And we’re getting tired of it. We’re tired of watching individual voices from local communities passed over for wire copy. We’re tired of book editors with decades of experience shown the exit. We’re tired of shrinking reviews. We’re tired of hearing newspapers fret and worry over the future of print while they dismantle the section of the paper which deals most closely with the two things which have kept them alive since the dawn of printing presses: the public’s hunger for knowledge and the written word.
They’re launching a new series about it on their blog, Critical Mass, and they offer tips on how you can get involved in saving book reviews (mainly, sign their petition, write a letter to your local paper, join the NBCC if you’re eligible).
Edward Champion, freelance book reviewer, NBCC member, and litblogger, offers another point of view:
One can complain until one is blue in the face about "saving" book reviewing. But let’s be clear in our terminology here. "Saving" implies that book reviewing is some gray whale about to become extinct. But what we are seeing here is an evolution and a convergence point, not an extinction.
NBCC president John Freeman has also overlooked a key ally, suggests Champion:
What I am suggesting is something far more ambitious than John Freeman: a united front, whereby literary and "sub-literary" enthusiasts of all stripes, print and online, litblogger and journalist, campaign on behalf of literary coverage in as many conduits as possible.
Champion has a point, which is that we’ll get more done if we can unite more BookPeople (TM) (hey, if “litblogger” is a term of art, then I’m trademarking BookPeople (TM)) in the common cause. However, there are natural reasons that BookPeople (TM) who write for pay in print publications are reluctant to enlist those who, often for free, write primarily for online publication.
(To some extent, both arguments make me picture Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judea, where we argue about semantics while the Romans are tromping up the stairs. One feels so very small compared to corporate machinery and societal indifference.)
But there’s a second point to Champion’s point, which is that we need to consider all conduits. I want nothing more than to open my newspaper and find a book section that’s bursting with reviews, essays, and news — all of it written by brilliant, local BookPeople (TM) who were paid at least one dollar per word. But that’s not going to happen. Petitions and letter-writing campaigns won’t have any effect if the lifeblood of newspapers — advertising — doesn’t flow.
Newspapers are in the middle of a long, slow decline, and as they begin to contemplate their own mortality, the cares of the BookPeople (TM) are far from their minds. Book publishers have found what they believe are more effective ways of promoting their wares than by purchasing print ads. Arts coverage may be essential to the health of the community, but it has always existed because it either made money or at least didn’t cost too much. And, now that we live in the age not of the patron, but of the corporation, newspapers don’t even really have a conscience to appeal to.
But there’s hope. The litblogosphere is already full of BookPeople (TM), both paid and unpaid, who are doing a terrific job of helping books find readers and vice versa. And while things are progressing more slowly than once predicted, it has been proven that you can make money on the web. With no less than the publisher of the New York Times speculating that his paper’s future is online-only, there is hope for the professional book critic. Once papers don’t have to pay for printing and distribution — and if online advertising and subscriptions pick up — something similar to the old model may reemerge alongside the new model. We could have critics publishing for pay and for free, pursuing the work that sustains them alongside the work that excites them. (Ideally those would be the same thing, but anyone who’s been asked to review a James Patterson novel would probably tell you that it doesn’t always work that way.) And the reviews might get longer again, too.
Or it may not happen that way. Who knows?
Don’t get me wrong: I do absolutely support the efforts of those who want to fight the cuts in newspaper book reviews, and I’ll cheer their successes. But all communication is evolving because of the Web’s influence, and book reviewing is not exempt. It may be wise to consider Champion’s admonition:
And while it’s certainly egregious to see serious literary criticism passed over for fluff, perhaps the current roster of book critics don’t provide, dare I say it, an accessible or entertaining entry point, or even an inclusive range, into thoughtful criticism.
There’s always room to improve our own work. And if readers feel our reviews are indispensible, it will be difficult for any kind of publisher to part with them.