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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Book Critic Brouhaha . . . ha ha ha ha

(The following is a revised version of a comment I posted on Baby Got Books concerning a controversy that has erupted concerning the loss of book critic jobs at major newspapers in the United States. The Baby Got Books discussion of this issue has continued, and I'd like to thank the folks who participate there for helping me to refine and expand my thoughts.)

It’s been interesting to me to see the controversy concerning the disappearance and shrinkage of book pages from newspapers as promoted by the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) play itself out. When this matter first surfaced on Baby Got Books, I dutifully went to the linked website and signed the petition. And I would do so again today, if need be.

However, at that time, I never even began to consider the idea that lit blogs would be used in a blatant scare tactic to try to rescue the job of a single book editor at a single paper. Posts on the NBCC blog, such as this one and this one floored me with their poor reasoning, naivete, and flat out bigotry. Somehow, the literary crowd has gotten the idea into their heads that lit blogs and not greedy communications industry monopolies are putting book reviewers on the unemployment line and have taken to attacking them indiscriminately. Sheila Kohler, for one, implies that no one who blogs could possibly have any knowledge of literature, a position which, since it is not based in any sort of objective research, is merely prejudice. Although I suppose it is only fair that we expect her to be Kohleric.

The thing, at the end of the day, is this. Newspapers as a physical entity that people leave on the floors of America’s buses and subways is quickly turning into an artifact. It is a casualty of the Internet. The AJC should save Teresa Weaver’s job and do away with the paper. Commit to online editions. All the same content, just online. This is where you place your ads and what you sell subscriptions to. Costs come down because you don’t have to buy newsprint. (Which will cause its own economic fallout, but no solution is perfect.)

The other thing is this. Blogging is actually the future for professional reviewers. I pay The New York Times money each month for the privilege of pawing through their website unfettered, and I think they are ahead of the curve on this stuff. From what I’ve seen there, I think that traditional columns will morph in time into blogs, as will reviews. Because here’s the dirty little secret about book reviews: They are not pronouncements from on high, but are actually one-sided conversations between readers. Having formal book review blogs, with the opportunity for moderated comment, will only enhance that conversation.

Which brings me to the third thing. Book reviewing is not serious literary criticism. I work in a university English Department and the scholars I work with are the serious literary critics. Book reviewing is typically a journalistic endeavor on a par with stringing stories about fires. Pretty much anybody can write one and submit it and have a halfway decent chance of getting it published, depending on the newspaper. It’s one of the most basic ways of building credits as a writer and shouldn’t be confused with dealings in divine revelation.

Now, I will admit to participating on Baby Got Books, which is a lit blog. And I will also admit that there have been reviews I have have written but not posted because they seemed to me to be too much like professional reviews. That does not, however, imply that the reviews posted on Baby Got Books or any of the other lit blogs are inferior to their newspaper brethren, only that they are less formal than professional reviews and less likely to be presented as the utterances of some kind of oracle.

They also tend to be kinder than professional reviews, and I really can't imagine seeing something as needlessly hurtful as Dorothy Parker's "This is not a book to set aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force" appearing on the average lit blog. That, however, makes neither Mrs. Parker more correct in her judgement of that book than a lit blogger might be concerning Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

All-in-all, this controversy is just another struggle of the past to try to avoid the future. The people complaining about lit blogs are afraid. They are glimpsing the future and wonder at their places in it. Will they still be able to indulge in the usual round of logrolling and backscratching and free books that they’ve enjoyed for so long? Will they still be able to eke out the money for the gas bill or a nickel bag by dashing off a couple of ill-considered reviews? Will they still be able to continue to pass themselves off as experts in a field that defies expertise?

In my view, lit blogs like Baby Got Books–as distinct from reviews on Amazon, which quite often don’t make sense–are a healthy and potentially significant part of the conversation among readers that calls itself book reviewing. They are also great marketing tools for forward-thinking publishers. And they’re not going to go away, unlike the book review section that starts on page D-3. That, my friends, is history.

Oh, yes, and one final thought: If book reviews were as powerful as the folks at the NBCC seem to think, the collected works of Dan Brown would be out-of-print instead of the passing reviews of Teresa Weaver.