December 5, 2013

The scorn that new BuzzFeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald has earned with a few stray comments about how he intends use to his high-profile gig has been so severe that one almost feels sorry for him. Almost.


Isaac Fitzgerald

In a brief item published early November, the Poynter foundation’s well-trafficked journalism Web site noted that Fitzgerald was now helming books coverage at that 800-pound powerhouse purveyor of celebrity screen grabs and cute animal gifs. Prior to tackling the BuzzFeed beat, he had co-founded The Rumpus, a site so rarefied that it does not bother with a Wikipedia entry, and done publicity for Dave Eggers’s McSweeny’s empire. Now, he announced, he would be returning to his first love, “talk[ing] about books online.”

Poynter reported that under Fitzgerald, BuzzFeed would do book reviews with one all-important pre-determined outcome: None of them will be negative. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he asked, explaining that you see that sort of thing “in so many old-media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.”

People in the “online books community,” he reckoned, are not interested in the bad karma that accompanies such negativity. They understand authors have “worked incredibly hard” on books and don’t want to disrespect their efforts by dissing the end product. He underscored this by laying down the Bambi Rule: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Poynter suggested it should really be called the Thumper Rule, since the words were spoken by Disney’s cartoon rabbit, not the titular deer. But this gentle correction was nothing compared to the critical response Fitzgerald was in for—and not just at the behest of those fuddy-duddy “old-media types.”

Gawker oozed sarcasm, calling the hiring of an erstwhile publicist to run a books section “very nice news.” New Yorker writer Maria Bustillos announced that it was “absurd” for Fitzgerald to suggest that “one should ‘respect’ the authors of books by publishing only positive reviews.”

The New York Times teased out that absurdity. “I was quite put off by ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ But what purpose is served by publicly finding fault with a volume that some author has worked very hard to produce, when there are many, many excellent books upon which to lavish praise?” mocked WNYC host Bob Garfield.

To be sure Fitzgerald makes himself an easy target for the predominately East Coast publishing world. He has worked for a biker bar and at the Left Coast website AlterNet. The San Franciscan frets that his new New York colleagues don’t have enough facial hair.

To describe his love of literature, Fitzgerald has furnished this quote: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

It’s a perfectly lovely notion. However, at the risk of sounding like a Poynter-style scold myself, I should note that the quote comes from The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s theatrical paean to pederasty. Editors with any guile would steer well clear of any mention of taking anything in hand in relation to that particular play.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with taking dead aim at Fitzgerald for his embrace of boosterism as criticism. If this model wins out, critics might as well put down our pens and pick up pom-poms.

However, let it be noted that Fitzgerald neither invented nor popularized the idea—and that he is far from its most prominent advocate. He just makes an attractive whipping boy because he’s guileless and because he works for BuzzFeed, a site that doesn’t get much respect from the well-respected.

In truth, Fitzgerald’s appointment only caps a particularly crappy year in American letters. When jilted novelist Heidi Julavits co-founded the journal The Believer in 2003 to combat “snark” and sing only sweet songs about literature, it was a curious and controversial aberration. A decade later, this approach has wormed its way much closer to the critical consensus about criticism. Let’s roll the tape on the critical lowlights of this mercifully expiring year:

* Former “hatchet job” critics Lee Siegel and Alexander Nazarya both published mea culpas for much of their negative book reviewing.

* The LA Review of Books, arguably the biggest American literary effort launched in recent years, admitted it has an official policy against running negative reviews of an author’s first book. Editor Evan Kindley tweeted that the Review’s approach to poor freshman efforts was to “ignore them, or kill the review.”

* Slate felt it necessary to run an essay pointing out, “Just because you don’t like someone’s criticism doesn’t mean that they’re ‘shaming’ you.

Several venues, from the New Republic to the American Conservative to the blog of critic D.G. Myers, ran defenses of criticism against the onslaught of publicists and niceness. The defenses were full of reason and earnestness and seemed ultimately futile. A few critics understood this. Myers related this cynical lesson from the Elwood P. Dowd School of Life: “For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

The only thing BuzzFeed seems likely to add to this new non-critical consensus is the pictures—clickable slideshows being the site’s best-known stock in trade. And honestly, that might be an improvement. If we’re to swap cheerleading for criticism, it might as well look pretty.


Jeremy Lott is editor-at-large for Real Clear Politics and author of several books.