Like every other reading adult in the Greater Los Angeles area, we were dismayed when the combined Books/Opinion section scheme was unveiled. No matter what they did, we were pretty sure the net result would not be more space for book coverage. Sadly, we were right. As we fished the Books section out of the paper, we didn't initially mind the combination because it had given the Review an illusion of newfound heft. We couldn't remember the Book Review ever feeling that heavy in our hands. Then we opened it up and found the Business section tucked within. Once removed, the Book Review assumed its familiar flimsy proportions, made all the more depressing by the fact that they now had an unwanted roommate hogging up half the space.
But the promise of a host of Web-only content and a "synthesis between print and online content" kept us from forming hasty conclustions. So we plopped into an easy chair and started reading through. On the one hand, it was very much the Book Review we left behind when our subscription lapsed - the same melange of fine work and frustrating inanities. But we were, finally, disappointed at how poorly thought out the web component of this enterprise appears to be. Now, it's early in the game, and this is a bit like hitting a new restaurant during its first week of operation. But, as we're about to see, a few key things suggest that the Times editors still don't quite get what the web can do for them.
We're mixing up the usual format a bit to look at the changes. First we'll look at the Print and Web changes, and then we'll get into the usual business of scoring the review.
THE CHANGES: PRINT
The overall design is generally cleaner than we remember it and the (dwindling) pages are appealingly laid out. The "This Week In Calendar" item, which provides a heads-up for the week's upcoming book reviews is a nice touch. And it's nice to see the Bestseller List staying prominently placed. (More on that anon.)
But it's simply impossible to ignore that the Review is precisely 11 pages. (The remaining nine belong to Opinion.) So, with that in mind, we come to one of our enduring frustrations about the Los Angeles Times Book Review. In an era where every column inch counts - now more than ever - why is the majority of the cover given over to a photo of Witold Rybczynski? It's extravagant, recklessly wasteful. The front page should contain more than a review's lede paragraph. You could start two reviews here and recover more room inside. Why does the Book Review see itself as a magazine? Does the Business section give up their front page with artwork? Honestly, why would you not use every inch at your disposal?
THE CHANGES: WEB
Editor David L. Ulin introduces this issue with the following Editor's Note.
What you are holding is more than a different-looking Los Angeles Times Book Review. It's the first step in an effort to rethink our approach to books and book news at The Times, to forge a synthesis between print and online content that will allow us not only to maintain our commitment to engaged reviews and criticism but also to expand the very nature of our books coverage.
Here, you'll find a fresh design for some familiar features; others, like Book Calendar, have been moved online, where we will also provide an expanded bestsellers list. Our new Books home page (www.latimes.com/books) will be a central resource for The Times' books coverage. A primary component will be the Sunday Book Review, but we will also offer links to book-related stories from around the paper, as well as an array of Web-only material in the weeks to come.
Today, we inaugurate a rotating cycle of Web-only columns with Sarah Weinman's "Dark Passages," devoted to mysteries and suspense fiction. Next Sunday, Ed Park will initiate a science fiction column, followed by Richard Rayner on paperbacks and Sonja Bolle on children's books. In addition, look for "Jacket Copy," a staff-written book news and information column, plus live online author chats during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 28 and 29.
Sarah Weinman is a friend of ours, so we necesssarily recuse ourselves from assessing her work. But she is one of the best voices in the mystery/suspense field and Ulin was wise to grab her. We do hope, however, that the web columns will ultimately prove to be more than merely genre outposts, which is all that's on offer at the moment. Given the opportunities the web offers, we hope the editors will cast a wider net with these columns.
In general, however, the web offerings - at this early stage - seem to display a curiously flat sense of the internet's potential. Jacket Copy seems like the editors' wan attempts a blogging and, at least at present, offers the kind of thing already found better and sooner on numerous blogs including Weinman's Galleycat, and it lacks the high style of Dwight Garner's Inside the List. In short, there's nothing to make it a Must Read. The Book Calendar contains not a single hyperlink anywhere - not to hosting book stores, not to ticket outlets, not to authors' home pages. Zip. And we have to assume there's an RSS feed for this stuff somewhere but it's sure not easy to find.
OK, that's all work in progress stuff. Here's our real issue thus far. Ulin promises a "synthesis between print and online content," and - so far - there is no evidence whatsoever of any synthesis. The print review can be found online and there are a few additional web columns. But any real synthesis? Show it to us. Now, don't get us wrong - it's a fantastic notion and it could well be that in the Downtown vaults there's a master plan to get there. But every online version of each review is no different than the print version. Remember this thing called hyperlinks? Or related items? Half the stories present exciting opportunities to offer some additional material for Times readers. Why couldn't someone have tracked down this portrait of Edwin Forrest or this look at William Charles Macready to augment the online review of The Shakespeare Riots? They've not begun to leverage what being online offers.
Consider this - the URL to the Times book page appears precisely once in the issue: in Ulin's column. That's some synthesis. (Advice to the editors: Stick it on every page, right up there with your name.) But, as we've said, it's early. We'll see what the months ahead bring. In the meantime, on to the stats:
Full length fiction reviews: 3.
Full length non-fiction reviews: 5.
Full length poetry reviews: 1.5
Essay: Jonathan Safran Foer's introductory essay to The Diary of Peter Ginz, 1941-1942 is reprinted.
