There is No Such Thing as a Takedown
no one's that clever
A friend asked me, casually, via Facebook message - had I heard that Johann Hari’s new book was taken down? I confessed that I had not. She pointed me, I’m afraid, to a Twitter thread, sold as the definitive refutation of Stolen Focus.
Please do click through and read the thread.
Though I’m not entirely sure what Matthew Sweet is or does - his Twitter bio is quite perplexing - he seems thoughtful enough, and I find his criticisms of Hari’s new book to be generally responsible and thus concerning. But while tweets can be concerning, they cannot be damning. There is no such thing as a damning review of a book in tweet form. Such a thing is beyond the affordances of the medium. A longform book review can do more, but has limits of its own. A book review can be cutting, if it’s rigorous enough - and yes, a certain length is a prerequisite for rigor. A book review can be informative and humorous and generative and entertainingly mean. I write some myself and hope to achieve such goals. But no review alone can rebut an argument expressed over hundreds of words. It might be better, or at least easier, if it were so. But we live in a world of irreducible complexity, and our efforts to wrestle it into digestible chunks to match diminishing attention spans - well, that last part is exactly the contentious issue at hand - don’t magically make life simple enough to understand through maxims or fortune cookies or tweets. It doesn’t work that way.
I’m sure Dr. Sweet would admit that you can’t refute a book with tweets; to his credit, his thread as much as says so. In fact he specifically invites Hari into deeper conversation, which is humane and responsible. Sadly, if you dig around in the replies to the thread you’ll find many people who very much believe that a bunch of 280-character missives can dismiss Hari’s entire argument, that a collection of excerpts from a book they’ll never read have been debunked by references to studies they’ll never understand. We could have a whole conversation about this phenomenon, where people become convinced that a particular argument has been exposed as misrepresenting studies despite the fact that they read nothing of the given studies themselves. (Arguments for being more responsible with data sure do tend to lead people to be irresponsible with data.) But even in a simpler sense, I would hope that we could all understand that everything we might see on social media is limited and contextual, and that such spaces serve the public intellect when they point to more reading and work against it when they function as substitutes for more reading.
What I will do, to evaluate Hari’s new book? Sooner or later, I’ll read it. The specific allegations of sloppiness or invention on Hari’s part are indeed problematic, and I will read the text critically and with skepticism. But a book, thousands of words long and produced over many hundred of hours, deserves a more thorough kind of engagement. And for the record this has nothing to do with Hari; we’ve corresponded cordially a few times, but I feel no need to defend him. People sometimes want to recruit me against Hari’s earlier book Lost Connections, as I have been a frequent critic of the anti-psychiatry movement and politicized attempts to deemphasize the neurological aspects of mental illness in favor of social critique. I do indeed think efforts to deny the essential influence of brain chemistry on psychology are destructive. But I can’t just wave away Lost Connections. I have misgivings about that book, and there are parts that really speak to me and those that don’t, and I can’t call it simply good or bad. I have no blurb to offer. I guess you could say it’s complicated.
Let’s talk Hanya Yanagihara.
The T magazine impresario and novelist received a mostly-sympathetic profile in The New Yorker. Then she was represented in a decidedly less rosy light in New York. Neither could be called dispositive, if we’re thinking carefully and with charity. But many people seem to think that any negative essay, any “takedown,” can gather up untold thousands of words, entire identities, and cut them up like deli meat, so that we all can consume their basic essence in a form that’s tasteless, unthreatening, and safe. Some appear to believe that Andrea Long Chu’s pan of, well, Yanagihara’s entire being has cancelled her, ethered her, settled the Hanya Yanagihara question. A few thousand words is sufficient to annul a career.
(Also, I don’t get the subhead, really - certainly nobody swoops in to save Jude in A Little Life.)
Well, if that’s the kind of game we’re playing here, let me note that Chu’s book Females is incoherent, ostensibly an argument that all of us are female that somehow fails to assemble a remotely meaningful definition of what “female” means in this context, and yes, for lack of trying. (Along with the novels of Ben Kunkel and Lauren Oyler, Females is a classic in the genre of “it’s glaringly obvious the author would really prefer not to be writing a book.”) Isn’t it reductive to dismiss Chu’s book on those grounds? Who cares! We’re all having fun, aren’t we? The link at the bottom of Chu’s article, for me, leads to a review of Maggie Nelson’s book about how we think too quickly and react too ungenerously. The author of that review turns the tables on Nelson and accuses her of same. That author, of course, is Andrea Long Chu.
I’m afraid I’m not the first to point out that Females is remarkably unclear on what a female actually is, or Chu’s seeming indifference to providing clarity. That notion was put forward, quite adroitly, by Kay Gabriel in 2019. So adroitly, in fact, that it was considered quite the takedown at the time, a real mauling! Yet here’s Chu, alive and seemingly intact, to eviscerate and destroy and disqualify Yanagihara. It’s a strange thing, this genre. I like Renata Adler, and I like her classic takedown of Pauline Kael, but reading it doesn’t make me like Kael’s reviews any less, and I usually like them very much. I admit though that sometime I read one that really pisses me off, and then I read Adler again. But the work endures. Somehow, post-takedown Kael’s words were not magically erased from every yellowing copy of The New Yorker in which they originally appeared.
