Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Boo-Hoos for Newspaper Book Sections

Over the past couple of years several newspapers around the country have canceled their book review sections. Book lovers have greeted this development with sorrow, fearing it reflects a decline of reading in the population overall.

Yesterday Kassia Krozser commented on the phenomenon in her Booksquare blog. In "Stop Your Sobbing," she makes some acerbic points I hadn't considered, and her excellent essay gave me a new point of view on the situation. She points out:

[Steve] Wasserman [former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review] seems to put the failure of newspaper books reviews on the shoulders of some sort of anti-intellectual movement. Perhaps instead of blaming the public for a lack intellectual rigor, Wasserman and others should consider their failure to communicate. It isn’t the failure of the citizens of Los Angeles or any other community to read; it is a failure of book review editors to connect with those readers.

Instead of valuing the whole audience, they cherished only a small percentage. This, more than anything, is why book reviews are being cut. Book critics often point to the sports sections of newspapers as low revenue generators. Why isn’t sports coverage being cut?

The obvious answer is that people don’t subscribe to newspapers for book reviews; they do subscribe for sports coverage. Possibly a less examined reason — but one that is often valid when it comes to the Los Angeles Times — is that sportswriting is often more compelling and emotionally engaging than literary criticism. Oops, did I really say that? I think the fact that the section of the paper devoted to good writing is drier than toast is proof positive of every student’s nightmares are about reading.

Where is the passion, the enthusiasm, the joy that comes from reading something wonderful and wanting to share it with the world? Is it completely impossible to be analytical, thoughtful, and interesting? Writing about books should not inspire boredom, it should inspire someone to buy and read books.

* * *

To the book critics of America, I say it’s time to stop your sobbing. If you are as important and relevant as you say you are, prove it.

Food for thought. Certainly, all of us who love genre fiction know that standard book review sources tend to ignore our favorite types of books. As a result, many genre book review sites have sprung up across the Web over the years, some becoming very popular. And of course, we now have the ubiquitous Amazon review, straight from the keyboards of actual readers. (Oh, okay, we have to allow for the sandbagging by authors and their friends and/or enemies....)

The book review is not dying. It's just appearing in other places, and from other sources, than before.


Charles Gramlich said...

I almost never read the formal book reviews that you see in newspapers becaue of just that, they don't review what I like to read, and they often seem quite snobby in what they do review. Who needs it.

Lisa said...

I was initially a bit disappointed at the thought of losing the newspaper book review sections, but so many of them had started to look like big advertisements and so few books got reviewed that over time, I just got my information elsewhere. I usually don't put much stock in Amazon reviews for the reasons you mentioned, but there are dozens of great bloggers talking about books all the time. I find myself relying on them more and more and I suspect that's true of most people who read a lot.

cs harris said...

Yes, I suspect this hits it very well. I usually skim the book sections but rarely see anything that interests me. Most literary fiction doesn't interest me any more than most genre fiction. There was a time when well-written novels also had a good story, and vice versa. Maybe what we need is a third category...