Dec 9, 2013
Goodbye to All That
Posted on Sep 7, 2007
Originally published in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Editor’s Note: Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, will be bringing his talents to Truthdig with weekly book reviews starting in October.
The health of a society is always best measured by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable citizens. The same test may be usefully applied to America’s beleaguered newspapers. Set against the general loss of confidence afflicting the profession is the crisis confronting those few newspapers that bother to regularly review books. Over the past year, and with alarming speed, newspapers across the country have been cutting back their book coverage and, in some instances, abandoning the beat entirely. At a time when newspaper owners feel themselves and the institutions over which they preside to be under siege from newer technologies and the relentless Wall Street pressure to pump profits at ever-higher margins, book coverage is among the first beats to be scaled back or phased out. Today, such coverage is thought by many newspaper managers to be inessential and, worse, a money loser.
Yet a close look at the history of how America’s newspapers have treated books as news suggests that while the drop in such coverage is precipitous, it is not altogether recent. In the fall of 2000, Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, the nation’s preeminent newspaper book section by virtue of longevity, geography, ambition, circulation, and staff, was already lamenting the steady shrinkage of book coverage. “A lot of papers have either dropped book coverage or dumbed it way down to commercial stuff. The newsweeklies, which used to cover books regularly, don’t any longer,” McGrath told a Times insert profiling the Book Review. Indeed, the following April, the San Francisco Chronicle folded its book section into its Sunday Datebook of arts and cultural coverage. The move was greeted with dismay by many readers. After six months of public protest—and after newspaper focus groups indicated the book section enjoyed a substantial readership—it was reinstated as a stand-alone section. (Five years later, it would lose two pages in a cost-cutting move that reduced the section, now a broadsheet, by a third to just four pages.) In 2001, The Boston Globe merged its book review and commentary pages. Today, The New York Times Book Review averages thirty-two to thirty-six tabloid pages, a steep decline from the forty-four pages it averaged in 1985.
That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable cultural threshold has been crossed: whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question. Jobs, book sections, and pages are vanishing at a rate rivaled only by the degree to which entire species are being rendered extinct in the Amazonian rain forest. Last spring, Teresa Weaver, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s longtime and well-regarded book editor, was shunted aside, her original book reviews largely replaced with wire copy. The paper’s editor said without shame or chagrin that the move was part of a more general intent to reconfigure the newspaper’s coverage of arts, including music and dance. Meanwhile, readers of The Dallas Morning News found themselves without a full-time book critic when Jerome Weeks, who had filled the role since 1996, accepted a buyout offer amid a vast restructuring of the paper.
For many writers, this threat to the nation’s delicate ecology of literary and cultural life is cause for considerable alarm. Last spring, the novelist Richard Ford decried the disappearance of book reviews. Michael Connelly, an ex-Los Angeles Times reporter and now a best-selling mystery writer, denounced the contraction of his former paper’s book section. Salman Rushdie, in a rare public appearance, went on The Colbert Report to voice his displeasure. Writers and readers alike signed petitions circulated by the National Book Critics Circle, hoping to reverse the trend. America’s newspapers, they argued, must not be permitted to regard the coverage of books as a luxury to be tossed aside. A widespread cultural and political illiteracy is abetted by newspapers that no longer review books, they charged.
Others, equally passionate, dismiss these concerns as exaggerations, the overblown reaction of latter-day Luddites vainly resisting the new world order now upon us. They foresee—indeed, welcome—an inevitable if difficult adaptation and seek to free themselves of the nostalgia for a past that never was. Newspapers, in this view, are at long last taking steps, however painful, toward a revivified cultural blossoming. James Atlas, a former writer for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and now an independent publisher, embraces the new with all the fervor of a convert. Not only is the future rosy, the present is prelude. As he told the Los Angeles Times in May, “There is intelligent book talk going on at so many levels. It includes much more than reviewers and bloggers. Once technology is discovered, you can’t stop it. We’re going to have e-books. We’re going to have print-on-demand business. We’re going to have a lot more discourse on the Web, and it will become more sophisticated as literary gatekeepers arrive to keep order. The key word is adaptation, which will happen whether we like it or not.” To listen to the avatars of the New Information Age, the means of communication provided by digital devices and ever-enhanced software have democratized debate, empowered those whose opinions have been marginalized by or, worse, shut out of mainstream media, and unleashed a new era of book chat and book commerce.
