Keats just hanging out, thinking about that hack Coleridge.
When Keats wrote of “Negative Capability” in a letter to his brothers, he wasn’t talking about anything we would today associate with negativity per se. He meant being “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He offers this criticism of a contemporary by way of a negative example: “Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.”
By “Negative Capability,” Keats meant not presuming to know the world before you’ve experienced it and not ignoring your experience because it doesn’t fit your world view. This is where my mind has gone a lot in the past months while thinking about negative book reviews.
It may seem rather “old media” of me to revive an argument that appears to have been dead since 2013, but since Lee Siegel’s “Burying the Hatchet” appeared in the New Yorker last September, I’ve tried to follow the online exchange over book reviewing pretty closely, and now I’d like to add my own posts to the whole kerfuffle. As most book nerds are likely aware, the whole thing exploded last November over this Poynter interview, when BuzzFeed’s newly appointed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t run negative reviews, because “Why waste breath talking smack about something?”
The ensuing reactions largely referred to this as an argument over “negative book reviews.” I want to reframe the argument by leaving out the offending adjective and make it an argument over “book reviewing,” without qualification, because if you approach a piece of writing about a book with the forgone conclusion that you are going to say something positive, then in no meaningful sense can what you’re doing be considered reviewing. Arguing over whether or not literary culture needs negative book reviews is the same as arguing over whether or not literary culture needs book reviews at all.
Before anyone accuses me of setting up a straw man (“Of course we need book reviews,” says anyone reading this book review blog), I should probably say it feels that way to me too. Throughout the debate, a number of people made a number of interesting arguments about media consumption in the digital era, and Tom Socca and Malcolm Gladwell escalated it into a general question about dominant tones in cultural discourse, but I have yet to read one compelling argument against book reviewing, which has me especially concerned that there’s anyone out there taking this position seriously, as Lee Siegel does, as this Huffington Post piece by Associate Books Editor Madeleine Crum does, or as Isaac Fitzgerald does.
I should get a couple other things out of the way now too. I don’t really think book reviewing is going anywhere anytime soon, even high-quality book reviewing. Amazon and Goodreads (same thing, right?) may be rife with unreliable reviews planted to up rankings and sales, but I understand that the New Yorker (which also published this critique of “niceness” in book reviewing), the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and a number of other “old media” outlets are still perfectly happy to run honest reviews. We here at Chamber Four will keep doing our bit, too, for that matter.
And, no, this isn’t going to be a curmudgeonly rant (though I do love a good curmudgeonly rant) about how technology is killing books and culture and humanity. (I have my own ideas on that point too, but I’ll save those for another essay.) I’m not just going to dismiss the “positivity” of new media either, because there is value in promoting a more positive culture generally and a more positive book culture specifically.
What I want to do in this series of posts is critique the arguments against negativity that have come up through the book review debate and break down some of the underlying assumptions people are making about what it means to be negative or positive. Then I want to argue for why even new media juggernauts like BuzzFeed should invite negativity into their warm embrace not just for the good of book reviewing but for the next generation of readers and writers to come.