The Future of Book Reviews?

Critical Mass the blog of the National Book Critics Circle continues its campaign to save newspaper book reviews with coverage and participation in a protest over the elimination of the book review section in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A recent post from them, which I can't help but feel was aimed at least partially at us, says that bloggers and print reviews should all just get along, emphasizing that there are many great blogs out there, and not all reviewers are reactionary coots.

Meanwhile, the New York Times weighs in, writing:

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.

Of course, not everyone is so hot on the idea of blogging as the future, though others think print reviewers have it coming.

In deference to the NBCC I would like to say a few things on the subject of print reviewing versus online reviewing. It has been pointed out that the readership of lit blogs is different than the readership of newspapers. There is truth to this. Lit blogs and online magazines like this one tend to attract a certain kind of techno-savvy bibliophile, the kind of person who both wants to know about every hot new writer and is clued-in enough to be able to find the blogs that will tell her. The vast majority of book readers out there aren't this person, and there are still a lot of people who will just idly flip through the book pages of the New York Times or the Village Voice (or their online versions) just to see if there's anything interesting to keep an eye out for. These people don't want to check their RSS feeds every day to see what Ed is saying, not because Ed isn't interesting but because that's not how they want to spend their time. The vast majority of readers aren't hard-core bibliophiles, nor should they be. In fact, it is very important that we have a book world in which ordinary people will pick up novels in the same way that they'd go to see a movie or sit down to watch a television show. And this is the real reason we need book reviews, because (especially in the near-total absence of publicity) book reviews are how ordinary people find out about most books. And these book reviews can't just be on blogs that are primarily read by bibliophiles, because ordinary people won't read them.

This isn't to say that print is the only answer. Sites like Metacritic.com do an excellent job of aggregating reviews of the latest books and, just as importantly, putting them right next to movie and video game reviews as a natural part of the cultural world. (And not suspiciously missing as they are on, say, Technorati and Digg.) It's for this reason that I've often flirted with the idea of expanding Wet Asphalt to include coverage of film and television. Because, as bibliophiles, what we need to be doing is not just talking to other bibliophiles, but reaching out to the rest of the world. And that effort to reach out is also why book review sections in newspapers are so important. Because there are so many people in our culture today who seem to think books, and more-so fiction, and even more-so poetry, are all culturally irrelevant. And that's what this is really about, and what I think most people are missing. What we're witnessing is a shift between prose books as part of a larger cultural conversation to prose books as a niche market beloved by a small number of enthusiasts and ignored by everyone else. (Perplexingly enough, this is practically the opposite of what's happening right now with comics, graphic novels and manga.) This shift is a very bad thing for those of us who care about books, and our every effort needs to be in the direction of shifting things back.

And this is why I support the NBCC's efforts to save book review sections in newspapers, and why you should too.

Comments

Hear hear. The fuckin LA

Hear hear. The fuckin LA Times, for example. They've changed their book review so that it's an Ace Double: you flip it over, and that's where the Opinion section is.

A lot of the time their reviews are clueless and literarily inbred, but they occasionally deliver me someone I come to love. Like Borges, who I hadn't even heard of before like 1999.

I love books and don't want them to go. The obvious solution is to ensure that the future delivery of "novels" and really text of all kinds is in book form, probably via a cheap and recyclable POD paradigm.