Rumor has it that I’m going to be on News Hour with Jim Lehrer tonight. I’ll be talking about the demise of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Eight minutes isn’t near long enough to cover a topic this broad; it’s barely enough to get started with the conversation.
Yesterday was the last day for the dedicated book review, and it makes me sad to know it’s gone, but if you didn’t see it coming, you weren’t paying attention. To blame the Internet for the demise of the LATBR is to address part of the problem. Yes, book lovers are increasingly online, and one key reason, as I’ve said many times, is because the LATBR simply didn’t serve its community. There are other forces at work as well.
Let’s start with one absolute truth: Sam Zell has no business owning a newspaper. When he bought the Tribune company, I knew it was going to be bad, and it’s worse than even I’d imagined. This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper and has had some of the best reporting of its tenure in the past decade or so. The LAT has incredible writers on its team. They’re going to kill this paper because they don’t understand the news business. It’s going to be an expensive mistake for Zell and a huge loss for the community.
Another truth: the Tribune/Zell companies simply didn’t do a good job of migrating the newspaper to the web. For many years, they saw the Internet as competition. Then they tried to recreate the look and feel of a newspaper online. Then, well, who knows? Ask people who use the LAT website, and you’ll hear a lot of frustration. In 2008, the paper can’t even get search right. Steps are being made in the right direction, but the incessant focus on paying back Sam Zell’s loans at the expense of the actual newspaper isn’t going to help the LAT.
I am, as we all know, an elitist (who is doing the white girl terrorist fist bump), but I’m also a realist. Those who believe the death of the LATBR is a heresy note that the the sports section does not make any money (it does seem to generate some advertising), though that’s a false argument. People subscribe for the sports coverage. I believe that if the sports section were cut, we’d hear a massive hue and cry, with a commensurate level of unsubscribes. The sports section serves its community.
We’re not getting that with the LATBR cut, and I believe it’s because the section was not valuable to most readers. Look at the demographics of the city, the general readership, and while it’s nice to have a dedicated section of the newspaper targeted toward a narrow section of the population, it’s hard to justify from a numbers perspective — even before the Zell era, this was an issue.
While I want to believe Steve Wasserman’s (who is also a guest on the program, and I regret that we were different studios and didn’t meet in person) number of 300,000 avid weekly readers, I just can’t. I often fall back on my real reader example, and the real readers I know (who aren’t in the industry, as we know it) really don’t turn to the LATBR. Yet they are avid about (literary) fiction, in touch with what’s hot, and buying books at prices the industry desires. They’re getting their information — and discourse — from other sources. I mean, it was hard enough before the Current/LATBR thingy to find the section. If I didn’t get to the paper first and very carefully cull the section from the ads, then the husband would have tossed it with the rest of the stuff that didn’t look like newspaper.
The LATBR managed to improve somewhat under David Ulin, but the section was killed before he could make an impression. It really died a long time ago. But I still maintain that a book review section in a major newspaper should be reflective of the subscriber base, even if it’s trying to maintain a certain level of discourse; you have to bring the larger audience in, even a little bit, if you want to expose your conversation beyond the choir.
I believe that the greatest failure of the LATBR was its inability to convince more citizens of LA that it had value to them — it’s possible to have serious literary discourse side by side with a little bit of what a friend described as the People model. I don’t believe that making the section more relevant for a broader readership is the same thing as dumbing it down. Smart readers should be courted, not locked out.
As we all know, smart women read romance. And literary fiction. And mystery. And science fiction. And a whole lot of other stuff. And women buy more books than men. The LATBR often felt like a gentleman’s club — the books reviewed, the reviewers, the subject matter. This is largely reflective of it top editorial staff, but it’s also a reflection of the value placed on “women’s” fiction and issues. Some weeks it was if there was a “No Girls Allowed” sign on the LATBR.
Is it so much to ask that the book review section of our common newspaper brings those aspects of reading life together? The failure, if I can put it in overly simplistic terms, was to convince the romance reader who likes literary fiction that there was cool, exciting stuff to be found in the LATBR. This is the reader who’d be excited to find new books, but that reader who picked up the weekly review and found this weird no man’s (or no woman’s) land [see note below]. If there was a bridge, even a small bridge, imagine how things would be.
