The enormously popular, relentlessly chirpy, list-obsessed website BuzzFeed is beefing up its books coverage, and has appointed a former publicist, Isaac Fitzgerald, as editor responsible for things literary. He has decided to adopt the “Bambi rule”: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. There will be good reviews only at BuzzFeed.
The move has prompted derision from Gawker, which deadpans that “this is very nice news” which will ensure that “everyone enjoys things very much”, and the Atlantic, where Eric Levenson writes: “Promoting a list of What You Should Be Reading necessarily requires a foil of What You Don’t Need to Read, and by ignoring the latter we lose what makes being in the former group so special.”
Yeah, yeah, sighs Michelle Dean at Flavorwire. What harm, she asks, can a new and positive voice be? It’s not as if they’re out to obliterate the existing books coverage.
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.
And there’s a wider internet-twitchiness at play here, she reckons.
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.
Among Fitzgerald’s reasons for a uniformly upbeat BuzzFeed Books is fatigue at “the scathing takedown rip”. And yet, as Alexandra Petri notes in a blog post for the Washington Post, there is a “savage delight” in such critiques.
Among her own list of some of the “most famously mean reviews” is this from Dorothy Parker: “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be hurled with great force.”
From Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.”
Mark Twain on Jane Austen: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
And Gore Vidal’s sober assessment of John Updike: “I can’t stand him. Nobody will think to ask because I’m supposedly jealous; but I out-sell him. I’m more popular than he is, and I don’t take him very seriously… oh, he comes on like the worker’s son, like a modern-day DH Lawrence, but he’s just another boring little middle-class boy hustling his way to the top if he can do it.”