“Why bother?” is both the weakest argument against book reviews and the most dangerous because it’s rhetorically posed to shut down discussion. “Why waste your breath?” implies that any reply is “wasted breath.” It’s also the most useful to refute because it creates a vacuum for advancing a positive argument in favor of book reviews and the role of negativity in public discourse, even at places like BuzzFeed.
“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.”
There is one point worth granting here. Fitzgerald and others are right: we do not need blood sport reviewing. Everyone who reviews books, including myself and the Chamber Four gang, could hold ourselves to a higher standard of kindness and respect in our writing. But not all negative reviews are “talking smack,” and being kinder or more respectful doesn’t mean liking everything or else ignoring it.
So why should we “waste breath talking smack”? Because sometimes the world isn’t everything we want it to be or everything we were told it was, and if we’re moved to speak on that point, we should. Reporting openly and honestly about books is respectful of the time and attention of readers and responsible to the cultural dialogue of our day.
More importantly, why should BuzzFeed and other “new media-type” places embrace the dark side of book reviewing, or negativity generally? Because negativity isn’t going anywhere. People aren’t going to stop disliking books or feeling disappointed because of their editorial policies. The Bambi/Thumper rule only drives us farther into our digital niches: smarm over here, snark over here, pick a side. Instead, new media outlets should provide spaces where all writers are expected to play by the same rules to foster the most complete cultural discussion possible.
Don’t like a book? Want to talk about it? That’s great. Here are the rules:
Don’t be cruel. Write as if you were sitting at the same table with the author.
Have a point. Enlarge on your negative reaction. Why doesn’t this work? What could it do better? What could the literature of our day do better? Get creative.
If people really want to see snark and meanness curbed in online discourse, especially about books, then don’t shut out the readers and writers most likely to carry on that kind of conversation elsewhere. If the Bambi/Thumper is really about addressing tone in discourse about books, then you might rephrase it: “If you can’t say anything nice, then at least say it as nicely as possible.” To the extent that places like BuzzFeed, with large and growing readerships, are the future of media, we will all be better served if they are more inclusive.
This, finally, is why I wanted to “waste breath talking smack” about niceness, and why I wanted to begin and end by talking about Keats and “Negative Capability.” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with niceness, or that there’s anything superior about negativity, but that neither should be a default. As readers, as critics, as writers, we need to remain open to “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” and not proscribe our responses before our experiences. Media of all kinds, old and new, should be avenues for shaping and sharing those experiences without limiting our reactions to them.