The predicament facing newspaper book reviews is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: the first is the general challenge confronting America’s newspapers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly absorbing advertising dollars, wooing readers away from newspapers, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.
These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. It would be hard to overestimate the importance in these matters of how books are reported upon and discussed. The moral and cultural imperative is plain, but there may also be a much-overlooked commercial opportunity for newspapers waiting to be seized.
A harsher truth may lurk behind the headlines as well: book coverage is not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers. One is tempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages of America’s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration.
Passion and Obligation
I felt I had no time to waste; life was short and literature long. Moreover, in a nation of nearly 300 million people, you were lucky at most papers to get a column or a half page devoted to book reviews, a virtual ghetto that I had long thought was a betrayal of journalism’s obligation to bring before its readers the news from elsewhere. Only a handful of America’s papers deemed the beat important enough to dedicate an entire Sunday section to it, preeminently The New York Times, The Washington Post,, and the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times, even after its reduction to thirty-six pages, dwarfed the others. It was the paper to beat. My aim was to be three times as good in one-third the space: to boost the nutritive value of each review and deliver to readers a section on Sunday that would be remembered on Monday.
I wanted to edit the Los Angeles Times Book Review in such a way—and with such zeal—that readers might feel the heat of genuine passion for books and ideas in its few pages, which were guaranteed by the paper’s top editors at twelve tabloid-sized pages, but occasionally went up to sixteen, depending on ad revenue (of which there was barely a trickle) or sometimes on special occasions. Above all, I wanted to treat readers as adults, to shun the baby talk that passes for book chat in all too many of America’s newspapers. I wanted to deliver a section aimed squarely and unabashedly at the word-addicted and the book-besotted. To do so, I knew I would have to edit, as Nadine Gordimer once enjoined authors to write, as if I were already posthumous—otherwise I would perhaps lack the necessary courage.
My greatest conceit was my intent to use my new post to answer a single question: Is serious criticism possible in a mass society? If it were possible in L.A., then it would be possible anywhere. I wanted the Book Review to cover books the way the paper’s excellent sports section covered the Dodgers and the Lakers: with a consummate respect for ordinary readers’ deep knowledge and obvious passion for the games and characters who played them. Analysis and coverage in the paper’s sports pages were usually sophisticated, full of nuance, replete with often near-Talmudic disputation, vivid description, and sharp, often intemperate, opinion. Its editors neither condescended nor pandered to those of the paper’s readers who didn’t happen to love sports. No, this was a section aimed directly at fans, and it presumed a thoroughgoing familiarity with the world of sports. Like the Book Review, the sports section was nearly ad-free and yet nowhere was the demand made that the section ought to gear its coverage to encourage advertising from the very teams its editors and reporters were charged with covering. The sports section, like most sections of the newspaper, if one were to have separately totaled up its costs, lost money. The same was true of the Book Review. Nor was the Los Angeles Times alone. This was the case at most of America’s newspapers.
As I prepared to leave the precincts of book publishing for what I saw as simply another station in the kitchen, I discussed my move with Charles McGrath, who in 1994 had left The New Yorker to become editor of The New York Times Book Review. He surprised me by saying he rather envied me my new post, telling me that, unlike himself, I wouldn’t have to try to cover the waterfront. The few pages given to book reviews in the Los Angeles Times, he said, would liberate me from having to provide a full-service consumer guide, which in any case he knew to be a hopeless, even Sisyphean, endeavor.
An unsentimental corollary to his sobriety was presented to me some days later by Joan Didion and her husband, the late John Gregory Dunne. What advice did they have as I prepared to return to my old paper and their former hometown? Didion extended her arm and, gripping my forearm with steel in her fingers, said: “Just review the good books.” I laughed, and she added, “No, I mean something quite specific: Just because a writer lives in zip code 90210 doesn’t mean you have to pay attention. If the work is good, of course, but if it’s second-rate, or worse, don’t give it the time of day. To do otherwise is a formula for mediocrity, for the provincialization of the Book Review.”
She was preaching to the converted. If I had a bias—and I did—it was toward paying attention to the unknown, the neglected, the small but worthy (and all-too-often invisible) authors whose work readers would otherwise not have heard about. Books that had already jumped onto the best-seller lists by writers who had become so-called brand names and who benefited from the enormous publicity machines marshaled on their behalf by established publishers, seemed beside the point. Why bring to readers news they’d already heard?
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