Tue May 15 2007
If you've been reading The New York Times or listening to Leonard Lopate's NPR show, then you've probably heard the bad news: A number of newspapers are cutting back on their books coverage, including The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Recently, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dismissed the editor of its books section; that paper will now siphon most of its book reviews from the wires.
These cutbacks are clearly reprehensible, and anyone who cares about the public discussion of literature should be happy that the National Book Critics Circle—currently led by TONY contributor John Freeman—has launched its bluntly titled "Campaign to Save Book Reviewing," circulating petitions and printing testimonials by bigwig book-review boosters. It will also host a number of panel discussions at next month's Book Expo America. (To find out what you can do, click here.)
What's annoying is that this attempt to save well-circulated literary coverage has come embedded with some seriously hokey antiblog sentiments. "Personal blogs, unedited Wikipedia entries and MySpace pages are no substitute" for the writings carefully edited and published in newspapers, author Adam Hochschild recently warned on the NBCC website. The Washington Post's Michael Dirda sniffs: "If you were an author, would you want your book reviewed in The Washington Post and The New York Review of Books—or on a website written by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler or Biografiend?" Outdoing everyone is Lay of the Land author Richard Ford, who, after stating that he's never looked at a book blog, told The New York Times that he feels that "newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership, in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn't."
Sure, there's a fussy '50s vibe to some of this snobbery, as if too much book-blog reading will rot your brain or cause hair to grow on your palms. But what seems especially lost on Ford & Co. is that too much responsibility can become a real millstone, and if bloggers occasionally decide to cast caution to the wayside, that might not be such a bad thing for books.
To put it another way: When was the last time you were truly surprised by Sunday book review in The New York Times? Probably not when it published its list of the 25 best novels of the past quarter century, which was dominated by Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and John Updike. That's an extreme example, but their Notable Books list had a similar predictability, one that blogger (and occasional TONY contributor) Jessa Crispin sums up here.
Book reviews should cover popular authors. But it wouldn't hurt them to give serious attention to a few more off-the-beaten-path works. If literary bloggers do their part, they might help point the way out of the ruts in which print-media book reviews sometimes appear to be stuck.