Dec 12, 2013
Goodbye to All That
Posted on Sep 7, 2007
Mass and Class
My mission, I was told by Shelby Coffey III, then the paper’s editor and the man who hired me, was to focus on books as news that stayed news—books whose pertinence was likely to remain fresh despite the passage of time. Reasonable people might reasonably differ, of course, on how best to do this. But doing it properly, we agreed, meant exercising both literary and journalistic judgment, spurning commercial pressures, eschewing the ostensibly popular in favor of work that would be of enduring worth—insofar, of course, that one can ever be sure of the future’s verdict from the decidedly imperfect vantage point of the present. I knew this ambition would likely incur the unremitting hostility of the samurai of political correctness, whether of the right or the left, as well as the palpable disdain of newspaper editors who had convinced themselves that the way to win readers and improve circulation was to embrace the faux populism of the marketplace.
In this view, only the review (or book) that is immediately understood by the greatest number of readers can be permitted to see the light of day. Anything else smacks of “elitism.” This is a coarse and pernicious dogma—a dogma that is at the center of the anti-intellectual tradition that is alive and well within America’s newspapers. It is why most newspapers barely bother with reviews. And it is why most newspaper reviews are not worth reading. I sought to subvert this dogma. Of course, ideally I wanted what Otis Chandler in his heyday had wanted: mass and class. But if it came down to a choice between the two, I knew I’d go for class every time. In literary affairs, I was always a closet Leninist: better fewer, but better.
Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor for nearly twenty-five years, has rightly observed that if “value is a function of scarcity,” then “what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers.” He is among the few who have chosen to resist what he condemns as “the insane acceleration of everything,” and prefers instead to embrace the enduring need for thought, for serious analysis, so necessary in an increasingly dizzying culture. Wieseltier knows that the fundamental idea at stake in a novel—in the criticism of culture generally—is the self-image of society: how it reasons with itself, describes itself, imagines itself. Nothing in the Eros of acceleration made possible by the digital revolution banishes the need for the rigor such self-reckoning requires. It is, as he has said, the obligation of cultural criticism—and is that too fancy a word for what ought to be everywhere present in, but is almost everywhere wholly absent from, the pages of our newspapers?—to bear down on what matters. It is a striking irony, as Wieseltier points out, that with the arrival of the Internet, “a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.”
But soon she would have a chance to take matters into her own hands. Little more than three years later, during the New York newspaper strike begun in December 1962, Hardwick and her then-husband, the poet Robert Lowell, would help found The New York Review of Books, whose first issue appeared in February 1963. Hardwick and her co-conspirators, including Jason Epstein, founder of Anchor Books at Doubleday and an editor at Random House, and his then-wife, Barbara, were fed up with the idea that books could be adequately discussed in reviews hardly longer in length than several haikus stitched together. To properly elucidate significant books one needed elbow room, as it were, to stretch out with an idea. One needed a certain rigor. What serious readers craved and what the editors of the Review would provide would be reviewers, often poets and novelists, scholars and historians themselves, who had earned, as Hardwick put it, “the authority to compose a relevant examination of the themes that make up the dramas of current and past culture.” Further, the editors of the NYRB proclaimed, in a credo published in the first issue, that they would not waste time or space “on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud.” The NYRB was intended as an exercise in literary hygiene. Today, the Review’s original editor, Robert B. Silvers, who had asked Hardwick to write her essay for Harper’s Magazine nearly fifty years ago, remains at its helm.
The NYRB, alas, was a singular intervention in American letters, and its appearance did little to elevate the ossified and blinkered coverage of books in newspapers. The truth is that there never was a golden age of book reviewing in American newspapers. Space was always meager and the quality low. Nearly a quarter century ago, according to a 1984 study in the Newspaper Research Journal, the average American newspaper used three-quarters of a page to one page a week for book reviews. At the time, about fifty thousand books were published annually. (Today, it is more than three times that number.) The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times each reviewed about fifteen hundred to two thousand of them. Other major papers—the Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald—reviewed about six hundred to twelve hundred each. Most papers averaged far fewer reviews—about three hundred each. Only three papers thought such coverage warranted an entire, separate Sunday section.
