The Death and Life of the Book Review
We are in the throes of another newspaper crisis, yet nothing comparable to the NYRB or the LRB has emerged, in print or online, even though there is, I believe, a genuine hunger for serious books coverage. There is also a deep sense of inertia. For example, in early 2007, as each week or month brought more bad news about a newspaper books section being downsized or killed, the National Book Critics Circle, the professional association for book reviewers, announced a Campaign to Save Book Reviewing. Panels were convened in New York City, Washington and other cities. The lasting result of all this group therapy has been the launch of a dismal blog called Critical Mass, which is used primarily to promote the work of NBCC members published in other venues. It's as if the NBCC had noticed a hole in a dike, and instead of trying to repair it or leading the charge to high ground, it offered swimming lessons at a deep discount.
A century ago, newspapers were the new media of the era, and they upended the presentation of words as much as the web has in our own time. Newspapers appeared in multiple editions, tracking the developments of a story throughout the day. Multiple headlines on the front page competed for a reader's attention; images jostled against text, and ads against articles. Magazines like The Atlantic, Harper's and, by the 1920s, The New Yorker, were not as protean as newspapers, but they also mixed commerce with culture, and their substantial advertising revenues and weekly or monthly frequency provided their editors and art directors with creative liberty and time enough to devise combinations of word and image more artful than the layouts of any newspaper. As Grafton writes in "Codex in Crisis," the "newspapers and magazines of the early years of the century did not have the near-total flexibility of the modern Web site, and their readers could not skip from one hot link to the next [but] their juxtapositions of serious and trivial contents, and their ability to confront readers with the shock of the new were as widely noticed—and sometimes as forcefully deplored—by contemporaries as similar features on the Web." In some ways, Grafton points out, "the world of writing has not so much been transformed" by the web as restored to a ghostly, hyperactive version of the newspaper world of the early twentieth century.
Despite the great newspaper die-off, the newspaper sensibility is experiencing a second life online. Scandals, economic meltdowns, political gaffes, policy debates, data in the form of polls or government agency releases, campaigns and elections—such are the beats and resources of news sites like Talking Points Memo, which combines narrative journalism and aggregation with reporting, some of it investigative, and relies on the involvement of a loyal audience with a lot of enthusiasm and expertise. In the world of politics, newsworthy stuff happens every hour of every day; there's a lot to cover, and the web allows someone like Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, to publish what is essentially a rolling edition of a small daily newspaper devoted to politics.
By contrast, writing about books and ideas that favors deliberate and measured analysis of questions without obvious or easy answers is an approach best suited to magazines, which is one reason nothing like the NYRB or the LRB has originated on the web. In her 1959 Harper's essay about book reviewing, Elizabeth Hardwick called for books sections to welcome "the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting." That is a wonderful, immodest proposal, one I never let out of my mind. It does not describe the books coverage available at Tina Brown's Daily Beast or many books blogs, where when people aren't posting capsule reviews they are writing about book deals, price wars over e-books between Amazon and publishers or the latest industry gossip. Journalists have long been enthralled by the buzz and glamour of book publishing, but as a subject it is a poor substitute for quality books coverage. One exception is the Barnes & Noble Review, a web-only venture that generally avoids gossip and trade talk. It is better edited than any newspaper books section, but it also happens to be owned by the country's largest corporate chain bookstore. Neither the quality of its reviews nor the generosity of its writers' fees can expunge from its pages its innate commercialism.
There is reason to worry about the future of literary journalism, and magazine journalism in general. One reason is the economics of electronic publishing, that delirious world of commerce into which many print magazines have channeled time, money and expectations for the past decade. Speed is king in the digital realm, the theory being that maximizing traffic by posting a daily flurry of stories is the best way to attract readers and, in turn, advertisers. But according to "Magazines and Their Web Sites," a survey undertaken by the Columbia Journalism Review of 665 consumer magazines with websites, speed can warp journalistic standards. "Most magazines have less rigorous copy-editing and fact-checking online than in their print editions," explain Victor Navasky and Evan Lerner, the report's editors. The mindset of these publications is that "if the number of 'eyeballs' trumps the quality of copy presentation, and produces minor factual errors, so be it." On the web, the value of speed is commercial more than journalistic. Quantity beats quality; being first beats being the best. Speed is confused with timeliness, and the value of timeliness is debased by the obsession with mere speed.
But speed, it turns out, is commercially overrated. According to the CJR study, the financial dividends of speed have been lackluster: 68 percent of the magazines surveyed reported that advertising is the primary source of revenue for their website, yet only a third of those websites earn a profit. Well into the second decade of magazines' online existence, websites have expanded the readership of magazines without, in the large majority of cases, improving their balance sheets, and the added visibility has been purchased on the cheap with inferior journalism. The CJR survey raises a fundamental question about magazine websites: does a failing business model centered on advertising suggest that there is no viable business model?
Aggravating matters is the culture of free. Readers are accustomed to viewing content gratis on the web, but free is not a good price for publishers, editors or writers. Of course, newspapers and magazines are partly to blame for having taught the public to expect free material online. Equally culpable are editors who justify not paying online contributors on the grounds that their articles provide them with invaluable exposure. (Try paying rent with exposure.) As James Rainey remarked several months ago in the Los Angeles Times, "the technology providing the world entree to an unimaginable trove of art, images and information is also obliterating the boundaries that once allowed the creative class to make a living." On the web, we are all interns now.
A second reason for worry is changes in reading habits. Grafton explains in "Codex in Crisis" that "the newspapers and magazines of the years around 1900 coexisted with more stable forms of writing—above all the serious book—and presupposed the superiority of engaged, informed study of texts even when they did not promote it. By contrast, the hot link and the search engine seem to symbolize a particular postmodern way of approaching texts: rapid, superficial, appropriative, and individualistic." On the web, the prevailing practice among readers, especially young ones, is dipping, cross-checking and power skimming. "Most students begin their searches for information at Google, rather than a library Web page that lists more refined search engines," Grafton explains. "Those who consult e-book sites stay on them for an average of four minutes."
I confess to asking more than four minutes of readers. Quality books coverage is based in the sensibility of print—what the book editor Elisabeth Sifton calls "its relative slowness," and its scope, complexity and authority. For me that involves editing a magazine section about books that is like a library: a disciplined but welcoming locale, its columns stocked with resources that allow for deliberation and raucous debate and sustain a diverse public of serious, passionate readers. It aims to be up-to-date without necessarily being topical, and unscarred by the arcane discourses of academic theory or the patronizing platitudes of punditry. It aims to ask important questions rather than propose easy answers; to abjure posturing and mere position-taking in favor of analyzing the twisted arcs of suffering and liberation that span modern history and politics; to treat the realm of imagination no less seriously than the realm of fact, never forgetting that imagination is not free from fact even though it may resist its pressures. It aims to be a meeting place for writers aspiring and established, each an inspiration for the other.
Despite the turmoil and doubts, I think there's no better time than the present to be covering books. The herd instinct is nearly extinct: newspapers inadvertently killed it when they scaled back on books coverage en masse; and the web, for all its crowds and their supposed wisdom, is a zone of unfederated cantons. The field is wide open. If you can't take chances now, if in such a climate you can't risk seeking an air legitimate and rare, when can you?