive; something must give. In my opinion, I would rather lose sight of the whole for a chance at a greater understanding of a part.

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