Stop Your Sobbing

September 18th, 2007 · 14 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

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 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.

“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.

File Under: Reviewing Reviewing

14 responses so far ↓

  • Joe Devon // Sep 18, 2007 at 10:57 am

    Two quotes in particular gave me great joy from this article. First, “A shared appreciation of Raymond Carver might very well lead to a lightbulb moment with Hemingway.” Well put indeed, K. Everything is everything.
    And, second, “…the section of the paper devoted to good writing is drier than toast…”
    It’s funny. Right up until I read that it had never occurred to me to question the writing in the reviews section…but by god you’re right…it’s absolutely dreadful.

  • Debra Hamel // Sep 18, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    What a well-written, intelligent piece. I haven’t followed this issue closely in the blogosphere, nor am I a regular follower of newspaper book reviews. The closest I come is an occasional read of something in the New York Times Book Review, and, frankly, it takes a lot for me to want to read a whole essay there. When I do read reviews, 98% of the time I’m looking for the first type of review you describe–”a synopsis with some analysis of strengths and weaknesses”–something, that is, that will tell me whether I want to get my hands on the book or not. I don’t want to read a review so detailed that it could take the place of the book on my nightstand.

    Obviously there’s a place for a more serious breed of review/literary criticism. But as you suggest, maybe that place isn’t in the Sunday newspaper.

  • Don Linn // Sep 18, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Brilliant.

    Another aspect of the discussion is whether print reviews sell books. My feeling is that, except at the margin, they do not. Publicity and buzz sell books, neither of which is generally the result of something written in the LATBR, NYTBR, NYRB or the Times of London.

    Go figure.

  • David Thayer // Sep 18, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Met a writer this weekend who told me that print reviews drive sales at bookstores while online reviews drive sales at Amazon. It was clear to this reporter, unlicensed though I am, that he believed the former to be a good thing, the latter to be somewhat distasteful. WTF? I wondered.
    I hate change although loose change comes in handy…great article.

  • katemoss // Sep 18, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    My feeling on book reviews is that most readers only see reviews in the form of blurbs on book covers themselves. Alternatively, they may see them online if they buy through sites like Amazon or BNN. As a reader and writer, I’ve never relied on the newspaper for book news, which partially reflects the generation to which I belong.

  • Kassia // Sep 18, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    It’s always good when my crankiness is so well-received! I swore that the next time I saw an article like the one by Wasserman, I’d use this title. Who knew it would be the very next day?

    David, thanks for the change comment. It helped when I had a showdown with a parking meter.

  • KathyF // Sep 19, 2007 at 4:44 am

    Wow. Not since B.R. Myers’ Manifesto have book reviewers been taken to task so soundly. Good job.

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  • Adam W. // Sep 20, 2007 at 6:49 am

    Nice article. I don’t agree with it, but you have some good points. Snobbery isn’t positive, of course. The problem is that snobbery isn’t exactly what Wasserman and people feel like they’re engaging in. Like you, they just want to make sure that they have a place that their voices can be heard. Some of it is maintaining power, sure. If you had a section in a newspaper where you could be heard you’d want to keep it around. But some of it is also the feeling that we really, truly are overrun by less-complex media on a daily basis, so why can’t there be a place for in-depth analysis? Does everything have to be marketing based and economically successful to be worthy? When we equate economics to success or worthiness, isn’t that the same error as equating a book review with worthiness, taking the invisible hand of the market place’s word for it over a reviewers?

    I read the kind of books I suppose Wasserman reviews, but I work in a publishing house that produces the kind of books more in line with your Danielle Steel readers. Both are fine, and I seriously doubt Wasserman wants to banish the ‘genre’ (for lack of a better word) readers altogether. For instance, he’s not proposing that newspapers are used as tools to STOP books like Harlequin’s. However, those who enjoy ‘popular’ books like the genres continually attack folks like Wasserman, and with a vehemence that is a little bizarre. They are saying ‘Let us have what we want,’ but rarely, ‘You keep yours and I’ll keep mine.’ So what if book critics talk about less popular, more ‘literary’ books in their reviews? The commercial books get the money, they get their place on the list. Both parties get what they want.

    Wasserman did have a good point. The truly snobby thing would be for critics to not put 100% of themselves into their work, to write less complex, nuanced pieces just because they figure nobody will ‘get it.’ Snobbery is something that gets dredged up when people use a certain language often associated with ‘intellectualism.’ Whether or not they are intelligent is beside the point. What is really germane is that people who don’t like that language continually besiege it. Why is that? It may not be better, but let it stand as it is, just as we let Brittany and Barry Bonds stand, though without that same level of outrage that ‘intellectuals’ get. We let a lot of things go in this country, but beware that person who dares to stand up and say, “I want something that’s a bit more complex than Harlequin Presents, and here’s what’s caught my eye; some of you may like it.”

  • more links « The YA YA YAs // Sep 20, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    [...] Kassia Krozser’s must-read take on why newspaper book review sections are really failing. (Choice bits: “…sportswriting is often more compelling and emotionally engaging than literary criticism,” and “Writing about books should not inspire boredom, it should inspire someone to buy and read books.”) [...]

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 20, 2007 at 9:03 pm

    Now let’s not be too hasty here…I do enjoy a good dose of snobbery (g). And intellectual elitism. Give me smart over just about anything. But the snobbery in fiction goes both ways — I happen to believe that it’s wrong to judge a reader by the book in his or her hand. I also believe that the book world would do itself a great service by recognizing that most readers are far more diverse than they seem.

