Isaac Fitzgerald came to BuzzFeed Books from McSweeney’s. Before that he was at literary site the Rumpus, where he’d already proven himself to be a savvy identifier of excellent writers (think: Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed) and a strong editor. In his time at BuzzFeed, he’s proven this countless times over by consistently running some of the best essays on difficult topics (please read Jenny Zhang’s “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” and Saeed Jones’s “How Men Fight for Their Lives”), and is a tireless advocate for the writing and writers he believes in—exactly what an editor should be. Also? He’s really fun to drink with.
You are the editor of BuzzFeed Books; can you tell me a little bit about how you got that job, and what having that position and BuzzFeed’s platform means to you? I’ve been at BuzzFeed for a lil’ over two years now and it has been a tremendous experience. Before moving to New York City for this job I was living in San Francisco, where I worked at McSweeney’s and before that oversaw The Rumpus, an online cultural magazine, for four years. I started at The Rumpus in 2009, at a time when people were afraid that the internet would destroy reading and ebooks would replace physical books. But the publishing industry has always been concerned about its own demise. When the printing press was invented, I’m sure there were monks who were like, “nah, eff that shit, hand-painted books are the only real books.”
Working at The Rumpus meant giving attention to books that maybe weren’t on top of the New York Times bestsellers list, but it also meant reassuring everybody that everything was going to be okay—that reading mattered and would always matter. And it does! Yes, some of the giant booksellers like Borders have gone under, but we’ve also seen a revival of the independent bookstore, and Pew Research Center recently released a report saying that the youth of today are reading more than adults.
The past two years at BuzzFeed have allowed me to bring that sense of optimism to a larger audience. I’m incredibly proud of how many people read BuzzFeed Books, and of the amount of work that we publish, from recommendation lists to quizzes to powerful essays by authors we absolutely love. I’m lucky to have grown up reading, and it’s my love of reading that drives me and my many colleges who help make BuzzFeed Books great. Such as Deputy Books Editor and all around rockstar Jarry Lee, and Saeed Jones, Executive Editor of Culture, who, along with Karolina Waclawiak, Deputy Editor of Culture, will soon be launching a new section of the site focused solely on personal and reported essays, original poetry, and fiction. At BuzzFeed, not only do we encourage and create communities of readers, we get to foster and bring into being all kinds of writing that’s worth reading.
Cultural communities don’t necessarily have to be defined by a place, and yet it’s hard to deny the overwhelming presence of the media and literary world in Brooklyn. What do you think some of the benefits and/or detriments there are to having such a tight-knit (geographically and otherwise) cultural group? Having moved to Brooklyn from San Francisco, a city I love with a vibrant literary community, I do have to say that being at the center does have its advantages. Since coming here, I’ve met more folks and done more readings than ever before, and I’ve also had the honor of being in discussion with many of my literary heroes: Margaret Atwood, Paul Beatty, Hanya Yanagihara, Alexandra Kleeman, Junot Díaz, Stephen King, James Hannaham, and numerous others. Let’s be clear—lots of the folks I just named don’t live here. But they do come here, and that’s the key. If anything, it can be overwhelming, the numerous readings and events and conversations that this incredible city offers up. As with anything, it’s important to pace yourself. Which can be hard because it’s so goddamn exciting to meet all these people who up until moving here I mostly interacted with online. In fact, every few months I organize a drink-up at the High Dive in Park Slope, bringing everyone together so we get to see each other face-to-face. New York City certainly does have writers piled one on top of the other, but no matter where you live, you can always find writers and readers to bring together. Everyone everywhere writes.
You’re a tireless promoter of good work, and I know many people (including me) who have discovered wonderful writers through you; can you explain at all what it is about someone’s work that really catches your attention? What, or rather whose, work is exciting you right now? If you haven’t already picked up a copy of Helen Oyeyemi’s short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours you should immediately do that. I’m also incredibly excited about Manuel González’s The Regional Office is Under Attack!, which I just devoured—it reminded me that reading can be FUN (an hugely important fact that is vital for one to remember from time to time). Two authors whose books I loved recently have also written fantastic essays for BuzzFeed Books: John Wray, author of The Lost Time Accidents, and Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman. You can check out their essays here and here.
When it comes to recognizing good work, there’s no algorithm or formula. I read a lot and I like what I like. Luckily I work with numerous folks who also love books, so there are other folks on staff who advocate for books that they love, which helps a lot with any blindspots I might have. Every week, a staff member will review a book of their choosing for our BuzzFeed Books Newsletter, which has over 200K subscribers.
Giving authors an immense, incredible platform like BuzzFeed is still one of the biggest thrills I get from this job. Last year, during the Best American Poetry controversy, Jenny Zhang published her essay “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist,” I’m obviously biased, but I think it was one of the most important essays published in 2015, and I’m proud to say that this brilliant, in-depth, over-5,000-word-long piece on racism and contemporary poetry reached more than half-a-million readers. My mission at BuzzFeed Books is to help people who are passionate about books discover new writers that they’ll love. And the flip-side to that is my mission to help authors who I admire and I respect find the largest audience they can.
You recently started a podcast with your BuzzFeed coworker Summer Anne Burton; what is it about that medium that appeals to you? I was late to the podcast game, not even listening to one until BuzzFeed started putting out Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton’s absolutely brilliant Another Round. I get to work with Summer Anne, who is not only one of my favorite coworkers but also definitely up there just in terms of ~people who rule~ along with our amazingproducer Meg Cramer (who really is a magician when it comes to finding the main threads in the hour-and-a-half of tape we dump in her lap). But as much as I love hearing new stories and having guests on who are most often people I’ve looked up to for a very long time, the thing that really appeals to me is that it’s a new sandbox to play in. A medium that’s totally alien to me. I like the challenge of trying to figure it out.
What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to doing most? The other day, somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. So I searched deep inside myself to find the answer, and happily enough, it was… This. This is what I want to do when I grow up. I’m already doing it. I get to experiment with some of the most hilarious and brilliant people I know, on a site read by millions of people. I get to champion books I love and edit and work with writers who truly inspire. I get to make mistakes and still ride a skateboard when I want and never even think the phrase “suit and tie” unless I’m going to a wedding. Will I get to do this forever? Certainly not, everything is temporary—I’ve learned as much over the years. But for now, what I’m “looking forward to doing next” is going to work.