By Steve Wasserman
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.
Other papers, including the Raleigh News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, also eliminated the book editor’s position or cut coverage. The Chicago Tribune decided to move its book pages to Saturday, the least-read day of the week. Its book editor, Elizabeth Taylor, ever the optimist, said that the very slimness of the Saturday edition would mean that its few pages would loom larger in the eyes of readers and, with any luck, in the esteem of potential advertisers. In June, the San Diego Union-Tribune killed its decade-old, stand-alone book section, opting instead to move book reviews into its arts pages. And earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times, in a significant retreat from the ambitions that prompted the creation of its weekly Book Review in 1975, decided to cut its twelve-page Sunday tabloid section by two pages and graft the remaining stump to its revamped Sunday Opinion section. The press release announcing the change sought to allay readers’ concerns by proclaiming the paper’s intent to expand online coverage (a task made more difficult by the paper’s reluctance, so far, to add staff, but instead to increase the burden on the Review’s editor and subeditors). The paper also promised to increase the number and prominence of illustrations and photographs, neglecting to note that doing so would further reduce the space allotted for actual words.
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
In the nine years that I was privileged to preside over the Los Angeles Times Book Review (from 1996 to 2005), I grappled with many of these issues. I had a front-row seat at the increasingly contested intersection of culture and commerce. I regularly dealt with such vexing questions as how to balance the reporting of both so-called high and low culture, how to gain more readers and advertisers, how to improve and expand book coverage throughout the pages of the newspaper. It was more than a spectator sport. I was deeply enmeshed in this unfolding drama and had a large stake in its outcome. After all, I had worked for five years as a journalist in the late seventies and early eighties as deputy editor of the paper’s Sunday Opinion section and daily op-ed page. I left to join The New Republic, where I ran its publishing imprint, a joint venture first with Henry Holt and then with Basic Books, departing three years later to become editorial director and publisher of The Noonday Press and Hill & Wang, both divisions of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In 1990, I was appointed editorial director of Times Books, then an imprint of Random House, Inc., and it was there, in my eleventh-floor Manhattan office, one sweltering day in August 1996, that I received a telephone call from my old alma mater—the Los Angeles Times —wondering if I’d return as the paper’s literary editor.
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?
Mass and Class
Besides, review space at the Los Angeles Times, as at all other papers, was tight, making hard choices inescapable. Decisions about which books to review were inherently subjective. Given the avalanche of titles that publishers daily sent my way (nearly one thousand a week), it would be triage every day. Between the Sunday Book Review and the reviews that appeared in the daily paper, we had room enough to note or review only about twelve hundred books annually (The New York Times, by contrast, reviews about three times that number). I would simply have to rely upon my own literary acumen and taste, cross my fingers, and hope that a sufficient number of the newspaper’s readers would find in themselves an echo of my own enthusiasms. I would try to honor what Mary Lou Williams, the jazz pianist and composer, said about her obligation to her audience and her art: “I
keep a little ahead of them, like a mirror that shows what will happen next.”
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.”
Wieseltier’s high-minded sentiments recall the lofty ambitions of Margaret Fuller, literary editor of the New York Tribune in the mid-nineteenth century and the country’s first full-time book reviewer. Fuller, too, saw books as “a medium for viewing all humanity, a core around which all knowledge, all experience, all science, all the ideal as well as all the practical in our nature could gather.” She sought, she said, to tell “the whole truth, as well as nothing but the truth.” Hers was a severe and sound standard—one that American journalism would only rarely seek to emulate.
For the most part, early newspaper book reviewing, where it was done at all, was a dreary affair. And discerning observers knew it. In a 1931 assessment of the state of book coverage, James Truslow Adams complained in The Saturday Review of Literature that “mass production journalism is doing much to lower the status of reviewing.” Nearly thirty years later, little had occurred to revise that judgment. Elizabeth Hardwick’s coruscating essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” appeared in Harper’s Magazine in October 1959. She called for “the great metropolitan publications” to welcome “the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting.” Her plea fell on deaf ears.
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.