In 1999, Jay Parini, a distinguished critic, poet, and novelist, issued a grim assessment of the state of contemporary newspaper book reviewing. “Evaluating books has fallen to ordinary, usually obscure, reviewers,” he observed in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Too often, the apparent slightness of the review leads inexperienced reviewers into swamps of self-indulgence from which they rarely emerge with glory.” Moreover, the very brevity of most newspaper reviews “means one rarely has enough space to develop an idea or back up opinions with substantial argumentation. As a result, reviews are commonly shallow, full of unformed or ill-formulated thoughts, crude opinions, and unacknowledged prejudices.” The result, Parini concluded, is all too often a mélange of “ill-considered opinion, ludicrously off-the-mark praise, and blame.” How little newspaper book coverage had changed. Thirty-six years earlier, disgust with the same ubiquitous, thin gruel had prompted Edmund Wilson to declare in the second issue of The New York Review of Books: “The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printers’ strike only made us realize it had never existed.”
Mark Sarvas, among the more sophisticated of contemporary literary bloggers whose lively site, The Elegant Variation, offers a compelling daily diet of discriminating enthusiasms and thoughtful book chat, recognizes the problem. In a post last spring about the fate of newspaper reviews, he wrote: “There’s been an unspoken sense in this discussion that Book Review = Good. It doesn’t always—there are plenty of mediocre to lousy reviewers out there, alienating (or at least boring) readers. Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports. And every newspaper covers the same dozen titles. There’s much talk about the thoughtful ‘literary criticism’ on offer in book reviews but you don’t get much of that literary criticism in 850 words, so can we stop kidding ourselves?” But neither does Sarvas find such criticism on the vast Democracy Wall of the Internet, which he is otherwise at pains to promote. He confesses that, for him, the criticism that counts is to be found in the pages of such indispensable publications as The New York Review of Books or the pages of the upstart Bookforum.
What Sarvas is reluctant to concede but is too intelligent to deny is what Richard Schickel, the film critic for Time magazine, eloquently affirmed in a blunt riposte, published in the Los Angeles Times in May, to the “hairy-chested populism” promoted by the boosters of blogging: “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.” Sure, two, three, many opinions, but let’s all acknowledge a truth as simple as it is obvious: Not all opinions are equal.
Moreover, the debate over the means by which reviews are published—or, for that matter, the news more generally—is sterile. What counts is the nature and depth and authority of such coverage, as well as its availability to the widest possible audience. Whether readers find it on the Web or on the printed page matters not at all. Content rules.
As I greeted Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who had only recently been named publisher, succeeding his father, he congratulated me on my own new post. I drew him aside, thinking to take advantage of the opportunity to ask him whether or not The New York Times Book Review, the beneficiary of a disproportionate share of book publishing ads by virtue both of its location in the capital of American book publishing and its national distribution, had ever made any money. It had long been rumored in publishing circles that it did not. But who really knew? He looked at me evenly and said, “I think, Steve, someone in the family would have told me if it had.” He then said that in the previous year, if one were to have added up the staff’s collective salaries (there were then more than twenty full-time editors), the cost of health care, the combined expense of printing, production, and distribution, payments to contributors and illustrators, among other sundry expenses, the section had lost millions.
Readers of The New York Times have inarguably benefited from the enlightened views of the paper’s owners and editors who have always understood the importance of providing readers with news of the most important and entertaining books being published in the country. They also regard the Book Review as something of a loss leader, appealing to the best-educated and most prosperous of the paper’s readers, many of whom they rightly presume will go wandering among the Ralph Lauren ads in the money machine that is the paper’s Sunday magazine. In his illuminating 1985 three-part series in the Los Angeles Times on how newspapers go about reviewing books, David Shaw, the paper’s late Pulitzer Prize-winning media correspondent, quoted Mitchel Levitas, then the editor of The New York Times Book Review: “We lose money, and we always have, but I don’t know how much.”
At the time, Levitas’s section at the Times had a staff of twenty-one, The Washington Post had four, and the Los Angeles Times made do with two full-time editors. Shaw reported that in the mid-1980s, The Washington Post was losing nearly $1 million a year on its Sunday book section. In 1985, the San Francisco Chronicle was expecting to lose just under a quarter million dollars on its weekly twelve tabloid pages devoted to books. Levitas’s boss, Abe Rosenthal, then the executive editor of The New York Times, declared he neither knew nor cared if the Book Review lost money. “You can’t expect a payoff on reviewing books anymore than you can expect a payoff for covering foreign news,” he told Shaw. Such a view seems a relic from the Pleistocene Era.
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