Jumping on the Mattress of the Book Review’s Deathbed, Telling It to Get Up

By Neal Comment

The hastily convened Sunday morning BookExpo America panel on the alleged crisis in American book reviewing got off to a slow start; I got in ten minutes late after an oversleep-induced scramble to the Javits and the panelists were still chatting amiably in front of the dais, waiting for people to show up. When National Book Critics Circle president John Freeman finally got the show moving, he started off by announcing that the NBCC had decided to create a new award honoring book review sections as a class. (As Hail Mary conciliatory gestures to the newspaper industry go, I have to say I was rather underwhelmed, but I imagine section editors who are also Circle members will strive keenly to earn the shelf decorations.)

After that, Freeman threw Atlanta Journal-Constitution features editor Melissa Turner to the wolves, inviting her to explain why the paper’s book review editor had her job on the chopping block, which instigated the whole “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing” to start with. Turner set the record straight, clarifying that nobody had been fired, although voluntary buyouts had been offered to several cultural critics. “We’re not changing our book pages,” Turner specified, insisting that the AJC would continue to draw upon wire services for reviews of major books while using local writers to review local books. (My seatmate suggested in a passed note that she was lying through her teeth, telling the crowd what it wanted to hear—a sentiment later echoed loudly by Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carlin Romano, who declared that middle management types “sicken me with their corporate speak.”)

bookexpo-review-panel.jpgOscar Villalon (right) of the San Francisco Chronicle declared that as far as the newspaper industry was concerned, “morale is in the toilet” as reporters and critics faced “the greatest crisis in modern American journalism… and if we go down, the rest of you are going down with us.” The funny thing is, readership is rising even as circulation is dropping; it’s just that the corporations who own the papers haven’t worked out a business model to take advantage of the Internet yet. Maud Newton (center) echoed the point: “Everyone here is talking about the importance of preserving the print culture,” she said, “but how many of us still read the daily paper in print?” Believer editor Heidi Julavits, meanwhile, recognized that she had been awkwardly wedged into the NBCC’s lament for its lost job security, noting that the broader situation involved three distinct declining trends in readership, in the amount of book reviews, and in the quality of literary criticism…and that it was the third that concerned her more than the second. “I don’t know that newspaper coverage has improved my readership at all,” she challenged, “and reviews are not criticism. I see them as essentially Consumer Reports guides.”

photo swiped from NBCC blog

Once the Q&A session came around, I pushed hard on a recurring theme in the NBCC’s campaign, the notion that the loss of newspaper book reviews will likely lead to the decline of literary culture altogether, if not literacy itself. Villalon readily engaged with my main point, which is that the crisis isn’t about what’s happening to book reviewers, but about how they and their editors have failed to maintain a meaningful relationship with their audiences. Book culture is thriving; after all, C-SPAN had a giant bus in the lobby, acting as a flagship for solid weekly coverage of contemporary nonfiction.

My position had been clarified for me by Saturday afternoon’s panel on the future of book culture, where everybody acknowledged that, as Michael Cader put it, “the potential business problem is distinct from the culture of books,” even if not everyone shared his optimism that we were at “the beginning of incredible boundless opportunity.” Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin spoke enthusiastically about how books continue to shape cultural debates, recalling how Tim Flannery‘s The Weather Maker helped bring public opinion around on global climate change (along with Al Gore and Elizabeth Kolbert). “Newspapers are digging their own graves,” he said of the declining coverage. “They should be increasing their book review sections, not decreasing them.” And LA Times Book Review editor David Ulin was clear about where the real blame for that problem lies. “The blogger/book reviewer thing is bullshit,” he said in response to my questioning. “This isn’t an us-and-them situtation, but a conversation.”

Another of Cader’s comments from the Saturday panel resonated after the Sunday cri de coeur from reviewers. “The crowd matters,” Cader said in response to a question designed to provoke panic about the rise of non-critics writing reviews on social networking platforms. “If the demand is there for long, thoughtful criticism, it will be produced.” Sunday panelist Mike Merschel of the Dallas Morning News seemed to grasp that point; he spoke about how he had created a book blog for the paper “in desperation,” trying to drive up his pageviews to keep the section out of the crosshairs, “but the reality is that this is a new way of talking about books.” And Turner allowed that the Journal-Constitution, too, would probably be enhancing its online literary coverage, but given that she’d just started running the features department, she couldn’t tell us how. “We don’t know yet,” she admitted. “We’re looking for ideas.” And that’s the nub, right there: It’s 2007, and many American newspapers are still looking for ideas about how to work teh intarwebs, while reviewers cry out about somebody taking their buckets.