In the fall of 1996, as news of my appointment as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review was made public, I attended a reception and party at the New York Public Library to mark the centenary of The New York Times Book Review. One hundred years after Adolph Ochs started a separate book review supplement as one of his first acts after buying The New York Times in 1896, his descendants gathered to toast a visionary who had done his utmost to ensure that his newspaper would be peerless far into the future as the indispensable chronicler of a city he believed destined to become the financial and cultural capital of the twentieth century.
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.
I knew very well when I took the job at the Los Angeles Times that getting ad revenue from publishers was all but hopeless. I had had to make tough decisions as a publisher myself about where to place ads and, for most books, buying ads in the Los Angeles Times didn’t make sense. The cost for a single full-page ad in its Book Review exceeded the entire advertising and promotional budgets for the vast majority of all books published. Given a choice between advertising in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, publishers invariably and sensibly went for The New York Times. After all, The New York Times made sure that more than seventy-five thousand copies of its Sunday Book Review were separately available in bookstores across the country. Individual subscribers accounted for another twenty-eight thousand copies. In an industry where fifty thousand copies of a book sold within three weeks of publication is enough to make a book a national best-seller, any instrument of publicity that reasonably assures that the news of new books will get into the hands of readers disposed to buy them will always have pride of place with potential advertisers. That is why the prospect of commanding the attention of the one hundred thousand or so readers and separate subscribers to The New York Times Book Review offers the single most compelling reason for publishers to advertise in its pages (and to pay a premium for doing so) while ignoring the exorbitant fees more local papers charge. The Times offers a national audience in multiple markets and assures delivery to dedicated readers. Local papers can’t compete by offering meager coverage whose few pages are lost within the circulars and inserts of the typical Sunday paper.
During the years I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review, it lost about a million dollars annually. The pittance the section received in the early years of my tenure, from the ads supplied chiefly by Barnes & Noble and Crown Books, dried up when B&N made a strategic decision to pull the bulk of its advertising from book sections in favor of placing ads in main news sections, and when Crown Books, owned by the feuding Haft family, declared bankruptcy. Nothing that has occurred in the more than two decades since Shaw’s 1985 survey suggests that book reviews are clinging to life on anything other than the sufferance of their respective papers’ managers. And now that support, always precarious, is at ever greater risk.
The argument that it is book sections’ lack of advertising revenue from publishers that constrains book coverage is bogus. Such coverage has rarely made a dime for newspapers. Nor will it. Book publishers have scant resources; their own profits are too slim and, besides, newspapers charge too much for them to afford significant print advertising. Just to pay for the real estate in the chain stores consumes a huge chunk of a publisher’s advertising budget. Moreover, their own marketing surveys consistently show that most people who buy books do so not on the basis of any review they read, nor ad they’ve seen, but upon word of mouth. What’s worse is that most people who buy books, like most people who watch movies, don’t read reviews at all. For those who do, however, reviews are an invaluable way of eavesdropping, as it were, on an ongoing cultural conversation of critical importance.
The obligation of America’s newspapers to cover this conversation—to cover the news of books—ought not to depend on the dollars that are (or are not) to be derived from publishers’ ads in the book supplement. It’s beside the point. Of course, if one were to make profit the measure of such coverage, then the model to be emulated is less that of the typical newspaper and more the model of a magazine like The New York Review of Books, the most profitable and erudite and influential review publication in the history of modern American letters. It enjoys a readership of 280,000—readers who remain loyal to its unflaggingly high standard—and has been in the black for nearly forty years.
At the Los Angeles Times, as at other newspapers, readers of the Book Review were a minority of the paper’s overall circulation. Internal market surveys at the Times consistently showed the Book Review to be the single worst-read weekly section produced by the paper. I was neither surprised nor alarmed. Since most people didn’t read books, I figured of those who did, only a fanatical few would go to any great length actually to read about them. The regular consumption of book reviews is an acquired taste. Since 1975, when the Book Review was created as a separate section at the Los Angeles Times, it had almost always been the least-read section of the Sunday paper. This was so at other newspapers as well.
