Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. He has written for the Bold Italic, McSweeney’s, Mother Jones, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the cofounder of Pen & Ink, co-owner of The Rumpus, and editor of BuzzFeed Books.
From May 28–30, 2015, the Walker Art Center hosted Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, an international conference on cultural publishing’s current challenges and its possible futures. Prior to joining the conference’s panel discussion on Credibility, Criticism, and Collusion, he shared these words. To view the entire panel discussion playlist, click here.
Thank you so much for coming. And thank you to the Walker Art Center for having us. I think it’s really important, and I’m really happy to be here. So I’m just going to get into it.
I’m going to talk a little bit about myself, and why I came to be up here before you today. And then I’m going to talk a little bit on the subject of the discussion that we’re here to have. From the very beginning, I’m a book lover. I’ve always been a book lover. I grew up loving books. I grew up in the south end of Boston in the 1980s, before it got as ritzy as it is today. And then from there I actually moved to north central Massachusetts, which is kind of like the Kid Rock of Massachusetts. It’s a lot of trailers and beer and guns and that’s what we did with our time. When I could sneak away from the beer and the guns and the trucks, I would always grab a book. Books were kind of my escape, both in in the city and in the country.
From there I got lucky. I got a scholarship. I got to go to a boarding school. A place where education was taken seriously. And that meant the world to me. From there I got to go to college, which I actually wasn’t planning on doing before that. And I didn’t know what to do with myself. The whole time, though, I was reading. Sitting in the back of the class, I had a book under a desk, in between classes, after nights out, waking up, not wanting to move—I’d always be reading.
So for me, I mean again for me, books were just, they were constantly there and they were always there. But I had no idea how they got made. So going to college I said hey, you know what I should do is political science, because that makes sense, because that’s where I am. I don’t feel strongly about politics, I never carried politics with me throughout my life, but that seemed like the right decision to do. So I graduated, I went into politics, I helped get a guy into Congress, I realized I hated politics, and that I’d made a terrible decision and just wasted a ton of my life, education and time.
From there I moved to New Hampshire, where I painted houses for a little while, and from there I met a girl who went to San Francisco, and like all of us who don’t know what to do with our lives, I followed a relationship. I moved to San Francisco, and I worked at a wonderful place called Buca di Beppo. It’s like the Olive Garden but worse, for those of you who don’t know what it is. But at the time I probably made more money than I’d ever made to date, if you take it as an hourly rate, and that’s the truth. That freed up 20 hours, so I basically only had to work 20 hours a week. With 20 hours a week and nothing to do, the person that I’d moved out there for grew sick of me quickly and tried to find me something to do.
Look, she says, there’s this place called that’s called 826 Valencia. It says it has storytelling workshops, you love telling stories, because you wouldn’t shut up, why don’t you go to that. So, I went to this place called 826 Valencia, and five minutes into the training session there, I realized that we were talking about working with kids, it was not storytelling and book making for adults, but you can’t really get you up out of that meeting and walk away, because then you look like a big jerk who doesn’t care about kids.
So that what I started to do, I started to volunteer my time there, and I started to work there, and I started to work with these kids and watched reading affect their lives and affect the way that they saw the world. And at the same time I noticed around the center, this is a creative writing center for youth and its in many different cities now, and it was started by Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s, and around the walls I saw these manuscripts, these pages from these manuscripts, and they had this scribbling all over them.
And I realized that these were manuscript pages from very famous, famous people. Books that I have read, that I had grown up with. What are these? What’s this scribbling? Well, that’s to show the kids, the person in the training center said, that’s to show the kids that writing is a collaborative process, that’s to show them that no book is created by some person in a magical cave who sits down by a typewriter and just writes and prints it out perfectly and sends it out to a publisher and then it’s a book. That’s to show them that it’s an art form, that it’s a struggle, that there’s so many different voices that takes part in its creation. And I was so glad that they were teaching 8-year-olds that because at the age of 23, I finally found out where books came from. I finally realized that they weren’t made-because that’s how I thought books worked. And I came to it very late.
