At first I was amused. Now I read articles decrying the cutting of newspapers book reviews with barely-contained impatience. I am tired of the hand-wringing, the bemoaning of “loss of culture”, the sense of entitlement many of these articles present. Rather than leading the way to the solution, the writers behind these pieces show, sometimes too clearly, why they were the problem.
People don’t subscribe to newspapers for book reviews.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the economics of the news business have changed dramatically over the past decade. Heck, they’ve changed dramatically over the past century. Hmm, probably over the past millennium. It’s possible, I suppose, to posit that the news business has been in a state of flux since the beginning, way back when word-of-mouth was the chief way to spread information.
Oh, how those grunts and gestures were sometimes misinterpreted!
There is no law that states newspapers must provide book coverage for subscribers. While we like to pretend that news is provided to us unbiased and as a public service, the truth of the matter is that all major news media is part of a corporate portfolio. Even public radio — hello KCRW! — is a dollars-and-cents business. Programming is constantly cut, shifted, revamped to meet subscriber needs. If the shows (or, in the case of print, articles/sections) are not relevant to the audience, then support dwindles. Some programming might remain as a sentimental loss-leader, but that’s the exception, not the norm.
Our nation’s book critics, normally a group of fine thinkers and writers, refuse to acknowledge this reality. Or maybe they know the truth and dismiss it entirely. It’s that entitlement thing I mentioned. Rather than reaching out and engaging readers, they retreated into a hermetic environment. Bottom line is that it is easy for newspaper executives to cut book coverage because subscribers don’t value newspaper book coverage.
I personally believe this is because the book coverage didn’t value the readers.
Steve Wasserman, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review (and unwitting inspiration for this article), notes:
At the Los Angeles Times, as at other newspapers, readers of the Book Review were a minority of the paperâ€™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 didnâ€™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.
“Neither surprised nor alarmed”? Yet he has the temerity to complain that newspapers are cutting book coverage? What did he, or any other book editor in the same position with the same attitude expect? Some sort of weird intellectual charity?
I have long noted the disconnect between the Los Angeles Times bestseller list and what is reviewed by the paper’s critics. Now, I’m not saying that bestsellers should drive the review schedule, but shouldn’t there, at the very least, be a balance between what the editorial staff believes people should read and what they do read? Reviews do not only inform, they also validate. The Los Angeles Times Book Review, even before it was made completely ridiculous, was never a welcoming place for casual readers.
Sure, it maintained a devoted (but small) fan base, but reaching out and touching people who might be looking for something different as they struggled to find actual “newspaper” among all the Sunday advertisements wasn’t worth the effort? By the way, the newspapers lost those readers a long time ago. Convincing them to return will not be fun nor easy.
Like so many members-only clubs, the downfall was a matter of time. You keep the doors barred long enough when the rent is going up, and eventually you’re going to have to give up your lease on the building. Then you’ll be standing across the street, watching as everyone streams into the newer, hipper, more welcoming version of your club. Of course, you won’t enter. You’re too cool for that school. Instead you comment that bloggers aren’t really reviewers and some opinions are worth more than others.
You never ask yourself how your opinion came to be so valued. You never ask yourself how new generations of thinkers displace the old. You never once consider that you sound like a petulant child. Worst of all, you never consider the role you played in your own demise.
That, I believe, is the worst sin of all.
As Wasserman well knows, the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books attracts approximately 150,000 people each year (and is growing). This represents a small fraction of the region’s readers (it is amazing to me how many local readers are unaware of this event), and those numbers areparticularly noteworthy for several reasons:
- The LATFOB is held in Los Angeles, almost always on a lovely Spring day. You can have your April in Paris — Los Angeles weather during that time of year cannot be beat.
- The LATFOB is held on the campus of UCLA. Though there is a nearby freeway (the always horrendous 405), getting to UCLA is a tough slog for just about anyone. And once you arrive, you get to pay way too much to park and walk a good distance through the campus, especially since the book signings are held far away from readings/panels (suddenly that lovely sunshine becomes rather warm).
- All of this happens on a weekend, by the way. Families, especially, have a lot to do on weekends. Best case scenario is that this is an all-day event. Given the pressures of today’s world, the fact that so many people choose to spend their day with books and book people is amazing.
- The crowd who attends is amazingly diverse. While Wasserman brags about reaching the “…most well-off and best-read demographic cohorts…”, the truth of the matter is that attendees come from all walks of life. They come despite the LATBR.
Wasserman seems to put the failure of newspaper books reviews on the shoulders of some sort of anti-intellectual movement. Perhaps instead of blaming the public for a lack intellectual rigor, Wasserman and others should consider their failure to communicate. It isn’t the failure of the citizens of Los Angeles or any other community to read; it is a failure of book review editors to connect with those readers.
Instead of valuing the whole audience, they cherished only a small percentage. This, more than anything, is why book reviews are being cut. Book critics often point to the sports sections of newspapers as low revenue generators. Why isn’t sports coverage being cut?
