I've posted many times about the demise of book-review sections, particularly the Washington Post's Book World, but nothing's turning up in the search engine. If anyone can help the *moderator* of this forum find those old threads
, he'd appreciate it.
In the meantime, I'm sticking a link to this lengthy piece on the "death and life" of book reviews
(H/T: Movie City News) from The Nation here. It's a lengthy piece and I've only skimmed it, but here are some things that jumped out at me:Some questions, then, to serve as boundary stones for the ramble ahead: Is it true, as many people who have commented on the matter have claimed, that the recent decline in newspaper books coverage is a problem for the culture at large, and also representative of larger cultural problems? Are review sections disappearing or shrinking because they can't turn a profit? Or is it because they can't compete with material originating on the web? Why are weekly and monthly magazines, despite producing a bounty of thoughtful essays and reviews about books, generally left out of the conversation about books coverage? And finally, as for quality books coverage— by which I mean not reviewery but scrutiny, the deliberate, measured analysis of literary and intellectual questions without obvious or easy answers—can such coverage originate online and also find a loyal audience there? ...
It's necessary to explain these broad economic trends to understand a crucial and overlooked point—namely, that it is disingenuous for newspaper executives to justify the elimination or reduction of the book beat by claiming that books sections don't turn a profit. Undeniably, the executives' math is correct. A newspaper books section, if one were to total up its costs, loses money. But does not the sports section or the metro section? Yet of all the sections that fail to turn a profit on their own, it's the books section that is most often killed or pinched. Claims that books sections are eliminated or downsized because they can't earn their keep are bogus. It is indisputable that newspapers have been weakened by hard times and a major technological shift in the dissemination of news; it is not indisputable that newspaper books coverage has suffered for the same reasons. The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves.
"Anti-intellectual" is a hefty allegation, but bear with me as I substantiate it with a few stories from the newsroom and observations about the response of newspaper books sections to some important publishing trends of the past several decades. First, a definition. In a news context, "anti-intellectual" does not necessarily mean an antipathy to ideas, though it can be that too. I use the word "anti-intellectual" to describe a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical. ...
Journalists have long been enthralled by the buzz and glamour of book publishing, but as a subject it is a poor substitute for quality books coverage. One exception is the Barnes & Noble Review, a web-only venture that generally avoids gossip and trade talk. It is better edited than any newspaper books section, but it also happens to be owned by the country's largest corporate chain bookstore. Neither the quality of its reviews nor the generosity of its writers' fees can expunge from its pages its innate commercialism.
The writer is making a case, I think, that magazines are better suited to book reviews than are breaking-news-oriented publications like newspapers and news Web sites, but he offers a very mixed picture that doesn't give me a lot of hope for the future of book reviews. Still, I always love reading the book reviews in the Atlantic more than anything else in that magazine, and I like The New Republic's new The Book section of its site. I always look at the book reviews in the Weekly Standard with keen interest, but the titles usually aren't of much interest.
Edited by Christian, 05 June 2010 - 09:13 AM.