It’s fine to have a high level of discussion about books, but I think it’s equally important to have the discussion in a way that feels inclusive. The Wasserman et al letter reminded me of the conversation this industry had a year ago. There was a sense of entitlement in the hand-wringing about book review cuts, a sense that we should have this dedicated section in a newspaper because, well, we should. If you’re serving a general population of millions, as newspapers do, then you have to explain your relevance. How do you explain this to the immigrant community who might just now be discovering books (Ulin, to his credit, has done a lot more toward reaching out to the Hispanic reader than Wasserman).
There needs to be more balance. The LATBR reflected the mores of its editors, and that would be fine if the section were like many literary journals in that they were financially supported. It’s not enough to say that this kind of book coverage is necessary because it will save society because, well, I’m not sure it’s proven that it will. Rock and roll didn’t kill music. Television didn’t kill live theater. Maybe it’s better to listen to what the Philistines are saying. Reflecting the vision of an individual, or small group of individuals, is not, sadly, feasible in today’s newspaper environment. There are better ways to accomplish this goal.
I asked then as I ask now: what are you doing to save this entity you find so important? Writing letters and editorials simply isn’t enough. Preaching to the choir makes for a fun a pity party, but what about convincing the people who read and buy books of your value? Let’s be perfectly frank — most readers of fiction don’t read “literary fiction”, but they’re willing and eager to expand their horizons if a good curator can help them. Why should a mass media publication focus on the very few in favor of the majority? What value do you offer those readers, the ones who are largely supporting your habit?
It would, if I may, come down to a matter of choice. Newspapers, yes, have distinct points of view, but they generally reflect the opinions of the community at large. Or they die. In many ways, this failure can be placed with the editors of the LATBR. They, yes, created a great publication, but they failed to create a publication that reflected the wants and needs of the community.
Like many others, I have gone online to find the type of literary discussion I enjoy — this means I’m reading about reading in a broad way. A little of this type of book, a little of that. It’s easy to find voices I agree with and trust and opinions I don’t. There might be looser writing, less editorial oversight, but there is absolute passion about books. Passion matters because it moves people to explore and expand.
It is a bit precious to suggest that a mass market newspaper support a specific-interest section without the latter giving something back to the community at large. As evidenced by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the wants and desires of the Los Angeles reading public far exceed what the LATBR offered them. As with the war in Iraq, I feel for the soldiers — the reviewers, the writers — who have lost their platform, but I don’t feel for the generals who failed to see the broader implications of their choices. I just don’t. There are better ways to achieve the bigger goals.
Have you noticed the lack of accountability, the lack of introspection on the part of those who decry the decline of the newspaper book review (with some exceptions)? Have you noticed that so few have looked at what they gave the public versus what the public wanted or needed? How they haven’t said, “We could have done better by our readership.” How they haven’t said, “We made mistakes.”
I have no patience for the entitlement argument, because, well, even if I did, it’s a lost cause. As long as the publishing industry continues to support the New York Times Book Review with advertising dollars — and publishing industry, you do have some serious culpability here — then that will likely survive. But the pristine mass market newspaper section is dead. Sorry. Gone.
The only question on the table is how to integrate book coverage into today’s newspaper…and today’s newspaper is being redefined so rapidly that there isn’t a single answer. I’m sort of hoping we’ll see a return to the newspaper of history, not this corporate behemoth that must put shareholders ahead of news. This means that those who advocate for literary discourse in the broader public arena created by newspapers must make peace with the other aspects of publishing — the popular fiction, the popular non-fiction, the technical writing, the non-traditional publishing, the world we live in.
Only then can we save the newspaper book review.
Note: Carolyn Kellogg, who blogs for the LAT’s Jacket Copy took me to task a bit for my comments on gender imbalance in the Book Review. I agree with her that the situation has greatly improved these past few years. My comments related to the past, and I still believe the (probably unintentional as I don’t think the leadership was deliberately sexist) gender bias didn’t serve the book review well.