The obvious answer is that people don’t subscribe to newspapers for book reviews; they dosubscribe for sports coverage. Possibly a less examined reason — but one that is often valid when it comes to the Los Angeles Times — is that sportswriting is often more compelling and emotionally engaging than literary criticism. Oops, did I really say that? I think the fact that the section of the paper devoted to good writing is drier than toast is proof positive of every student’s nightmares are about reading.
Where is the passion, the enthusiasm, the joy that comes from reading something wonderful and wanting to share it with the world? Is it completely impossible to be analytical, thoughtful, and interesting? Writing about books should not inspire boredom, it should inspire someone to buy and read books.
There is a sense that there are “serious” readers and, I suppose, “non-serious” readers. The former, naturally, read only the best, the most elucidating, the cream of the human condition crop. The latter, naturally, read trash. It is the former that so many dedicated newspaper book review sections sought to reach. That overlap exists between the two perceived reading spheres is irrelevant. That the “non-serious” reader might want to join the club was ignored. Bottom line was that the editorial staff refused to offer a signal that these readers were welcome.
What are book reviews anyway? Ask two people, you’ll get two answers. Ask five, you’ll get five. The idea of a review is often mixed up with the notion of literary criticism. That’s fine. It’s good to meet different needs of your customers. A good editor will understand how to balance wants while enticing readers to try something new.
If a review is designed, as some believe, to convince a consumer to purchase or avoid a product, then just a synopsis with some analysis of strengths and weaknesses is required. Readers of these reviews do not want plot or character development spoiled — they want to make the journey themselves. They seek a review that helps guide them toward media they will enjoy.
Then there are the readers looking for in-depth analysis of a story: the plot, the characters, the setting, the execution. They want to know if what they read jibes with what another person read. They seek agreement, disagreement, or debate. In many ways, these are the readers for whom the Internet book explosion was invented. Now this analysis and debate can take place with a wide range of individuals — and it is not time-sensitive.
A letter to an editor is, let’s be honest, not nearly as likely to be published three months after a review has been forgotten (or, if you will, perish, oh slow readers!). Editorial staff aren’t likely to publish an impassioned counter-argument from the reader on the street; where are the all-important credentials, what gives Joe Schmoe the right to disagree with us? Blogs and websites, however, encourage this debate. Thrive on the interaction. Generate discussion when the newspaper is nothing more than birdcage liner.
(Then there is the notion that various online reviewers simply don’t have the chops, the lineage, the whatever that writing for a print publication offers. This is a sour grapes argument.)
Perhaps newspaper (and magazine) reviews are better off for the cuts. The current model — where someone dictates views and opinions without room for debate — is almost antithetical to the nature of literary discussion. Reading in isolation is a wonderful thing, but so is arguing the finer points of dialogue with a worthy opponent.
When I think back to those moments where I was inspired to read outside my comfort zone, I realize it was because of discussions with people who were passionate about authors and books. They didn’t dissect the work with the dispassion of a coroner — they were evangelists for story. One such person actually convinced me that I was wrong about Ernest Hemingway.
This passion is so often missing from today’s literary reviews. Where is the love, the joy, the excitement?
Wasserman says that our newspapers have an “obligation” to publish the sort of in-depth, elitist literary criticism that he favors while simultaneously citing anecdotal evidence that the audience for this type of work is small. I don’t believe newspapers, or any other media, are obligated to do anything, including providing “fair and balanced” reporting (the entire notion of “unbiased reporting” is a 20th century fiction). He calls this a conversation. But it’s not a conversation. The format doesn’t allow for conversation.
The type of conversation being advocated here is one that will ultimately lead to inevitable moments of awkwardness. Suddenly, you realize you have been saying the same thing to the same people for years on end. Nobody new has joined your circle, no fresh thoughts have entered your mind, you realize you’re so intent on Making Your Point or, worse, Proving Your Superior Mind that you’ve forgotten why reading mattered in the first place. You disdain the reader of Danielle Steel without acknowledging that there is a time and place for every type of book; without, I’d wager, wondering why that seemingly intelligent, multi-degreed, high-level professional chooses a book you wouldn’t touch on a dare. Enjoying the so-called low-brow is not an indicator of intelligence level.
Many factors influence reading choices. Perhaps instead of judging readers by their book covers, the time has come to embrace the diversity of fiction. A shared appreciation of Raymond Carver might very well lead to a lightbulb moment with Hemingway. That lover of Georgette Heyer might also be equally enthusiastic about the social observations of Stendahl. And that devotee of Robert Heinlein might be the next author you’re dying to review. You just don’t know, so why not reach out to more readers?
To the book critics of America, I say it’s time to stop your sobbing. If you are as important and relevant as you say you are, prove it. What are you doing about this so-called crisis? You’re getting up petitions and preaching to the choir, but how are you reaching real readers? How are you proving your point to the ones who matter most? You’ve circled the wagons around the faithful, but what about the rest of us?
We all know the problem, as you see it. What is your solution?
Newspaper coverage isn’t going to magically grow. The conversation has moved elsewhere. You are uniquely positioned to be leaders in the literary world. It is your choice how you move forward, but there is no going backward.