This unhappy fact bears scrutiny. Among the paper’s most well-off and best-read demographic cohorts—whose members arguably make up any book review’s ideal readers—the Sunday Book Review was among the more favored of the weekly sections of the Los Angeles Times. Ed Batson, the paper’s director of marketing research, told me that in 2004 some 1.2 million people had read the Book Review over the past four Sundays out of 6.4 million readers. The core readership of what Batson called the paper’s “Cosmopolitan Enthusiasts” amounted to about three hundred and twenty thousand avid and dedicated readers for whom the weekly Book Review was among the most important sections of the paper. It was, in part, because of the devotion of this core readership that when, having survived three editorial regime changes, I chose to leave the Times in 2005, I believed that my work there had driven a wooden stake through the idea that no one reads or cares about serious criticism in L.A.
If newspapers properly understood such readers and the lifestyle they pursue, they would, in theory, be able to attract advertising from a diverse array of companies, including movie companies, coffee manufacturers, distillers of premium whisky, among others. Diversification of ad revenue is a key component of a winning strategy of growth. But apart from The New York Times, no newspaper has dedicated sales reps whose sole job is to sell space for book ads. And even The New York Times, with three such reps, finds it hard to drum up significant business.
It is an unfortunate truth that a mass readership will always elude any newspaper section dedicated to the review of books. Nevertheless, I was convinced that because readers of book reviews are among a paper’s best-educated and most prosperous readers, it might be possible to turn a cultural imperative into a profitable strategy. Such a strategy would require commitment and vision from the overlords of the newspaper—qualities that, if history is any guide, are always in short supply.
News That Stays News
The real problem was never the inability of book-review sections to turn a profit, but rather the anti-intellectual ethos in the nation’s newsrooms that is—and, alas, always was—an ineluctable fact of American newsgathering. There was among many reporters and editors a barely disguised contempt for the bookish. Even for those few newspapers that boasted a separate book section, book reviewing was regarded as something of a sideshow. It simply wasn’t at the beating heart of the newsroom. Careers were advanced by shoe leather, not by way of the armchair. The suspicion was strong among reporters and editors alike that anyone with enough time could read the pages of a book and accurately report its contents. Such a sedentary activity, however, was a poor substitute for breaking news and getting scoops.
Carlin Romano, the book critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, ran up against this widespread prejudice time and again. “I remember once putting on the cover of my section a translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic, on the dubious argument that maybe, you know, it’s the next Cervantes and it will endure in the culture.” (Published in 1490, Tirant Lo Blanc had, in fact, strongly influenced Cervantes when he wrote Don Quixote a century later.) “I got called into the office on that, and someone said, ‘Have you gone crazy?’” Romano goes further: “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of American newspapers in the 1990s is their hostility to reading in all forms.” This is the taboo that dares not speak its name.
I wanted to say goodbye to all that. Where everyone else was going faster, shorter, dumber, I was intent upon going slower, longer, smarter, on the perhaps foolhardy presumption that there were enough adults out there in Newspaper Land who yearned to be spoken to as adults. During my years at the helm of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, I always did have an Ideal Literary Editor in my head. I often tried to imagine what I might do if I had been, say, the literary editor of The Times of London in 1900 when a then-obscure Viennese doctor named Sigmund Freud published his first book, The Interpretation of Dreams. Suppose I’d had on my desk only two books—Freud’s and, say, the next surefire best-selling novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward, the Danielle Steel of her day. Space is, as ever, limited. Mrs. Ward’s publisher has announced an unprecedented first printing of one hundred thousand (the equivalent of at least a half million today) while Freud’s book will start off with well under a thousand copies (of which it will take his independent publisher the next six years to sell a paltry 351 copies). I have to choose which to review. I like to think I would have chosen the Freud. I like to think that I would have had the perspicacity to ask George Bernard Shaw to undertake it. And I like to think that I would have asked Shaw to write a long essay—some 2,500 words, more if he thought it warranted—in which he would declare the book a masterpiece, of lasting merit, and predict that it would go on to influence the whole of the twentieth century. As indeed it would. Who, today, remembers Mrs. Humphry Ward? Or, for that matter, the editor who chose her book over Freud’s?
From time to time, occasions for such choices presented themselves during my tenure as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. To be honest, it was less a matter of serendipity than my own willfulness. Two instances stand out. In 1997, Penguin announced that it would be releasing a volume of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s selected writings. Years ago, Carlos Fuentes had told me of this remarkable seventeenth-century Mexican nun and poet. I had never heard of her. Nor was I alone. Much of her work had yet to be translated into English, even some three hundred years after her death. It was, Fuentes said, as if Shakespeare had still to be translated into Spanish. The whole of Spanish literature owed a debt to her work. Thus I decided that an anthology of her writings, translated by the excellent Margaret Sayers Peden, and published under the imprimatur of Penguin Classics, ought to be treated as news. Big news. After all, about a quarter of the readers of the Los Angeles Times had Latino roots.
Octavio Paz, Mexico’s greatest living poet and critic, contributed a lengthy essay praising Sor Juana. But when I showed the color proof of the cover to my superiors, I was met with baffled incomprehension. Sor Juana who? A nun who’d been dead for almost half a millennium? Had I taken complete leave of my senses?
Dispirited, proof in hand, I trundled up to the paper’s executive dining room to brood upon the wisdom of my decision. When Alberto Gonzalez, the paper’s longtime Mexican American waiter, appeared to take my order, he exhaled audibly and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” “You’ve heard of her?” I asked. “Of course. Every school child in Mexico knows her poems. I still remember my parents taking me as a small boy to visit her convent, now a museum. I know many of her poems by heart.” At which point, in a mellifluous Spanish, he began to recite several verses. So much for my minders, I thought; I’m going to trust Alberto on this one.
After Paz’s paean appeared, many people wrote to praise the Book Review for at last recognizing the cultural heritage of a substantial segment of the paper’s readers. Their response suggested that the surest route to connecting with readers was to give them the news that stays news.
In 1999, Modern Library announced the imminent publication of a new translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma by Richard Howard, America’s most gifted living French translator. Such a translation of one of the classics of Western literature was, I felt, news. And so I commissioned a lengthy essay by Edmund White which turned out to be so laudatory that I published it prominently in the Sunday Book Review. The next morning, Michael Parks, then the editor of the entire paper, waved me into his office as I happened to walk by. With one eyebrow cocked, he looked at me and said with a kind of weary bewilderment: “Steve, Stendhal? Another dead, white, European male?” I explained my reasons. He didn’t seem convinced.
Readers all over Los Angeles, however, came to my aid. Thanks to them, the Stendhal was flying out of local bookstores and rising steadily on the paper’s best-seller list. Our review was followed by considerations in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review. Sales took off, prompting The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town to print an item tracing the trajectory of the book’s unexpected success and crediting the Los Angeles Times for having helped to spark the sudden national interest.
The prospect of running the Los Angeles Times Book Review was irresistible. I was also convinced that the moment was ripe, that Los Angeles had long ago shed the fetish of its provincialism. It was now a big, grown-up metropolis, no longer afraid to wear its neuroses on its sleeve. I also suspected, as The Wall Street Journal would report in a front-page story in 1998, that America was “increasingly wealthy, worldly, and wired.” Interest in the arts was booming. I could see that notions of elitism and snobbery were collapsing upon the palpable catholicity of a public whose curiosities were ever-more diverse and eclectic. The percentage of Americans attending the performing arts was rising dramatically. Movies like Shakespeare in Love and The Hours (and in later years Babel and Pan’s Labyrinth) that might once have been consigned to art-house ghettos were now finding both a mass audience and Oscars.
Regional theaters and opera companies blossomed even as Tower Records closed its doors. CD sales might have been slipping, but online music was soaring. Almost ten years later, Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s new general manager, understands this cultural shift better than most and launched a series of live, high-definition broadcasts of operas like Puccini’s Il Trittico and Mozart’s Magic Flute shown at movie theaters across America. His experiment was a triumph, pulling in thousands of new viewers. As Alex Ross reported in The New Yorker, Gelb’s broadcasts “have consistently counted among the twenty highest-grossing films in America, and have often bested Hollywood’s proudest blockbusters on a per-screen, per-day average. Such figures are a timely slap in the face to media companies that have written off classical music as an art with no mass appeal.” The truth is that many people everywhere are interested in almost everything.
Thanks to Amazon, geography hardly matters. It is now possible through the magic of Internet browsing and buying to obtain virtually any book ever printed and have it delivered to your doorstep no matter where you live. This achievement, combined with the vast archipelago of bricks-and-mortar emporiums operated by, say, Barnes & Noble or Borders or any of the more robust of the independent stores, has given Americans a cornucopia of riches. To be sure, there has also been the concomitant and deplorable collapse of many independent bookstores—down by half from the nearly four thousand such stores that existed in 1990. Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary American bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. You would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer.
This is, strangely, a story that has not received near the attention it deserves. And yet its implications are large, especially if papers are to have a prayer of retaining readers and expanding circulation. There is money to be made in culture, if only newspapers were nimble and imaginative enough to take advantage of the opportunities that lie all around them.
Yet the opposite appears to be the case. In 1999, Michael Janeway and András Szántó directed a year-long study of how America’s newspapers covered the arts. Their conclusion: poorly. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and based at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the study found that straightforward listings of upcoming events make up “close to 50 percent of arts and entertainment coverage” and that “in-house staffing and resources have not been increased to match an explosion of arts activity.” The report noted that “the visual arts, architecture, dance and radio get only cursory coverage” and that “the daily Arts & Living section lags behind both business and sports as a priority on almost every newspaper, both in its allotment of pages and staff.” Yet, by almost every measure, Americans are a people who spend vast amounts of time and income pursuing leisure activities of all kinds, including reading. Sure, book sales might be down nationally and serious reading a minority pursuit, but other indicators suggested a persistent and passionate engagement with the written word.
By the early years of the twenty-first century, for example, book clubs had grown to an estimated five million members. Brian Lamb’s CSPAN-2 airs in-depth, commercial-free interviews with and readings by nonfiction authors round-the-clock every weekend. And even in Los Angeles, a city notorious for making a fetish of the body and eschewing the life of the mind, interest in books flourishes. I found myself returning to a Los Angeles in which more bookstores were thriving than ever before in the city’s history. Indeed, in some years the average per-capita sales of books in the Los Angeles metropolitan region had often exceeded—by some $50 million—such annual sales in the greater New York area.
It’s almost enough to give one hope. This apparent utopia of readers, however, masks a bitter truth: the arts of reading are under siege. In June 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released the findings of an authoritative survey based on an enormous sample of more than 17,000 adults. Conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and spanning twenty years of polling, it showed that for the first time a majority of Americans no longer had any interest in what, broadly defined, might be called literature. That is to say, 53 percent of Americans claimed, when asked, that in the previous year they had not read a novel, play, or poem. This was true for all classes and categories, whatever their age, sex, education, income, region, race, or ethnicity. Still, despite the growth in the population of the country, the survey found that the overall number of people reading literature remained stable at about 96 million between 1982 and 2002. Interestingly, the west and northeast regions of the country had the highest reading rates. It wasn’t at all clear why, and the report didn’t say. Nor did the survey ask whether or not these same Americans had read history, biography, or self-help, the chief subjects that have historically engaged Americans’ attention.
Serious reading, of course, was always a minority taste. We’ve known that ever since Dr. Johnson. “People in general do not willingly read,” he said, “if they can have anything else to amuse them.” Today, the entertainment-industrial complex offers a staggering number of compelling alternatives. A substantial number of Americans—scores of millions—are functionally and seemingly happily illiterate. Many more can read but choose not to. Of those who do, most read for the entirely understandable pleasures of escaping the drudgeries of daily life or for moral, spiritual, financial, or physical self-improvement, as the history of American best-sellers suggests. The fables of Horatio Alger, the platitudes of Dale Carnegie, the nostrums of Marianne Williamson, the inspirations of such secular saints as Lee Iaccoca—all are the golden jelly on which the queen bees of American publishing have traditionally battened.
Obsessive devotion to the written word is rare. Acquiring the knowledge and technique to do it well is arduous. Serious readers are a peculiar breed. Elizabeth Hardwick, for one, has always known this. “Perhaps the love of, or the intense need for, reading is psychological, an eccentricity, even something like a neurosis, that is, a pattern of behavior that persists beyond its usefulness, which is controlled by inner forces and which in turn controls.” For this kind of reading is a profoundly antisocial act: it cannot be done in concert with friends; it is not a branch of the leisure industry, whose entertainments, whether video or computer or sports or rock ’n’ roll, can be enjoyed in the mass. How many times, for instance, did you ever say as a child: “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m reading?”
Twenty-five years ago, the distinguished editor and publisher Elisabeth Sifton announced the discovery of what she dubbed Sifton’s Law: “There is a natural limit on the readership for serious fiction, poetry and nonfiction in America that ranges, I would say, between 500 and 5,000 people—roughly a hundred times the number of the publisher’s and the author’s immediate friends.” Sifton’s Law was a gloss on Dwight MacDonald’s puckish speculation of the late 1940s in which he supposed that there were only about five thousand people interested in serious writing. The problem, he observed two decades later, was that it was likely the same five thousand but they were all getting quite a bit longer in the tooth.
That suspicion could not have surprised the folks at the Book-of-the-Month Club. They had long been monitoring the steady decline in Americans’ reading habits. Back in the middle of the Great Depression, long before the advent of television, much less the Internet, the club had hired the Gallup organization to survey reading habits among Americans. In 1937, Gallup found that only 29 percent of all adults read books; in 1955, the percentage had sunk to 17 percent. Fifteen years later, in 1970, the club evidently no longer could bear to know, and Gallup stopped asking. True, the total income of American publishers continued to rise, but that happy news concealed a more troubling reality: profits reflected inflationary costs passed along in higher list prices, while the number of readers flocking to bookstores continued to decline. That is still the case.
The terrible irony is that at the dawn of an era of almost magical technology with a potential of deepening the implicit democratic promise of mass literacy, we also totter on the edge of an abyss of profound cultural neglect. One is reminded of Philip Roth’s old aphorism about Communism and the West: “In the East, nothing is permitted and everything matters; in the West, everything is permitted and nothing matters.” In today’s McWorld, the forces seeking to enroll the populace in the junk cults of celebrity, sensationalism, and gossip are increasingly powerful and wield tremendous economic clout. The cultural conversation devolves and is held hostage to these trends. The corporate wars over who will control the technology of newsgathering and electronic communication and data and distribution are increasingly fierce. Taken together, these factors threaten to leave us ignorant of tradition, contemptuous of the habits of quality and excellence, unable to distinguish among the good, the bad, and the ugly.
But perhaps this is too bleak a view. After all, 96 million readers is a third of the country. As John Maxwell Hamilton, a longtime journalist and commentator on Public Radio International’s Marketplace, writes in his irreverent and trenchant book, Casanova Was a Book Lover, “People who care about books care profoundly. What they lack in numbers they make up for in passion. A typical mid-1980s study illustrates the fidelity of readers to reading. Only half of the American public, the study found, had read at least one book in the past six months. Of those ‘readers,’ however, almost one-third devoured at least one book a week.”
And the book itself—compact, portable, sensuous—has yet to be bested as our most important information-retrieval system. Even Bill Gates, that Yoda of the virtual world, has been unable to resist its seductions. When, in 1996, he wanted to tell us about “The Road Ahead,” to commit the vision thing, what did he do? He had the Viking Press publish his book. He did not post his Delphic pronunciamentos on his Microsoft site. For Gates knew then—as he knows now, despite his recent insistence that the digital future will carry the day—that the book still retains the patina of authority that only time and tradition can bestow.
What matters in this Kulterkampf is a newspaper’s ambition, its business acumen, and its cultural imagination. It’s a question of allocation of resources, of what a paper’s owners and editors think is important for readers to know. It is a question of what, in the judgment of the paper’s minders, is news. It’s a question of respect for ordinary readers’ intelligence and their avidity for culture. Famously, books contain news that stays news. I believed when I was editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review—as I believe now—that there is no more useful framework for understanding America and the world it inhabits. It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring.
Readers know that. They know in their bones something newspapers forget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs. I shall never forget overhearing some years ago, on the morning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a woman asking a UCLA police officer if he expected trouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, “Ma’am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs.” There was more wisdom in that cop’s remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal justice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies since time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books.