At BEA last spring I attended a panel hosted by the National Book Critics Circle that was on the verge of being interesting. It wasn't the panelists' fault. What I mean is, there was the possibility of discussing the recent trends in media development and how that affects review coverage. Rather, steered by mundane audience participation, the brunt of the panel was devoted to rundown topics, primarily print vs digital. Which was a major bummer.
One of the panelists, Ed Nawotka, who runs the e-newsletter Publishing Perspectives, mentioned how a negative review of Sebastian Junger's War was the most popular feature they've run on their site, receiving more comments than the entire length of the original piece. I've been thinking about this a lot recently in the scores of reviews I've seen cropping up of Tao Lin's newest book. Joshua Cohen slammed (like, body-slammed, with authority) it in the latest issue of Bookforum. The single-page review was trumpeted on the front cover, above the Bookforum logo, as "How the internet ruined ambitious fiction writer Tao Lin." To put this into perspective, that's a greater relevance granted than the three-page review they feature of Jonathan Franzen. Bookforum also gradually reveals their print reviews online, and the Lin review was the first they made available.
Bookforum's pretty much one of my favorite book review venues. They can be trusted. All I know about Tao Lin is that he brings with him his own passionate, comment-heavy viral posse.
This is an idle curiosity, but I'm wondering whether book review venues in the future, especially as they transition online and attend to daily web statistics, will intentionally seek more polarized, ultra-dramatic love-or-hate coverage?
I ran into Zach Baron at the Brooklyn Book Festival who had just written his own critical take on Tao Lin for the Village Voice. I said something to Zach about not understanding why Lin's work was so controversial, having only read snippets from his books. Zach said I'd have to read one of Lin's books, which is fair. And then we (or maybe I was alone) wondered aloud at the possibility of Lin contributing many of the most heated and polarized comments to his online reviews, fueling the fire. Which would make him a marketing genius.