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.
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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.