So from there, I got involved a lot in the literary community in San Francisco, and I got to work on this small website called The Rumpus, which is an online culture magazine. Now this was the mid 2000s, people have mentioned it here before, but what was happening in the mid 2000s is that everybody was convinced that publishing was dying, so why start an online arts and culture magazine in the middle of the sky is falling falling mentality of the mid 2000s? Well, we didn’t have a lot of money, and for the record I’d actually ended up working at a political website, and I wanted to, yet again, get out of politics. So, Stephen Elliott, the author who started The Rumpus, came to me and said, do you want to take 50% less pay and no health care and come work on this books website? And I said, absolutely, because that what you can do when you’re young and you’re dumb and you’re living in San Francisco in a one bedroom with three different people.
I didn’t think it would work. I definitely didn’t think it would work for as long as it did, and still continues to after I left. But those years were fundamental to me because I got to work with some incredible writers, Roxane Gaye, Cheryl Strayed, writers who I cared deeply about, and I realized that there was this whole world of people, and not just in the San Francisco literary scene, but out there online, all across the country, all over the world who really cared about books and cared about the discussion of books and cared about getting attention for books, the books that maybe weren’t on the New York Times bestseller. And I got to be a part of that, and that was beautiful for me.
At the same time, everyone like I said was saying that publishing is dying, I started to realize that publishing wasn’t dying, it was definitely transitioning, the same thing that had happened to music in the 90s, happened to publishing in the 2000s is probably happening to movies right now—the Internet was just changing the landscape. I feel like back in the day when like the printing press was invented, a bunch of monks were like, well, those new printing press books, those are not real books. These hand-drawn, hand-lettered books, now, these, mwah, these are the books, this is the stuff.
Because that’s what the publishing industry is. We’ve always been obsessed with our own demise. Like it’s crazy. If you take a group of neurotic people who care about art and some of the darker things in life and what it means to be a human being—so weird that we end up this concept of morbid mortality, no, it makes sense. It makes a lot of sense. The publishing industry has always been worried about itself. That’s always the been case and it’s always been changing. The Internet is one of these new changes. But there’s always been these different parts of it, these different things. It’s a marketplace, it’s capitalism, like Christopher was saying, it’s about getting attention for books-I mean it is. It’s all part of it.
So, after four years at The Rumpus, McSweeney’s actually needed a director of publicity, and after four years of championing books, I decided to actually start working on helping promote them, and at McSweeney’s I had the distinct pleasure of working on a book by Hilton Als called White Girls. And I bring it up because not only is it a fantastic book, and like I said, I love to champion books, and if you haven’t read it, and I think especially this audience it’s an important book for you to read, it’s this incredible mixture of memoir and criticism and it’s beautiful, and I got to work on that book, and it meant a lot to me, and to be honest I’d always read book reviews that I’d definitely come to approach it more from the you know, help me figure out what I need to buy approach that was being talked about earlier. But to see cultural criticism on that level, to see that it itself can be this art form was inspiring and incredible, and my job, though, was just to make sure that it got as much attention as it possibly could.
And working in publicity was an eye-opening experience, because I realized how hard it is out there. This is a roomful of critics, not a room full of publicists. But I think it’s a room full of critics, and all of us are probably guilty of ignoring a lot of emails from a lot of publicists. And that’s fine, because if you were to answer every single one of them that would be insane, but it did show me the other side of things, to have a little more empathy. But I did. What I missed was talking about books online. What I missed was getting in the mix and that’s when the book section at BuzzFeed was announced, that they were going to have an editor, and so many friends wrote to me about the job description and they said, you have to take it. You have to try for it. It’s—you miss talking about books online, and that’s absolutely true. And that’s what I did.
So I said a couple of dumb things when I was hired. I hadn’t actually started working. I hadn’t actually built anything, but like we like to do, we wanted to talk about it first. So there was a big discussion about it, and I’m going to open it up in this room. Something that I usually only tell in private. But it was hard being at the center of that, there was a day when I turned off all my lights in my bathroom and I crawled into my bathtub fully clothed. I didn’t turn on the water. It wasn’t as dramatic as all that. But I laid there for a little while, because it was hard. There were people that I loved, respected, and read on the regular telling me that, just because I said that I wanted to be nice about books, that I was full of shit. And when people you care about and respect say that about it, you it can be very difficult.
