The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently laid off its book editor, and, as layoffs tend to do, the downsizing spread panic and dread throughout the workers who still have jobs. Newspapers are full of news about how newspapers across the country are reducing the space devoted to reviewing books. The latest report is in the New York Times, which has started to publish book reviews in its Sunday Arts section, possibly a sign that the Book Review is about to get phased out. Motoko Rich's article is mum on that development, but the article is blunt about the prospects for book reviews in large-circulation dailies:
For those who are used to the old way, it’s a tough evolution. “Like anything new, it’s difficult for authors and agents to understand when we say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not going to be in The New York Times or The Chicago Tribune, but you are going to be at curledup.com,’ ” said Trish Todd, publisher of Touchstone Fireside, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. “But we think that’s the wave of the future.”
The disappearing newspaper book review has less to do with the state of contemporary American literature than the state of the American newspaper, which is pretty dismal. While the trend toward eliminating newspaper book reviews is matter of concern, it's really more of a marketing issue than a literary one.
But if book reviews get reduced to the space, say, now reserved for TV reviews, what will really be lost? Traditional book reviews tend to be bland--tepid in their convictions and gentle in equal measures in their praise and criticism. On the whole they're not as well written as film reviews, although they're probably taken more seriously. Only rarely do they offer any kind of interpretive analysis, and almost never do they broach the larger issues invoked by the books they consider. Too often newspaper book reviews are really just consumer guides to buying books. How much do they really add to the public sphere?
It hardly needs restating that the most important recent development in the public sphere in this country is the emergence of the blogosphere. Yet casting the decline of the newspaper book review as a battle between print media and bloggers oversimplifies a broader trend. Maud Newton, who, along with Jessa Crispin, is among our best literary bloggers, said of the decline of the traditional book review, “I find it kind of naïve and misguided to be a triumphalist blogger But I also find it kind of silly when people in the print media bash blogs as a general category, because I think the people are doing very, very different things.”
Blogs are just one venue for a revived and expanded public sphere. During a discussion of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children on Slate's Audio Book Club, Stephen Metcalf mentioned that he thought intellectual culture in the United States was moving outside the academy and into the public sphere centered around a newly revived urban culture. This is a percipient observation, one that I've been meaning to look into further. In any case, this development in the intellectual life of the country, if it's in fact happening, is larger than newspaper book reviews. That Metcalf's idea appeared in the context of a podcast published by an exclusively online journal is indicative of a positive change in how we work together to understand our own culture. Where would that idea ever have appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution?