BuzzFeed Books Won’t Kill Literary Criticism — But Book Snobbery Might


So here’s the thing: yesterday BuzzFeed Books named its new editor, a sometime friend of mine named Isaac Fitzgerald. I knew Isaac as the Managing Editor of a literary site known as The Rumpus, where I was a weekend editor for several months in 2012. Yesterday, he gave the following quote to a media reporting site:

BuzzFeed will do book reviews, Fitzgerald said, but he hasn’t figured out yet what form they’ll take. It won’t do negative reviews: “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.”

It’s likely that you, dear readers, have not have been following the latest scintillating round of slapfighting in book critic circles about the “state of criticism.” It’s always a subject of dubious interest to the general population, I think, but let me explain briefly anyway, because the debate is crashing into the perennial concern about the declining popularity of books in our culture, and we all care about books here at Flavorwire, so.

Basically the problem is this: of late people who consider themselves “serious critics” — the kind of people who refer to themselves without irony as intellectuals, in other words — are concerned that book reviews are “too nice.” What they mean is that they feel that people, especially people online, are too afraid to offend each other with vitriolic criticism. These people have clearly not spent much time among the one-star brigade on Amazon, I think, but then “serious critics” like to think of themselves as above your average Bobs and Barbs from Arizona. Mostly, what distinguishes them is that they are people who are paid to think about books all the time, whereas Bob and Barb are more likely to have day jobs. And in that context it almost makes sense why critics get all up in arms about so esoteric a subject as “serious criticism”; they’re literally fighting for their livelihoods.

Back to Isaac, who in averring that he did not particularly care for negative reviews happened to hit that “oh god this is the end of my wonderful career in books” nerve. Couple that with the fact that many journalists joke amongst themselves about how BuzzFeed is eating their livelihoods, and you get a lot of curiously, and somewhat unrigorously, hurt feelings.

Consider, for example, this strange inside-joke of a piece from Tom Scocca at Gawker. Scocca riffed off of Isaac’s brief tenure as a publicist at McSweeney’s — a position Isaac only held from May until, well, now — to suggest that a publicist’s mindset is inappropriate in a journalist. Scocca was mildly funny in an in-joke sort of way that is hard to explain secondhand, but suffice to say the gist of his criticism was that unabashed positivity is silly, in a book critic. And he’s not wrong about that; think about all the friends you have who seem to like everything, up to and including Fifty Shades of Grey. But by the time my Twitter feed filled with a number of Internet book people hand-wringing about the crucial question of whether this meant that BuzzFeed would not be covering books in a serious way, I was annoyed.

Look: there are a lot of different ways to write about books. One way, covered generally by the n+1 and New Inquiry set, is to write long, ponderous essays about them. The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books write long, accessible essays about them. The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and Salon tend to prefer short, accessible essays. And we here at Flavorwire write some of the above and a lot of lists. But there is a level on which all of these disparate parties are essentially engaged in the same task, and it is this: arguing that books are still relevant in a culture that, not infrequently, moves too quickly and flashily for them. And I don’t know about you, but if it takes a few positively phrased, high-trafficking BuzzFeed lists to keep the whole machinery of book publishing going, I’m for it. Of course it would be bad that was the only kind of writing anyone was doing about books, but as far as I know BuzzFeed hasn’t yet launched a hostile takeover of the NYRB, so there’s no need to panic.

What’s more, I often find myself wondering if — in all the sturm-und-drang over BuzzFeed Books, or over the issue of including GIFs in book reviews, or whether book critics can use Twitter — the people who care about books aren’t contributing to their own obituaries. I am wary of sounding like a teenager who thinks that the grown-ups are just “out of touch, man,” but the truth is, BuzzFeed and GIFs and Twitter now exist, and are part of our daily experience. Assuming that we want books to be tied to our daily experience too, then we have to accept that books are going to get tangled in all of those, as evidence of the crucial role books can still play in life. Getting all huffy every time the book “brand” is tarnished by proximity to the newer parts of the Internet isn’t going to do much to rescue the jobs of book critics, in the end. In fact, it’ll probably just bury them alive.