Last week wasn’t a good one for lovers of literature. In the course of just two days, the country lost one of its most notable men of letters—someone who both wrote books and wrote about them—and one of its most important repositories of book reviews.
The fact that John Updike, who died January 27 at age 76, spent so much of his time reviewing books rather than writing more novels says something about how important he considered literary discussion and debate. We’re likely to see less of both with the announcement that the Washington Post is ceasing publication of its Sunday stand-alone book review section. The last issue of Book World will be published February 15. After that, book reviews will be moved to the paper’s Outlook and Style & Arts sections, though they will be collected together in one books section online.
It’s no surprise in this economy that a newspaper must find ways to cut back. But it is shocking that the major newspaper in the capital of the free world—the city recently declared the third most literate in the country—and one of the few newspapers to claim a national readership, will no longer offer its subscribers a dedicated books section.
“The advertising in Book World didn’t justify the amount of space that we dedicated each week to books coverage,” Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, who is just months into the job, told the New York Times. That’s a strange way to explain killing off your literary supplement. Such sections have never garnered much advertising—publishers don’t have that much to spend on publicity. And who would have thought that newspapers decided what to cover based solely on whether those subjects brought in advertising dollars? I don’t see the Post ending its coverage of the mess in the Middle East because there there’s not enough advertising.
Though publishers are going through difficult economic times, too, there’s clearly still a market for book reviews. The New York Times Book Review, now one of two remaining stand-alone book sections, has, in addition to those who get the entire Sunday Times, 23,500 subscribers of its own; bookstores sell another 4,200 copies. Book World isn’t as big—or as good—as the NYTBR. But it is a worthy second in the world of newspapers, and has one of the best critics in the country in Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda. Its fiction editor, Ron Charles, received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle—just days before the Post made its announcement.
There might even be a growing market for just the kind of supplement the Post is now shuttering. The National Endowment for the Arts, which regularly asks Americans how much they’re reading, found for the first time in its survey’s history that the overall adult literary reading rate has risen, with young adults showing the most rapid increase. One wonders if the country will continue to make such gains as readers learn just how important the nation’s opinion-makers consider the world of letters.
Because that’s what a printed, stand-alone book review says. Some observers didn’t think the Post’s move was especially noteworthy. Writer Sarah Weinman, who reviews books for the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times, thought the shuffle of reviews to the style and opinion pages was an opportunity for the literary world to engage with the larger world. Even Rachel Shea, the editor in charge of the Post’s book coverage, seemed pretty indifferent, saying, “It’s nice to have a separate section with big display and a big shout-out to what the most important book is. But it’s not worth gnashing our teeth about too much.”
Weinman makes a good point. Perhaps book reviews inside other sections will garner more readers. But there’s little question there will be fewer of those reviews. Marcus Brauchli has already admitted that “clearly there will be somewhat less room.” Every single newspaper that has made the same decision as the Post—and a number of papers have done so in the last decade—has ended up reducing, sometimes drastically, the number of reviews it publishes.
That means there will be a lot less discussion about literature and the crucial things it explores. More and more newspapers are relying on wire services and reviews from the NYTBR. One day, only a handful of people might still be making their living talking about books. This won’t just affect what some might see as the rarified world of book criticism. Some of the best debates I’ve seen about the Iraq War and its aftermath, for example, took place in the letters sections of the NYTBR and Book World. I learned more from the back-and-forth of these forums, with specialists correcting specialists, than I did from all my reading of the Post’s reporters.
Of course, it’s not just the current economic crisis that’s made newspapers like the Post look for ways to trim budgets. Readers have been making an exodus to the Internet for years now. Terry Teachout is one critic who thinks the Post simply “decided to bow to the inevitable” by shuttering Book World in print, but keeping it going online. We now live in an age, as Weinman points out, in which readers, and consumers of all stripes, search out what they want, rather than wait to see what they’re offered. Literary bloggers are perfectly suited to this change. They write as book lovers for other book lovers. As blogger Mark Sarvas has noted, their readers are more likely than casual Sunday supplement readers to actually buy a book whose review intrigued them.
I’m a regular reader of such literary blogs, but I think their work supplements, rather than replaces, old-school book reviews. Most bloggers write on their own time, and don’t get paid for it. So they tend to write about their enthusiasms, picking up the books they think they’re most likely to enjoy. It makes sense—why waste your time reading things you probably won’t like, especially if you’re not getting paid to do it? Literary bloggers are wonderful for learning about new authors to read, but they’re not quite as good for learning about what authors to avoid. Most of them also don’t have the audience that, say, the Sunday Post has. They simply don’t reach as many people—and given the audience they do reach, they’re mostly preaching to the converted, people who already know how important literature is to society.
They also don’t yet have the authority that big-name critics at big-name newspapers have —or at least used to have. Edmund Wilson, perhaps the greatest literary critic of the twentieth century, introduced Americans to Vladimir Nabokov and gave wider exposure to the literary modernists. There are few, if any, critics with such power today.
That’s because in our increasingly egalitarian society, the critic is quickly becoming obsolete. It’s not just book critics that are a dying breed—over the last few years, film critics, television critics, and other arbiters of taste have seen their jobs scaled or cut back. Why pay to get someone’s opinion when you can go on the Internet and get a whole lot of opinions free? Amazon, more than any other institution, has democratized the book review business. You can look up a book, see what dozens or even hundreds of people think about it, and purchase it right on the same page. None of these people are paid for their work. Most people don’t seem to care what the critics think anyway—many, if not most, of the New York Times bestsellers are books that the Times won’t even review. It’s the same in most artistic fields. The critically-slammed Paul Blart: Mall Cop was the number one film in America two weeks in a row. Critics don’t have the authority they used to—if they ever really had much.
Some cheer this development. After all, those stuffy book review sections often ignore the books most people like to read—genre fiction, for example. But the populist reviewers on Amazon—like literary bloggers—are no replacement for professional critics. For one thing, you never know if Amazon reviewers have an interest in the book they’re discussing. Amazon no longer allows completely anonymous reviews, but you still don’t have to use your real name. We’ve all heard of the many cases in which authors were discovered to have given their own books five-star reviews and their competitors’ one-star reviews. They also tend, like bloggers, to write about what they’re already interested in. According to the Wall Street, Journal, Amazon’s most famous reviewer, Harriet Klausner, belongs to the “‘if you don’t have anything nice to write, don’t write anything at all’ school of literary criticism.” And, obviously, Harriet Klausner is no Edmund Wilson. No matter how enthusiastic she is about some obscure writer, she’s not going to make his reputation the way Wilson did for writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Professional reviewers spend their lives reading, studying, and thinking about books. You can follow their careers, recognizing what background and (perhaps even more useful) what prejudices they bring to their work. One newspaper critic used the Internet to bring this knowledge directly to readers. The Post’s Michael Dirda for years ran a weekly chat devoted to books. There must be countless people who have picked up novels by lesser-known writers like John Crowley, Barbara Pym, John Dickson Carr, and many others, because of his advice. The Post cancelled those chats last year, which is one reason I’m not optimistic about what kind of books coverage the Post plans to offer its readers online. I do know, though, that what Dirda gives his readers is something different than what Harriet Klausner gives hers. Both serve a useful purpose. But one of them might soon be extinct.
-Kelly Jane Torrance is an arts and entertainment writer at the Washington Times and fiction editor of Doublethink.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire