Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and critics in particular are entitled to their own world views, but in today’s Sunday Book review, Adam Kirsch, weighing in on the role of Twitter in criticism, seems to be working under his own set of facts when it comes to discussing the medium. He writes:
At first glance, it seems that critics, in particular, should relish a tool like Twitter. Criticism is a kind of argument, and Twitter is excellent for arguing back and forth in public. Criticism is also a kind of reportage, and Twitter is an ideal way of breaking news. With many major events, from presidential debates to the Oscars, it is more informative and entertaining to follow them in real time on Twitter than it is to actually watch them. For all these reasons, journalists have been especially avid users of Twitter.
Critics, however, have been surprisingly reluctant to embrace the tweet. Many of the most prominent are not on Twitter at all. Those who are tend to use their feeds for updates on their daily lives, or to share links, or at most to recommend articles or books — that is, they use Twitter in the way everyone else does. What is hard to find on Twitter is any real practice of criticism, anything that resembles the sort of discourse that takes place in an essay or a review.
I’m not sure how Kirsch is defining “the most prominent.” Does the New York Review of Books’ Daniel Mendelsohn, who tweets W.G. Sebald and Cavafy, along with Game of Thrones, not count? What about Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott? The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, Adam Gopnik, Sasha Frere-Jones, and my frequent interlocutor, Emily Nussbaum? Perhaps you’ve got to be James Wood or Lorin Stein to make the cut, but Kirsch’s formulation seems to slight an awfully large number of accomplished critics who hold significant positions at major publications, and who exert a considerable influence on cultural conversations both high and low.
Debates about who counts as “prominent,” have to do with gender, something that Anna Holmes brings up in her vigorous response to Kirsch (which, disclosure, contains kinds words about yours truly), and also with the relative statuses of different kind of media — maybe Kirsch is only speaking about book critics, but even then, he’s ignoring any number of Twitter participants. But there’s also a conversation to be had about what counts as “criticism.” Kirsch defines it as “the sort of discourse that takes place in an essay or a review.” I’d never argue that Twitter is a format that’s conducive to being read in the same way as an essay that’s laid out in a print publication. It’s absolutely not, and that’s why we have tools like Storify that allow us to reformat conversations so they can be read as more conventional prose.
But that doesn’t mean that Twitter isn’t discursive — in fact, it’s a much more dynamic conversation than the one that happens in a published essay or review. When a critic files one of those pieces, they’re absolutely in conversation with both the work and our larger debates. Perhaps, in the text, they’re even in conversation with other critics, and with the audiences for the works they’re discussing. But by design — and many times this is all to the good — an essay or review is a closed statement, one that requires interlocutors to read all the way through before they mount their own responses. Twitter, by contrast, produces a faster, more protean conversation. A critic, like Nussbaum, for example, who uses the service to pose a question or to float an idea in development, may get many responses to a single utterance that may radically reshape that idea, allowing her to refine it and to move on to the next stage in an argument or a new phase of developing her thinking. I often take conversations from Twitter and reshape them into pieces, either by using Storify, or by quoting Tweets in a post or an essay, and I know I’m not alone in this practice.
There’s nothing wrong with preferring to read a polished essay or a review that’s been a long time in gestating, but it’s not as if there’s a choice between enjoying someone’s Tweets and loving their prose in another format. As a critic, and as someone who reads many, many other critics, I believe my experience has been enhanced by the opportunity to see critics work through and refine their ideas, to see my colleagues take notes and comment on a medium in real time when that’s possible and warranted. “Good” or “bad,” “yes” or “no,” “go” or “stay home” take up only a few characters. The 140 that characters that Twitter offers are plenty of space to ask a question, make an observation, or pose a premise. If Kirsh doesn’t think that counts as “the experience of a mind engaged with a text,” I’m not entirely sure what qualifies.
There are many kinds of criticism that are practiced by critics in many positions that produce many kinds of insights. Kirsch may have decided that Twitter isn’t a place where he can find those insights. I, and many others, would be happy to offer some suggestions, if he’s interested. And if he’s not, it’s fine. I’ve got a debate about the functions of episode-by-episode or chapter-by-chapter reviews of television and books, happening right now in my Twitter stream, to attend to.