So I decided to step away from it, which I think is a good approach sometimes on the Internet. Not always. Sometimes you’ve got to fight for it. But I realized I hadn’t even done anything yet. So I stepped away from the fray, and I started working on it. So that was almost a year and a half ago, and BuzzFeed Books now gets—I mean I don’t want to talk exact traffic numbers, but gets a huge amount of eye, so much more I’m allowed to do for books than I was doing at The Rumpus. We have a mix of different things that all of which I’m very proud of.
One is quizzes. One is recommendation lists. Another way that we try to draw attention to books is a if there’s a book coming out, and there’s an author I’m really excited for, and I think the book is really great, I’ll approach them and ask them to write something for the site, not about their book, not so it’s a commercial, just something that is beautiful and unique, so that I can take this author whose work I think is really meaningful, I can put it in front of our massive audience, if they write something really good, it will do well on its own. I do believe that some of the cream does rise to the top. And there at the end of the piece is an announcement that their next book is coming out.
So if one person who doesn’t know about this writer gets to read this wonderful piece that moves them, then they discover that book at the bottom, they buy that, they read this, maybe they discover this person—all their work. That means the world to me. So that’s another way we do it, how we get out there. Another thing we do is 6-Second Book Reviews. I was told, play around with Vine, I’m like how can I play around with Vine for book reviews? That seems insane. So as a joke I started yelling at the camera about how great Kelly Link’s new short story collection Get in Trouble is. People actually really liked it. And that’s how I view these things. Those things are a launching off point. If somebody hears something, as I say a couple of quick sentences about a book, if it sparks their interest then maybe they go and they look up a review. Then maybe they go to their friends and ask, hey have you read this Kelly Link stuff. Talk about it. And that’s what I want to be doing, sparking interest.
Now, the lists, recommendations, the quizzes, the books entertainment as it were, a lot of people say oh, it’s a two-pronged attack. You have this high-minded stuff and you have this which Bronte sister are you stuff, and that supplements that, right? No, it doesn’t. For me it’s all part of the mix. It’s all part of what makes that little site work. It’s all part of my little slice of the Internet, which is going to get to our discussion now, today.
I really view this all, what we all do, as a giant garden party. And I think a while ago, especially before the Internet, that it was a pretty exclusive garden party, and there was champagne and people dressed certain way and had to be really, really nice and there were certain things talked about and things that are not. And what the Internet did was this still exists and it’s still incredibly, incredibly important, the champagne part—that still exists. It’s not about storming the gates of that and tearing it apart. It’s about building around that party, so that more and more voices can be heard. And so while that can exist over here, I’m going to be playing frisbee over there, maybe some people are playing beer pong over, there’s some fried chicken in the back, there’s a fish fry going on over here, it’s all a giant mix. The more people that can be brought into the discussion of this, the better.
There’s talk of, again, in the mid 2000s was that books were dying. Then there was indie bookstores were dying. Barnes & Noble is all the sudden something we need to care about. The fact of the matter is though now indie bookstores are on the rocks. E-books were going to kill books. Well, actually e-books have plateaued off and book sales are actually doing well. That kind of shakeup has happened and there will be another shakeup that happens next. But books aren’t dying. Books criticism isn’t gonna die. Because that’s what we do, that’s what we love and I’m coming from a literary standpoint, but I think it could be said of all art, because if we’re in here it’s because we care about it, it’s because we love it.
And so this party is open for everyone now. And if there are people in the audience here, if you’re students, all I can say is I have to encourage you to start something. It was mentioned earlier the Pitchfork of fine arts. Somebody wishes that that exists, so do it. Make something like that happen. The Rumpus was slowly, slowly built over four years, but to see the people that have come out of it and to see what’s happened with their careers has just been invigorating. So if you don’t see, if there’s part of the party that you don’t like or if there’s a part of the party that you wish was there, you yourself should reach out and should do it.
Because that’s why we’re all here, right? Negative reviews, positive reviews, we’re all here because we care about it. We’re all here because either we grew up loving books or we grew up loving art or we grew up loving some different aspect of it. Whether we love recommendation lists, or whether we really live for criticism as stand-alone art, we’re all here because we really, really believe in it, and we want to keep talking about it, and I think the fact that this conference even exists is a sign that everything is actually going really, really well. Because people still really, really care. So thank you so much.