Want to Save Book Sections? Write Better Reviews

By Neal Comment

William Skidelesky, the deputy editor of the Prospect, offers a British perspective on the “crisis” in book reviewing, that flowering of American book reviewers’ “anxieties about the vitality of literary culture, the relationship between print and digital media, even the long-term survival of book-reading itself” we’ve all come to know and love—so much so that the National Book Critics Circle is sponsoring yet another “Crisis in Literary Criticism” panel discussion Friday afternoon at the AWP conference. (Although, in all fairness, they probably had to come up with a title for the proposal last spring, when their panic was in full bloom.) “In Britain, so far, there haven’t been any similar eruptions of concern,” he observes:

“On the face of it, book reviewing in this country is in fairly robust health… if anything the trend has been for papers to expand their books coverage, with several—notably the Guardian and the Times—launching stand-alone books sections that are sort of mini-literary magazines in their own right. Newspapers have proved adept at co-opting new trends in book reading and commentary: some have launched literary blogs and book clubs; many sponsor prizes and festivals. A lively chatter surrounds the British book scene, of which newspaper review sections are a central part.”

A lively chatter, that’s the key phrase. To their credit, many American newspapers and magazines are recognizing that their readers want to take part in a conversation about books, and are creating their own spaces to host those conversations, instead of just ceding the territory to bookbloggers and other parties. Because, as Skidelesky quotes British writer Susan Hill, “the lazy, stuck-in-the-mud, cliquey literary editors, and/or mandarins are now almost totally irrelevant,” and something had to emerge to take their place. Skidelesky does see a similar “crisis” looming on the horizon for the British media, but he offers thoughtful suggestions on how to avoid the worst of the what’s happened in the States—the cuts in coverage and the overwrought handwringing that accompanied them—focusing primarily on the idea that literary journalism really needs to get a lot better if it’s going to be genuinely compelling to readers.