It’s Not Just a Book Review Crisis

By Neal Comment

If you’ve been following the “Campaign to Save Book Reviews” at Critical Mass, the blog that trades off the prestige of the National Book Critics Circle even as NBCC officers are careful to disassociate themselves from its more controversial outpourings, you’ve gotten a steady stream of information about their scramble to save the job of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution book review editor, Teresa Weaver. But the NBCC’s narrowly focused coverage, and its high-profile petition rallying around Weaver, may have kept many of us outside Atlanta from realizing the true severity of the situation. As Steve Dollar (a former AJC critic himself) writes for Musical America, other AJC writers have been deemed redundant, including the critics covering classical music and the visual arts. Although the theater and food critics are safe for now, Dollar reports, “everyone else, including such workhouse types as pop music critic Nick Marino, was required to reapply for jobs which may—or may not—be similar to their present assignments.”

I accept that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the NBCC’s not mentioning any of this since it first took up Weaver’s cause in mid-April: It is, after all, the National Book Critics Circle, and their reaction to Weaver’s plight is shaped by related difficulties at other newspapers across the nation. That said, if the crisis in cultural journalism is not limited to literary criticism, we need to see more explicit acknowledgment of that. Instead of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra having to create a separate petition to save the classical music desk, why aren’t we hearing about one big movement to save as much arts coverage as possible?

Instead, the NBCC has provided us with lopsided commentary that emphasizes the culturally healing power of literature at the expense of all the other arts, like Richard Ford‘s assertion that without Weaver’s book reviews, Atlanta “could very easily be a wasteland.” (And maybe I’m just riding the bitter bus to my basement in Terre Haute, but I get a perverse glee out of noticing that Ford blamed the problem on “the nouveau riche people” controlling the paper, apparently not aware the paper is a holding of Cox Enterprises, a media conglomerate owned by two sisters in their mid-eighties* who inherited the family business from their father, who bought the Journal in 1939 and the Constitution in 1950.) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette book critic Bob Hoover is one of the few NBCC posters to acknowledge that “newspapers have not really targeted book pages specifically” and “every section has taken a hit, except sports.” If it’s important for book review editors and reviewers to reappraise their role in the current media infrastructure, perhaps it’s equally important that they stop treating their dilemma as an isolated tragedy, and start brainstorming with a wider group of people about how to ensure the continued viability of their professions.

*Preparing this post over the holiday weekend, I was not aware of the death of Barbara Cox Anthony Monday, and regret any awkwardness the oversight may have caused readers.

One potential source of inspiration, if you can get past the typeface, is a recent note from comic book writer Warren Ellis to his fan base about the web as a “packeted medium” of information bursts. “Bursts aren’t contentless, nor do they denote the end of Attention Span,” Ellis advises. “If attention span was dead, JK Rowling wouldn’t be selling paperbacks thick enough to choke a pig, and Neal Stephenson wouldn’t be making a living off books the size of the first bedsit I lived in.” But the success of boingboing and the iTunes Store should, he argues, be taken as a big hint: “If your concept of a magazine is something designed in one-page bursts, or three pages that only carry 500 words due to the mass of images, then, really, you’re not doing anything the web can’t do better, are you?”

Yes, I know (and Ellis knows) that the model he proposes doesn’t work for longer articles. But it does offer food for thought in terms of the actual word count for most newspaper- and magazine-based cultural criticism. I’m not saying it’s the answer, just something to mull over.