The Death and Life of the Book Review | The Nation


The Death and Life of the Book Review

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Wading through the year-end newspaper and magazine digests of politics and culture usually makes for dreary reading, and last year was no exception. Some writers struggled to wring a drop of good news from the decade. Others strode to the bar and leveled indictments. Either way it was a bad patch, an impossible task. Glossing ten years of history in snippets of 300 or 500 words, the writers performed an exercise bound to turn any observation about a low, dishonest decade into the perfect expression of it.

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John Palattella
John Palattella is literary editor of The Nation. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications,...

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Seeking some solace I picked up a book, and in a matter of minutes I read the following passage:

Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books.

The sense of impoverishment before an overabundance of information; of helplessness before the need to spot relevant material in a slurry of ephemera; of vertigo provoked by the realization that "the present" is becoming overwhelmingly, annoyingly accessible—many of us, I'd wager, have had these reactions after reading those year-end digests or spending just a modicum of time online. Now anyone is free to print whatever they wish. This could be someone kvetching about blogs, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube or Twitter, and in not 500 words or 300 but nine. Except it wasn't. The jeremiad was the handiwork of Niccolò Perotti, a learned Italian classicist, writing to his friend Francesco Guarnerio in 1471, less than twenty years after the invention of the printing press.

This anecdote does not suggest that past is prologue but rather underscores the importance of thinking historically, of taking a long view when trying to understand changes in deeply engrained patterns in literary culture. I stumbled upon Perotti's plaint in Robert Darnton's essay collection The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (2009). Rejecting the commonplace notion that digital technology has ushered in a new era, "the so-called information age," Darnton argues that every age in which a new technology has altered forms of writing and communication has been an age of information, and that in every such age "information has never been stable." There is continuity to the history of technological transformations, Darnton suggests: what is everpresent is the experience of rupture. Anthony Grafton, another historian of the book, makes a similar point in "Codex in Crisis," from his recent essay collection Worlds Made by Words (2009): "The current drive to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical projects in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up, but in one more in a series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive and flourish." The point impresses because one of its implications is that a technological innovation, whether the printing press, the telegraph, the television or a digital device, though it delivers information in a new form, is not necessarily the root cause of problems with—or controversies about—reading and writing that have arisen in its wake.

I'd like to talk about a meltdown, one that's occurring not on Wall Street but Grub Street, that storied realm of writers, booksellers, bohemians and hacks. Though the problems on Grub Street are slight compared with the hardships that have befallen millions of people thanks mostly to Wall Street, they are matters of cultural importance. On Grub Street, for nearly a decade, and especially during the past four years, people have been wailing, rending their garments and otherwise voicing their displeasure over the deterioration of books coverage in the United States. (The meltdown on Grub Street coincided with the release of the Kindle in 2007, but the gales of anxiety and gusts of delirium stirred up in book publishing by digital readers are a different story.) The laments have focused mostly on newspaper books coverage because, rightfully or not, it has long been regarded as an accurate barometer of the delicate climate of literary life. Who hasn't heard someone in a bookstore or a friend ask, "Have you read that novel the Times Book Review raved about"?

That a steep erosion in newspaper books coverage has occurred is undeniable. Newspapers that have killed or drastically reduced coverage during the past few years include the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to name just a few. But this decline, though severe, has not been sudden, nor limited to newspapers. With the exception of The Nation, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Atlantic and Harper's Magazine, weeklies and monthlies began rolling back books coverage in the 1990s. As for newspapers, there's no better example of the long contraction than The New York Times Book Review. When the critic and novelist John Leonard edited the Book Review in the early 1970s, an era generally regarded as its golden age, on some Sundays he could count on having a canvas of at least eighty pages. In 1985 the Book Review averaged forty-four pages; two decades later, it was averaging thirty-two to thirty-six, and in recent months its average size has vacillated between twenty-four and twenty-eight pages. The Book Review is still the country's most visible newspaper books section, but there is not much to read in it.

Some questions, then, to serve as boundary stones for the ramble ahead: Is it true, as many people who have commented on the matter have claimed, that the recent decline in newspaper books coverage is a problem for the culture at large, and also representative of larger cultural problems? Are review sections disappearing or shrinking because they can't turn a profit? Or is it because they can't compete with material originating on the web? Why are weekly and monthly magazines, despite producing a bounty of thoughtful essays and reviews about books, generally left out of the conversation about books coverage? And finally, as for quality books coverage— by which I mean not reviewery but scrutiny, the deliberate, measured analysis of literary and intellectual questions without obvious or easy answers—can such coverage originate online and also find a loyal audience there?

The newspapers that many of us, or many of our parents, grew up reading were a product of the sweet spot of the twentieth century—the postwar boom. By midcentury, the occupation of newsgathering had been thoroughly professionalized, and during the following three decades abundant ad revenue enabled newspapers to expand their newsrooms and to increase the quality and quantity of news coverage. Between 1964 and 1999, the volume of news published by some metropolitan papers doubled. The dimensions of the news changed too. As Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson explained last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, during the boom years newspapers began to gravitate away from a longstanding preoccupation with government and with pegging coverage to specific political events; papers still worked those beats, but they also began to cultivate "a much broader understanding of public life that included not just events, but also patterns and trends, and not just in politics, but also in science, medicine, business, sports, education, religion, culture, and entertainment."

In some cases newspaper editors were reacting to the lessons of the civil rights and women's movements: politics isn't the exclusive domain of white men; the personal is political. In other cases editors were reacting to changes in the media market. They had to slow or reverse the loss of readers turning to broadcast or cable television for news, or to magazines that offered depth instead of breadth; they also had to renew their appeal to readers whose news diet had changed since leaving the city for the suburbs. And so newspapers endeavored to broaden their readership by adding or expanding coverage of business, sports, health, real estate, food and film. And books. The Los Angeles Times Book Review was launched as a twelve-page Sunday tabloid section in 1975. The Washington Post Book World debuted as a Sunday tabloid section in the 1960s; it was folded into the paper in the mid-1970s, only to be resurrected as a stand-alone publication in the early 1980s. (Neither exists today.) The New York Times Book Review is not a boomer but a centenarian. It has been a section of the paper since Adolph Ochs bought the Times in 1896. Nevertheless, the rest of the Times is a boomer. In the early 1970s managing editor Abe Rosenthal redesigned the paper to expand arts, science and business coverage and to introduce ad-friendly service sections.

Although newspapers, in print or online, remain the country's primary source of news, their economic base has been undermined by the Internet. Obviously, the digital realm's pernicious culture of free content as well as low barriers to entry for businesses and low-cost advertising have broken the grip of newspapers on audiences and advertisers. Newspapers began losing national and retail advertising with the advent of broadcast television; as a response they doubled down on classified ads. During the past decade they lost much of the classified market to websites like Craigslist. Instead of charging for news online, newspapers pillaged themselves and offered news for free as a way to attract readers and advertisers. There was an uptick in ad revenue in the early to mid-2000s, but it leveled off with the recession; and even at its peak the tiny sums from online ads fell short of recouping the lost revenue from print advertising. With their balance sheets in turmoil, newspapers began to scale back news coverage and reduce the size of the newsroom.

The postwar newspaper hasn't gone the way of the carrier pigeon. A few large metro and national dailies still devote considerable resources to investigative features and accountability reporting. They still cultivate a news judgment focused on a public agenda and oriented toward the general reader. Such journalism is essential—and expensive. Paying for it means deciding not to pay for something else, and at many papers that something else is books coverage.

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