Thursday, May 03, 2007

Throwing books out of newspaper columns

Are lit bloggers pushing the traditional book reviewers to the margins? This is the latest literary question the western media is asking these days. Many American newspapers are doing away with or cutting down on their book review sections for many reasons, the most important being the financial ones.

A Guardian blog noted that in San Francisco, a city so bookish even your barista probably has a PhD, the Book Review was halved to make space for ads. The Los Angeles Times recently folded its Book Review into the opinion section. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, which reaches 2.3 million readers a week, recently "reorganised", eliminating its books editor position altogether.

The blog further notes:

When you complain - and readers are doing so more often - newspaper owners usually say these are financial decisions. And they're right. Newspaper circulation is ebbing steadily downward. Craigslist has eaten through their classified market like a plague of locusts.

Their readership is also getting older, and newspapers were slow to attract younger readers to their websites, a shame since the future of newspapers is going to be a mixture of print and online content. In anticipation, some savvy books editors have begun podcasting, blogging (like this), and hosting online chats.

Lit-bloggers will point out that they have been using this technology for years, and that's true. In the US, with a few exceptions - like Salon.com - lit-bloggers been pioneers at the online frontier, and readers seeking out smart, casual discussion about books have and will continue to be well-served by these 21st century homesteaders.

But in the struggle for bragging rights something gets lost: the awareness that for every lit-blogger who has been serving up opinions daily since 1998, there are five books editors who were around when Toni Morrison's first book landed on their desk in 1970, and are no longer.

This loss of cultural knowledge is inevitable. As Jonathan Franzen pointed out in his terrific book of essays about reading, How to Be Alone, obsolescence - once it is accepted - can be a virtue. But not in this case, I believe. Book reviews are one of the few places in a US newspaper one can stop to appreciate the beauty of language, the pleasures of knowledge. They are also footbridges to artistic tradition, however rickety.


Yesterday, The New York Times also ran a piece on this topic: Are Book Reviewers Out of Print?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, meanwhile, has recently eliminated the job of its book editor, leading many fans to worry that book coverage will soon be provided mostly by wire services and reprints from national papers.

The decision in Atlanta — in which book reviews will now be overseen by one editor responsible for virtually all arts coverage — comes after a string of changes at book reviews across the country. The Los Angeles Times recently merged its once stand-alone book review into a new section combining the review with the paper’s Sunday opinion pages, effectively cutting the number of pages devoted to books to 10 from 12. Last year The San Francisco Chronicle’s book review went from six pages to four. All across the country, newspapers are cutting book sections or running more reprints of reviews from wire services or larger papers.

To some authors and critics, these moves amount to yet one more nail in the coffin of literary culture. But some publishers and literary bloggers — not surprisingly — see it as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books. In recent years, dozens of sites, including Bookslut.com, The Elegant Variation (marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/), maudnewton .com, Beatrice.com and the Syntax of Things (syntaxofthings.typepad.com), have been offering a mix of book news, debates, interviews and reviews, often on subjects not generally covered by newspaper book sections.


Joining the debate, Dan Wickett, whose blogfeeds I keep receiving in my emails, and who has been mentioned in the NYT article, argues that newspapers should continue publishing the book reviews. He notes in his email a copy of which I received in my mailbox:

I absolutely do not want to see print reviews disappear. The first thing I do every Sunday morning is grab the Detroit Free Press and turn to the book page (yes, page). I follow that up by going online and looking at the new book pages/sections of 8-15 papers from across the country. Yes, I'm doing this online, but really only because I don't have access to the printed copies of these papers.

I think in India, the Times of India had seen it coming long time ago. But thankfully, all Indian newspapers and magazines have not sacrificed the book reviews for more ad spaces. Journals like The Hindu, Biblio, and The Book Review, among others, are still doing a good job. But I sometimes don't like the way some magazines crunch the book reviews to a mere blurb, for space reasons. Better not to publish such jokes at all that make a mockery of a writer's hard work.

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6 comments:

bibliobibuli said...

malaysia, thank goodness seems to be going the other way, with a decent monthly supplement and more reviews in the star

but i wish the other newspapers would play catch-up!

Zafar Anjum said...

Yes, the more the better Sharon. If that is the case in Malaysia, then it is a good sign.

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