Reviewers & Critics: Isaac Fitzgerald of BuzzFeed Books

Michael Taeckens
From the September/October 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In late 2013 Isaac Fitzgerald was selected to lead BuzzFeed’s new Books section, which has seen tremendous growth under his leadership. Doubtless one of the reasons BuzzFeed solicited Fitzgerald was for his excellent work as the managing editor at the Rumpus, where over a period of four years he published essays by many contemporary writers, including former Reviewers & Critics subject Roxane Gay.

These days Fitzgerald is a familiar figure in the New York City literary-events scene, having interviewed and moderated panels with a number of debut and established authors alike. This past spring, for instance, he led a discussion with authors Stephen King and his son Owen, and Peter Straub and his daughter, Emma, at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York. Fitzgerald has written for the Bold Italic, McSweeney’s, Mother Jones, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the cofounder of Pen & Ink and coeditor of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them.

You were recruited to lead BuzzFeed Books a couple of years ago. Around that time you mentioned in an interview with Poynter that you were establishing a positive-only book-review policy, which caused a flurry of reactions from, among others, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Gawker, and NPR. Do you still stand by your decision?
Most definitely. Since I was brought on in December 2013, my goal has been to be the friend who’s always grabbing your shirtsleeve and saying, “Hey, this is what you should read next.”

The books conversation on the Internet is huge—that’s a wonderful thing! In that line you mentioned from my conversation with Poynter, all I was saying was that my little corner of the books Internet was going to be a fun and positive place. Which I’m proud to say is what we’ve accomplished.

I’m always thinking of larger audiences, of course, but in some ways it’s a really personal project. I think about the dirtbag kid I was, growing up poor in rural Massachusetts. If it weren’t for my parents, who love literature, I don’t know how I would have gotten into books. We weren’t supposed to love books—they didn’t seem cool, interesting, or relevant to our lives—and books weren’t supposed to love us. The world of books felt distant, something that was for other people. Not us.

So I got lucky. I got to fall in love with books. But I just as easily could have not, so it’s important to me that I use my tools and resources to make BuzzFeed Books great, not only for writers and critics, but for all the readers who might have been left out before. To use the wide reach and sense of connection enabled by the Internet to foster a love of books.

I wonder if part of the negative response to your “positive-only” intention was led by people thinking you were primarily going to feature reviews of books. But you’re featuring books in a variety of ways other than reviews. Was that your plan from the beginning?
The craziest thing about the whole experience was that it all happened before I had even shown up for my first day at work. There wasn’t really a plan yet. When I first showed up at BuzzFeed, it became abundantly clear that I had heaps to learn from my coworkers. Then, and even more so now, it was a totally staggering Avengers-team of a cohort—all these people with incredible skills in their wide-ranging areas of expertise. Design! Editorial! Tech! Video! There were so many possibilities for BuzzFeed Books, a wild array of options I hadn’t considered or had available to me before.

What it comes down to is that we’ve got myriad ways to talk about and have fun with books at our disposal. We do run reviews every week in our newsletter, written by different members of the BuzzFeed staff, recommending new books, but there are also essays, quizzes, lists, and videos. Every morning when I wake up, my hope is to get a reader who previously didn’t know about a certain book or author connected to something he or she is going to love.

What are the different ways in which you cover books? Have any particular series been especially popular during your tenure?
Our personal essays—usually by writers who have recently had a book come out or have one forthcoming—have a massive readership. Our aforementioned newsletter, which comes out twice a week—and once a week contains a review of a new book—has a subscription base of over 175,000 people. Our recommendation lists are at the core of what we do, whether it’s the best books of the year, the most exciting books of the summer, or just the sixty-five books you need to read in your twenties. These lists reach hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of people.

One of the things I love about working at BuzzFeed is the emphasis on experimentation. I started playing around with Vine and gave #6SecondBookReviews a shot. You might think six-second videos and books wouldn’t make the best bedfellows, but our account now has over 1,600 followers, and some of the Vines have close to 100,000 loops, which isn’t half-bad for short clips of me holding out books, talking like an auctioneer, and (once in a while) running into a wall.

I’m particularly impressed by many of the literary essays you’ve published. Who are some of the authors you’ve showcased, and how often do you run these kinds of first-person pieces?
We’ve published essays from writers such as Roxane Gay, Lev Grossman, Mat Johnson, T. C. Boyle, James Hannaham, Jami Attenberg, Nell Zink, and many others plus excerpts from Chuck Klosterman, Judd Apatow, and more. I try to run at least one essay a week, and they pair nicely with the fantastic essays that Doree Shafrir and Kat Stoeffel are publishing in the BuzzFeed Ideas section.

What is a typical day in the office like for you?
I read for work on the train, until I get into the office. I eat yogurt-covered pretzels. I read pitches and edit essays. I eat yogurt-covered pretzels. I work on posts and help my coworkers with their book-related content. I eat yogurt-covered pretzels. I read on the train ride home and then when I get home, I eat more yogurt-covered pretzels that I brought home from work. While my diet probably isn’t all that desirable, the amount that I get to read certainly is.

BuzzFeed has branched out well beyond “listicles” in recent years, including expansion into serious international journalism. How has BuzzFeed’s expansion changed things for the Books section? Has it expanded your audience?
I’m always stunned by how much BuzzFeed News is accomplishing. The investigative unit, led by Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Schoofs, leaves me in awe, as does our foreign desk, led by Miriam Elder. All boats rise. The bigger the site gets—not just News, but also Video, and the Life section—the more potential Books content has to reach readers.

I’m also very excited about Saeed Jones becoming our new literary editor. Saeed and I were friends before BuzzFeed—he helped me get the job when he was heading up the LGBT section—and working with him has been an incredible experience. The fact that he’s going to start publishing literary fiction on the site starting in spring 2016, not to mention the generous emerging-writers fellowship he’ll be heading up, isn’t just good news for BuzzFeed—it’s good news for the writing world in general. And that really shows that BuzzFeed is invested, not only in the world of books, but also in the literary world as a whole.