Literary Criticism in the Era of the Clickbait Headline


This probably says more about the type of conversations I have when I’m not sitting behind a computer than anything, but I’ve spent plenty of time in bars debating whether book reviews are of any value to anybody, from the reading public to the author who might look to critics for notes on what to improve. (If you are that special kind of literary masochist, then good on you. Go on doing what you’re doing). As someone who writes about books, as well as the type of person who enjoys reading criticism — to the point where I’ll read books full of book reviews from decades ago — I’m always going to stick up for book reviews. I’m always going to want to read them, and I wouldn’t mind always writing them. Reviews are important. Without them, the literary balance is thrown off, and the bar can be lowered to astonishing levels.

The thing is, people really don’t talk about reviews all that much. They might read them, but for the most part, unless it’s some intense Michiko Kakutani takedown over at the Times, discussing reviews doesn’t really compare to talking about which Stark was killed on the latest episode of Game of Thrones in terms of culturally relevant conversation topics. I wish that wasn’t the case, but in this tweet-a-second world, book reviews have had to fight really hard to stay in the conversation, especially on the Internet, where an Amazon review can make any casual reader feel like they’re John Leonard.

Although I’m always worried about book reviews dropping out of the conversation, yesterday was one of those rare days when (before bigger news broke) my feed was briefly filled with conversation about a book review. I normally would have been thrilled, but the review in question, titled “Joshua Ferris’s New Novel Ought to Destroy His Reputation,” by Sarah Courteau at New Republic, was mostly getting attention for its provocative title.

The thing is that Joshua Ferris’ new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, would have to be absolutely, unreadably atrocious to destroy his reputation. Ferris is a successful novelist, one who Courteau even says wrote “a minor classic” with Then We Came to an End. But all of that nuance is lost because the headline is so asinine that it takes all credibility away from Courteau’s harsh but ultimately solid review. It’s the headline, I believe, that author Darin Strauss was rightly angry about, not the review. It was Strauss’ tweets that first alerted me to the piece, and that I assume spurred so much conversation that The New Republic ultimately changed the title of the piece to something a bit more subdued: “Joshua Ferris’s New Novel Is as Boring as it Sounds.” Here’s the catch-22: I haven’t read To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and I honestly don’t have any intention of picking it up in the near future. My mind was mostly made up before any reviews went up, meaning I really didn’t have all that much reason to click the link. Yet I did, and nothing about the review that convinced me that his latest novel exposed Joshua Ferris as a fraud. I took the clickbait. It worked on me. The title, not the review and the hope that it would change my mind about the book, got me to read the piece. This is something I know about clickbait titles; I’ve written one or two (or more, let’s be honest, many more) titles in my life. The fact is that, even though we imagine cyberspace to be this vast place with enough room for all of our voices, it is really tough to get people to pay attention. Solange might punch Jay Z, Morrissey might join Twitter, some movie star might croak, or Drake might use a lint roller again; books have to contend with those things. It isn’t the easiest landscape to navigate, and that’s why I can understand why Courteau (or, more likely, her editor) might write a headline engineered to stir up conversation. Would I have written a title like that or told an editor I was OK with it? Hell no. That doesn’t mean I’m any better or worse than Courteau. The New Republic piece brings up an even bigger question than that; it leaves me wondering what the book review can do to evolve in the age of the clickbait headline. How can literary criticism become a part of more people’s media diet? How does it move past this point? The grabby headlines may not be going anywhere, but if the truth doesn’t appear beneath them, is there any point in fighting for book reviews?