    While I absolutely agree that critics like Wasserman should be heard (and that his bosses at the LAT seemed to be fine with what he was doing), I gave up on the LATBR during his tenure. Every week, it was like reading paint drying on the wall. Very few female voices were represented, the fiction reviewed struck me as godawful dull, and I swear, if there was a new book about the “real” Shakespeare, it was reviwed with almost absurd reverence. Not only did I see nothing of me in that section, I saw only a small section of my community.

    I also think, somewhat, that Wasserman failed his successor (David Ulin). The former left just as it became clear that newspapers were going to be forced to fight for their audience; taking the attitude that stagnant numbers were not worrisome lead to what has to be the most ridiculous compromise for a book review section ever.

    I think a newspaper should reflect the community it serves. It is unfortunate that economics drive the news business, but I imagine that has always been the case. The good news is that there is a place for thoughtful, in-depth reviews of all types. Many places. As Wasserman noted, the New York Review of Books maintains an apparently profitable print presence. The Internet has brought together all levels of literary discussion.

    This is why I say it’s time for these critics to stop hand-wringing and start coming up with action plans. Romance readers stopped worrying about the lack of newspaper reviews a long time ago; they’ve largely moved to online community. Science fiction readers maybe made the shift a little earlier. Same for mystery. For each of the major genres, you can find discussion ranging from the superficial to the well-considered.

    Same goes for literary fiction. It is through the online community that I’ve discovered many great books across the fiction spectrum (and I’ve been seduced and disappointed by more than a few…but at least I was enticed enough to give those books a shot). I cannot say the same thing for the LATBR — given the fact that I was born reading (or close enough for government work), this is a sad statement about my hometown paper. I am exactly the reader that Wasserman says he was trying to reach. I know many more readers like me. No connection was made!

    And, oh yes, you touched on one of my favorite things about this world. Genre fiction very often pays the bills for other, less commercial types of fiction. This is good.

  • Mr. Hurricane // Sep 22, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Years ago, when I was starting out in my journalism career, I found myself at a book review journal published in Los Angeles. It was a national magazine with about a 35,000 bi-monthly (eventually quarterly) circulation. It was known, over time, as The West Coast Review of Books, Books/100 Reviews and finally Rapport. The owner/publisher/actor/theater producer, David Dreis (AKA Crane Jackson/Cholly Angelino and God knows who else this intriguing character called himself) had the right idea about book reviews but it was nearly a miracle that his creation existed at all. The idea was that there was no real vehicle at the time (1980s) that could accommodate readers’ need for simple reviews done in volume. For example, as has been mentioned, do genre readers get a fair shake from traditional review mediums when trying to find whether Genre Writer’s X book is better than her Y book or Z book? Well, with 100 reviews, we could run the gamut from Updike to Collins and follow any writer’s career. Were we considered low-brow by the gatekeepers of the traditional review world? Of course. However, as an avid reader of the New York Review of Books at the time, I felt there should definitely be a place for both. After all, reading is essential to the health of a culture (or whatever the hell our OJ/Brittany/Paris marketing media madness mess is). The book industry itself is not so choosy. They loved the fact that we reviewed so many of their hard-to-get-reviewed books and sent them to us by the truckloads and were later more than happy to blurb us on their covers.

    So, where did we get our reviewers from? How do you pay for this kind of writing army? Well, it was an eclectic bunch of book lovers from a variety of walks of life (I remember a local judge, in particular, who was quite prolific). They worked for the free book and the chance to work their own literary writing muscle. In many ways they were the precursors to the better-of-the-lot Amazon reviewers. Some of them were quite good; extremely literate folks with perceptive knowledge of the topics and writers, for both non-fiction and fiction. Others, less so, but with fixing on our end, made useful for the job of informing a potential reader.

    Before Amazon and bloggers there was simply no real viable way to obtain any opinion or information on the sheer volume of 175,000 books published every year. I know. I was there when 100 reviews every two months was considered heresy and insane. And in many ways, it was. Every month was a small financial miracle that the printer got paid. A few key publisher/advertisers, more or less, kept the boat afloat. Too bad, we really did reach out to that reader mentioned in this piece that was forgotten about by the more elitist reviewing outlets. Our readers loved us and we, unfortunately, put out a piss-poor product – visually and, ultimately, editorially — suppressed by the sheer gravity of poverty surrounding the operation and magnitude of the task (a staff of two or three part-timers for 50 books a month versus, say, the sizable paid professional staff and freelance budget of the LATBR). But it was an early water cooler for a book loving collection of people. And for that, if for nothing else, I tip my hat in memory of its long ago demise. Even in its hobbled state of being (for more than two decades I believe), it was better for the reading world that it existed than had it never existed. And the same goes for all of those people out there now blogging and reviewing and talking about books. Shoot your TV and don’t look back. And don’t worry about what the LATBR does. The promulgation of literacy may be the only thing that saves our silly culture. You are in that forefront. Do it with passion.

  • Deborah Smith // Sep 24, 2007 at 8:19 pm

    It has always amazed me that major newspapers cover all genres of popular movies, sports and music, yet when it comes to book coverage they almost completely ignore pop fiction. That elitist attitude is hypocritical and highly subjective; it makes no sense. There’s a large and avid audience of book readers out there; if they don’t read the book reviews it’s only because their favorite books are never there.