Burying The Hatchet Job

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 16 2013 @ 12:34pm

Buzzfeed’s new books editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, made waves when he announced that the site won’t publish negative reviews:

He will follow what he calls the “Bambi Rule” (though he acknowledges the quote in fact comes from Thumper): “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” … “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.”

Tom Scocca snarkily suggests that Fitzgerald’s background in publicity might have something to do with his editorial attitude:

Publicity is a job where you try to help people become interested in books and feel positively toward them, so that they buy books and the books’ authors feel successful and everyone enjoys things very much. In some sense, it could be argued that the publicist is the best friend that books have. Now BuzzFeed will also be a good friend to books. This is very nice news.

Eric Levenson insists that “everyone loves a good takedown,” and Paul Constant argues that “with self-publishing exploding and publishers catering to a more and more insular audience, we need negative book reviews more than ever.” Scott Lemieux finds Buzzfeed’s policy “bizarre,” writing that “opposing negative reviews as a blanket policy is just indefensible, of service to nothing but advertising revenues”:

For example, consider Dwight Garner’s review of a new book about fracking this week. It’s a fine piece of writing in itself, and for people who might consider purchasing the book the fact that it’s badly written and doesn’t make any serious effort to deal with many of the issues surrounding fracking seems worth noting. I’ve linked to it before, but consider also Ruth Franklin’s superb essay about Freedom. Again, it needs no further justification for being published than its own excellence. And beyond that, it makes valuable explicit and implicit contributions to a major ongoing debate within the culture. When critics hail the book as a masterpiece without noticing or (caring) about things like the fact that the memoir-within-the-novel written by the character we’re told again and again is a nonverbal jock is in nearly the same voice as the rest of the novel, or that the novel’s answer to the question of What Women Want is “to have sex with the thinly-veiled stand in for Jonathan Franzen,” this seems worth knowing. Particularly when one of these critics was editing the New York Times book review at the time and was facing justified criticism for gender double standards.

Maria Bustillos joins the debate, writing, “The reader who disagrees clearly and well is the greatest treasure of all. How else can we progress? What else is the point of all that hard work?”:

I find the very idea that one should “respect” the authors of books by publishing only positive reviews to be absurd. I think that, rather, the exact opposite must be true: real respect means having balls enough to publish the unvarnished results of a close reading. No adult author writes for praise alone. Surely any serious writer writes because he has an urgent message to impart, one that he hopes will be of some use to the reader. I don’t know the origin of the idea that writers are such delicate creatures, barely able to withstand public scrutiny of their genius, but it seems ever-present.

The respectful critic, then, is the critic who, to borrow [Heidi] Julavits’s phrase, “reads hard.” He brings the results of his researches, whatever they may be, to interested readers who can then take his views and use them to begin compiling their own. If we accept that the making of meaning is a collaborative process between artist and audience, then the value of honest criticism becomes immediately apparent. Dialogue is what counts: praise or blame are similarly irrelevant.