The Death and Life of the Book Review

The Death and Life of the Book Review

Newspaper books sections have been ailing for decades, but there’s no better time than now for writing about books.


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.

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.

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.

"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.

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?

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