I have no problem with negative criticism. We need more of it, not less, in a world where stan culture spreads like mint in a garden. I like reviews that are real about what the reviewer thinks, and sometimes what’s real is what’s angriest. Criticism that flames rather than burns slowly is often more fun to write and always more popular, but both are necessary. I am not at all put out by Chu’s hatchet job. As with Females, I frequently enjoyed it even as I felt she put her thumb a little too heavily on the scale. My beef, instead, is with the reaction to it, this weird tendency in literary culture to think that all authors of note are just waiting for that one definitive takedown, after which we can safely sort them into the recycling bin. These literary savagings can speak with humor, incisiveness, and righteous anger, but they cannot speak with finality.
Yanagihara’s new book is out, I believe. I will eventually read it and, I imagine, not much enjoy the experience, though I remain always ready to be surprised. The book will, inevitably, sell less well than A Little Life but better than 99.9% of novels sold. She will take the $1 million plus she received as an advance and, who knows, buy a loft or a cottage in the Hudson River Valley or whatever it is the very successful do now. Her literary reputation will grow, or it will shrink, and it will have something-but-not-much to do with her actual quality as a novelist. But out there, among the great (but which I mean, small and shrinking) novel-reading masses, there will be a true aggregate opinion, accessible only to God but real all the same, and it is on that gallows that every novelist will eventually hang.
If you’re asking me? A Little Life is teeming and tedious and melodramatic and ridiculous and sharp and funnier than its reputation and irritating and well-rendered, and it’s all a little bit much, and it certainly is misery porn, and I think it’s not really a capital-G Great novel but an estimable, cranky one, the kind of book that can arrest you even as you walk by your copy on the way to the bathroom. I hated every minute of reading it. I could tell you everything it made me feel and think, but Substack doesn’t have the server space. That’s the whole point of books, to generate feelings that cannot be expressed in any words other than the ones that appeared in the very text you’re reading. We write about books so that we share our inability to explain what they mean to us, communally, instead of feeling that alone. Oh, you couldn’t get through all of A Little Life? Damn, that is absolutely fascinating. Tell me more.
The dollar store version here is that if you think that a bunch of people (who are just like you) deciding communally on Twitter that something or someone has been “taken down” has any real-world salience, you’re a useful idiot for the Silicon Valley mentality you probably claim to hate. That whole project is to miniaturize the entire world so that they can better sell it back to us for a profit, after all, and this rancid little ideology seems to spill out into more and more of our intellectual spaces. There’s something totalitarian about the insistence that everything in life be digestible, so that the people who occupy our Smart Person class can derive all the right positions between Instagram breaks. The arc of literary history may bend towards a culture that writes less, reads less, considers less, and sees the purpose of commentary as decomposing every piece of writing into its constituent parts. But god, what a sad future.
Just to note, I really think sometimes people just choose an axe to grind and that's the case of Matthew Sweet here.
Sweet, in his thread, claims that Johann Hari cannot be trusted to handle data. Sweet's main argument comes from Hari's supposed misuse of a Nature study. According to Sweet, the authors that Hari cites themselves concede that the hypothesis of shrinking cultural attention spans isn't true. Sweet, referring to the paper, describes it thusly: "“The phenomenon,” its authors concede, “lacks a strong empirical foundation.”"
However, Sweet is lying. I say lying because this pull quote goes beyond mere cherry picking. Sweet has pulled that quote from the INTRODUCTION of the paper, and the real quote is "In the literature there have been strong hints of an acceleration in different contexts (citations), but so far, the phenomenon has lacked a strong empirical foundation." So they are not conceding, in any way shape or form, that their research lacks a strong empirical foundation. Rather, they are setting up how great their own research is in contrast to previous "lacking" research. This sort of comparison is what scientists do all the time in introductions (source: am a scientist).
The rest of the paper makes clear that the authors aren't conceding anything, they do find evidence of exactly what Sweet is taking issue with. You can read it here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-09311-w. It's extremely clear the authors find evidence of an "accelerating dynamics of collective attention" - clear from the title, the abstract, the discussion, everything. No honest person could read that paper and come away with a different conclusion.
Whether or not the study is correct is a whole other matter (it may not be). But Sweet claims Hari misrepresents it. To make this claim he has to go and truncate a random sentence from the Introduction of the paper that is nothing about its conclusions, then himself wildly misrepresent that one sentence as the conclusion.
Btw I care not a whit about Hari, nor his book, nor Sweet, it's just crazy how easy it is to make a name for yourself from this sort "take down" of vapid criticism mixed with dishonest representation.
I think much of the urge to see things as "takedowns" and to find "debunkings" comes from the deep, often desperate desire to have the world be simple, easily understood, black-and-white. A world that admits of tradeoffs and complexities is a scary one indeed, fraught with moral balancing acts and degrees of rightness. Twitter has no truck with these. Better to dismiss uncomfortable ideas with a "So-and-so debunked that!" and be done with them.