11.30.2013

buzzfeed announces no negative book reviews: what that means (and doesn't mean) and why it's good

In a New York Times op-ed, I've learned that BuzzFeed has announced the hiring of its first book editor, and will start publishing book reviews. But it will not run negative book reviews. Isaac Fitzgerald (formerly of The Rumpus and McSweeney's) said:
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.”

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.”
This is welcome news for serious readers.

It doesn't mean, as Wired thinks (or pretends to think), that Fitzgerald "will only accept warm and cuddly" reviews. It doesn't mean books won't be reviewed critically. Critical does not equal negative. There are valid criticisms of any book, and we should know what they are.

What it does mean, or at least what I hope it's intended to mean: no more book reviews that are really just excuses. An excuse for the reviewer to savage a writer she dislikes. An excuse to climb on a political soapbox. An excuse to name-drop. An excuse to show us the very clever insults the reviewer came up with.

In other words, no more reviews that are really about the reviewer, instead of the book.

Perhaps many readers don't realize this, but out of the vast numbers of books that are published, only a very tiny percentage get reviewed. Why waste space telling us what not to read? Why not use our limited reading time and attention spans to bring worthwhile books to our attention?

The New York Times Book Review has a longstanding tradition of assigning political books to reviewers from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Perhaps they imagine this is more impartial (unlikely; they're not stupid), or perhaps they are trying to stir controversy. Either way, it's a waste of a book review spot. If I want hollow, knee-jerk arguments, I can turn on CNN.*

I don't read book reviews to learn about the reviewer's politics or their facility with language. I read book reviews to answer one question: is this a book I might like to read? (Or, if I'm thinking as a librarian, is this a book I'd like to see in my library?)

What's the book about? What is the writer's style like? Is it accessible or dense, breezy and light, or heavy going? Is the book rich in characterization, full of wild plot twists? Is it suspenseful? Does it follow in a literary tradition, and if so, how well does it pull off that tradition? If it's nonfiction, is it well researched and argued? Thought-provoking, eye-opening? What are some of the author's main arguments? Does it do what the author set out to do? And so on.

When I first started blogging, I decided I would only write about books I enjoyed. Just because I don't like a book, doesn't mean it doesn't have merit. I know something about what it takes to write a book - the time, the effort, the commitment, the risk, the inevitable disappointment, and in many cases, the personal sacrifice. Why should I denigrate another writer's craft?

I'd rather help readers find books they might like. That seems like a much better use of my time, and yours. So I was glad to see that someone agree. Well done, BuzzFeed!




*Actually, I can't, but you know what I mean.

2 comments:

impudent strumpet said...

That would also be interesting in terms of googleability. Good books get more attention on the internet, bad books languish in obscurity. I don't know if anyone actually looks for books to read by googling "books about widgets", but if they do then this increases the likelihood that they'll find out about good books.

laura k said...

I don't know if anyone actually looks for books to read by googling "books about widgets",

Apparently they do! I was surprised at this myself.