The Death and Life of the Book Review | The Nation


The Death and Life of the Book Review

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It's necessary to explain these broad economic trends to understand a crucial and overlooked point—namely, that it is disingenuous for newspaper executives to justify the elimination or reduction of the book beat by claiming that books sections don't turn a profit. Undeniably, the executives' math is correct. A newspaper books section, if one were to total up its costs, loses money. But does not the sports section or the metro section? Yet of all the sections that fail to turn a profit on their own, it's the books section that is most often killed or pinched. Claims that books sections are eliminated or downsized because they can't earn their keep are bogus. It is indisputable that newspapers have been weakened by hard times and a major technological shift in the dissemination of news; it is not indisputable that newspaper books coverage has suffered for the same reasons. The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves.

About the Author

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

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"Anti-intellectual" is a hefty allegation, but bear with me as I substantiate it with a few stories from the newsroom and observations about the response of newspaper books sections to some important publishing trends of the past several decades. First, a definition. In a news context, "anti-intellectual" does not necessarily mean an antipathy to ideas, though it can be that too. I use the word "anti-intellectual" to describe a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical.

In 1999 Steve Wasserman was three years into his tenure as the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and that July he published a review of Richard Howard's new translation of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma. The reason was simple: Howard is among the best translators of French literature. As Wasserman explained several years ago in a memoir of his days at the Los Angeles Times published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the review of the book, written by Edmund White, was stylish and laudatory. The Monday after the piece ran, the paper's editor summoned Wasserman to his office and admonished him for running an article about "another dead, white, European male." But the paper's readers in Los Angeles thought otherwise. Soon after the review appeared, local sales of the book took off; national sales did too when other publications reviewed the book. The New Yorker ended up printing a "Talk of the Town" item that traced the book's unexpected success to The Los Angeles Times Book Review. In his memoir, Wasserman relates a similar story about Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. "Have you gone crazy?" the editor asked. "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of America's newspapers in the 1990s," Romano reflected, "is their hostility to reading in all forms."

The taboo still exists, and it is sometimes enforced not by other editors but by newspaper books sections themselves. In August 2008 The New York Times Book Review published a piece by Walter Kirn about James Wood's How Fiction Works. Wood is one of our liveliest critics of fiction, and How Fiction Works is his attempt to write something like E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. Kirn's review drips with contempt for Wood's knowledge of his subject. Irked by Wood's readings of great novels by great novelists like Joyce, Proust and Balzac, Kirn attacked Wood for his alleged "genteel condescension," "his donnish, finicky persona," his preference for novels that offer "precision and clarity over mere vigor and potency" and for wearing his knowledge on his sleeve. Kirn belittled Wood's learning, which is to say, his reading; he sounded like a restaurant critic chastising a chef for spending too much time in the kitchen. But there's another twist. Kirn's piece was the cover story of that week's Book Review. An attack on reading was the lead review in the nation's one remaining Sunday books supplement. Kirn wrote the piece, but he didn't put it on the cover. The editors of the Book Review did that, and their decision was a reminder that in its current incarnation the publication resembles the version of the Book Review criticized by Elizabeth Hardwick in Harper's in 1959: "a sort of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally."

Wasserman's and Romano's clashes with their editors point to another symptom of the anti-intellectualism of many newspaper book reviews: their lack of curiosity about works in translation. Translations are occasionally reviewed by newspapers, but generally only if the author of the title under review is a Nobel laureate or a well-known personality in her native country, or when the translation rights to a book were purchased during a bidding war. Being an author from an impoverished, war-torn country or with a melodramatic life story helps too. The latter is one of the reasons the work of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño has been widely reviewed in the United States whereas that of many of his peers in Latin America has not.

There is a translation renaissance occurring in the United States, in both fiction and poetry, of likes unseen since the 1960s and '70s, when American poets translated the work of a great number of European Modernists and Latin American Surrealists. Today's renaissance has been sparked and sustained not only by stalwarts like New Directions, Grove, Dalkey Archive, Metropolitan and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as university presses like Nebraska, Northwestern, Yale and California, among others, but also by a number of small presses launched during the past decade, most notably Archipelago, Ugly Duckling, Melville House and Open Letter. This bears emphasizing because great ages of literature have often been periods of intense translation; as Eliot Weinberger has said, "With no news from abroad, a culture ends up repeating the same things to itself. It needs the foreign not to imitate, but to transform." But today's translation revolution hasn't been televised; it has barely been reported, at least by newspaper books sections.

In his memoir Wasserman explains that enthusiasts of The Los Angeles Times Book Review were always in the minority of the paper's overall readership. Over the course of four Sundays in 2004, of the newspaper's 6.4 million readers, some 1.2 million had read the Book Review. That's 19 percent of the paper's readership, and it made the Book Review the least-read section of the Sunday paper. However, among the paper's well-educated and best-read demographic, the section was a must-read. That readership was small, about 320,000, or 27 percent of the total readership of the Book Review, but it was avid and loyal, and delighted to learn about a new translation of The Charterhouse of Parma. And so, like John Leonard at The New York Times Book Review in the early 1970s, Wasserman brazenly edited against industry prejudices when he ran The Los Angeles Times Book Review from 1996 to 2005. His experience there taught him two lessons. First, that a mass readership will elude any newspaper section in the United States dedicated to the review of books. Second, the lack of mass appeal makes even a vibrant newspaper book review hard to sell to book advertisers because the cost of a single full-page ad in a large newspaper exceeds the promotional budgets for most books.

The near-extinction of newspaper books coverage, and the mediocre quality of what little coverage remains, is indeed a cultural problem, but one that stems more from cultural prejudices and structural problems within newspapers than from any within the culture at large. Indeed, the demographics of Wasserman's readership at the Los Angeles Times are proof that there is a keen appetite for books coverage that offers depth, not breadth; that is selective, not a full-service consumer guide; that is indispensable, not ephemeral; that is of general interest but not mass-market; and that is committed to cultivating an informed, critical community of readers. There is a demand, in other words, for exactly the kind of books coverage offered by magazines.

Nearly five decades ago, a savvy group of writers and editors, among them Robert Silvers, Elizabeth Hardwick and Edmund Wilson, saw the newspaper crisis of their day as an opportunity to capitalize on readership demand. In December 1962 a prolonged printers' strike in New York City removed The New York Times Book Review from circulation. Weary of the tepid fare served by newspaper books sections, Silvers and company took advantage of the Book Review's absence to launch The New York Review of Books in February 1963. Similarly, in 1979 a prolonged lockout at the Times of London kept the Times Literary Supplement out of circulation, its absence creating an opportunity for the launch of the London Review of Books, first as an insert to the NYRB and six months later as a stand-alone publication. The New York Review of Books perseveres as a biweekly magazine of politics and ideas, and last year the LRB, also a biweekly, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary.

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