The Huffington Post recently launched a books section, which is, by its nature, a good thing; it’s always better to have more people talking about books and exploring book culture. Another good thing: HuffPo’s partnership with the New York Review of Books, who will syndicate some of its reviews and essays on the news site. Unfortunately, this pairing leads to some bizarre juxtapositions, such as the headline for a NYRB essay—”Hamas: Government or Terrorist Organization?”—standing next to “5 Badass Authors And Their Badass Characters” (Sean Connery profile photo included). There is also the mind-numbing introduction to the Books section by Amy Hertz, Editor of HuffPost Books. The post is a letter addressed “To My Dear Colleagues in Publishing,” and it begins with this observation:
This is NOT a book review section. Let me say that again, because I know about 72,000 publicists just plotzed because they have no idea what to do other than ask for a review. Huffington Post Books is not a review—there’s a reason those sections in newspapers are dropping like flies. Book reviews tend to be conversation enders, and when you’re living in the age of engagement, a time when people are looking for conversation starters, that stance gets you nowhere.
Where to begin? First, Hertz’s claim that book-review sections have been cut or diminished because “book reviews tend to be conversation enders” is meaningless and unsupported, a silly platitude striving to be taken—like all of this letter—as evidence of hard-won industry expertise. Book reviews, when done well, can certainly spur conversation and bring a work into a larger context—a sensibility that the NYRB, which publishes book reviews, likely shares. (And “age of engagement” seems like one of those generalities that even Thomas Friedman would discard if he weren’t so ready to fashion it into a half-baked neologism.)
You can read the rest of the letter, which follows a similar path. Essentially, Hertz adopts the now-standard HuffPo methodology, which is to solicit unpaid writers—friends of Arianna preferred; here book publicists, who Hertz cheeringly condescends to, are allowed—to pad out their meager content, strip-mined from tabloids and gossip sites. It’s too bad this next-generation news site has fallen so low as to be a NY Post/TMZ/cable news pastiche. HuffPo once held promise (and still links to some decent stories), but its reliance on celebrity guest posts, unpaid bloggers, and breathy, peek-a-boo slideshows—the #2 story on the site is “Meghan McCain’s Chesty Twitpic: More Scandalous Than These Naked Celebrity Tweets?”—to jack up page views means that the only conversations the site is starting these days begin with eye rolls and end soon after. Just don’t forget to click “Crazy” or “Amazing” to rate a story before closing the browser window. So goes the age of engagement.