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“I’m OK, You’re OK” Is Not the Appropriate Standard For Thinking About Books

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Buzzfeed’s new books editor has issued a plea against integrity and critical thought:

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 just bizarre. Granted, there are certainly some weaker versions of this argument I agree with. The standards for an overwhelmingly critical review should probably be higher. There’s not much point in attacking a book nobody in your audience is going to read, and given the number of worthy books that don’t get a lot of attention all things being equal it’s better to give them some attention than writing a critical piece about a book that will sink without a trace. Wanting to avoid Dale Peck-style random cruelty is a perfectly defensible policy as well.

But opposing negative reviews as a blanket policy is just indefensible, of service to nothing but advertising revenues. Fitzgerald seems to think “why waste breath talking smack about something?” is a rhetorical question (with “talking smack” apparently referring to anything but unqualified praise), but there are perfectly good answers. First of all, critical reviews can be entertaining and illuminating in and of themselves. And, second, knowing whether or not a book is worthy of your time is valuable information to the reader who might otherwise plunk down 30 bucks.

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 Johnathan 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.

I could keep citing examples like this for a while, and you probably can too, but I just don’t see how such a policy is remotely defensible.

On a related note, a local restaurant critic recently declined to review a restaurant because it was too terrible. I don’t understand the logic applied to this context either. Granted, there are two important differences between restaurant and book reviews. First, a book is the same today as it was yesterday, while a restaurant’s quality isn’t static. And second, while books are generally available free to critics, outside of a few national papers and magazines there’s rarely a budget for more than one dining sample. Combining the two, before publishing a negative review I would certainly consult with trusted friends to ensure that the experience wasn’t anomalous, and I would always carefully qualify a review by noting that it was a one-shot. But I find the idea that consumers will only benefit from positive reviews impossible to fathom.  Going out for dinner is, for many people, a rare treat that consumes a large part of their discretionary budget. If there’s the possibility that a review would stop them from spending a lot of money on a terrible meal, doesn’t that seem like information worth sharing? Why are the feelings of business owners (or authors) supposed to be more important than the interests of paying customers?

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