TITLES, AUTHORS & REVIEWERS
Last Harvest by Witold Rybczyynski. Reviewed by Judith Lewis Grade: B
American Youth by Phil LaMarche. Reviewed by Jerry Stahl Grade: D
Deadman's Switch by Barbara Seranella. Reviewed by Diana Wagman RECUSED (Friend of reviewer)
The Amputee's Guide to Sex by Jillian Weise. Reviewed by Leslie Schwartz. RECUSED (Friend of reviewer)
John Donne: The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs. Reviewed by Wendy Smith. Grade: A
Easter Everywhere by Darcey Steinke. Reviewed by Erika Schickel Grade: B-
Because a Fire Was in My Head by Lynn Stegner. Reviewed by Donna Seaman. Grade: C
Discoveries Column: Kinfolks by Lisa Alther; The Mayflower Papers edited by Nathaniel Philbrick and Thomas Philbrick; and Without a Map by Meredith Hall. Reviewed by Susan Reynolds. Grade: A
My Body: New and Selected Poems by Joan Larkin. Reviewed by David L. Ulin. Grade: A
Age of Betrayal by Jack Beatty. Reviewed by Jonathan Kirsch. Grade: A
The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff. Reviewed by Phillip Lopate. Grade: A
Essay: Hope between the lines by Jonathan Safran Foer. Grade: F
SCORING THE BESTSELLERS
One of the things they get right is presenting the extended Hardcover and Paperback lists online. (The print version looks at the top 10, whereas online we get the top 15.) Now, we understand that the LA Times list is based on Southern California booksellers, whereas the New York Times looks at the whole country, but that's even more reason, frankly, to take pride in our city's reading habits. It's great to note the likes of Jonathan Lethem, John Banville, Dave Eggers, Milan Kundera, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri and others making our list. Any time someone takes that tired old "LA is shallow line" with you, send them that link. (Are you listening, Shalom Auslander?)
WHAT WE LIKE ...
Quite a lot, actually, as the preponderance of A's and B's above attests. Judith Lewis's cover review is smart and thoughtfully argued though it does feel ever so slightly like one of those mischievous matchups that book editors love ... Wendy Smith's look at the Donne biography is awfully worthy, a fine piece of criticism as befits a big city paper ... After a false start with her lede (about which more below), Erika Schickel's review of Darcey Steinke's memoir is affecting and empathetic ... We've always liked Susan Reynolds's Discoveries and continue to enjoy them though we'd love to know more about how they are selected ... David Ulin's brief look at Joan Larkin's poems is a true marvel of compression; in six short paragraphs, he manages background, criticism and quotation ... It's first-rate and if they really wanted to send people to the website, they'd post a dozen or so of these every week ... Jonathan Kirsch's review of Age of Betrayal scores an unexpected "A" since our first response was "Oy, another fucking train book?" ... But Kirsch makes the book actually sound relevant ... and Phillip Lopate's look at The Shakespeare Riots set us thumbing through our copy, though we would have liked to see more specifics about the circumstances of the riot's eruption ... So that's a whole load of fine work, really worthy stuff, which makes what follows all the more maddening ...
WHAT WE DON'T ...
Well, we can say this much - when they're good, they're quite good. But when they're bad, get out of the way ... Not sure what the editors were thinking with Jerry Stahl's review of American Youth (who allowed the term "emotionally devastating" into a review for grownups?) but it's not the opening throat clearing, nor the overly familiar writing that gets us, although this is pretty bad:
A dead kid who looks like he was pledging allegiance … genius! I can't think of a writer alive — or dead — who wouldn't get down on his or her knees and thank the Lit Gods for granting an image like that
This is what passes for criticism these days? OK, maybe it's a matter of taste. And Stahl is a fine novelist. But what's maddening is this:
There exists, of course, no more defining American image than death by bullet.
Oh. Is that so? We suspect readers of this site could come up with plenty of equally quintessential American images. What creeps into the Book Review, time and time again - and remains unchecked by the editors - is this tendency toward grandiose posturing, as though only via sweeping statements can one's book review be considered meaningful. Consider this from the opening line of the Steinke review:
The problem with religion is its insistence on denying the physical.
Oh, that's the problem? Gosh, how foolish of us, we thought it was, oh, intolerance of other viewpoints or, well, you know, a dozen other things. Thank you for clarifying. Then there's this in Donna Seaman's review of the Lynn Stegner novel:
One of the most daring and rewarding acts a novelist performs is to give voice to a morally suspect, even repugnant, main character.
OK, do we start to see a pattern? Seriously, folks, isn't it the role of the editor to play traffic cop when sentences like these scamper across the page? Why they're allowed to stand is something of a mystery. The remainder of the Seaman's review sounds merely cloying in its summarization of the novel in question, although things like this grate:
A novel fully realized on every level, "Because a Fire Was in My Head" is a provocative literary work of weight and luster. A risky, intermittently melodramatic tale, it casts light both on the timeless mysteries of the human psyche and on the paradoxes of a notoriously contrary epoch, namely, post-World War II North America.
So, we're thinking, if it's actually "fully realized on every level," there would be no melodrama. Did that question occur to nobody on the editorial staff? But this all pales beside the annoyance the Safran Foer piece unleashed in us.
One can understand the New York Review of Books, with its sixty plus pages, or even the New York Times Book Review, with its thirty plus pages, handing over a full page of precious space to reprint a book's introductory essay. But when you've just had your section hacked in half, there's something perverse about this kind of profligacy. It would be understandable if the piece in question was too brilliant to pass up but it isn't. It's absolutely awful - and we like Safran Foer. But it's a jejune embarrassment to all concerned. The less said about it the better. The same criticism applies, on a smaller scale for the space given over to a Henri Cole poem, which could easily have been placed online - as part of, hey, an ambitious poetry month page - and given over space for another strong, short review.
GRADE: For the overall enterprise - web and print - we think this one gets a C+. Yes, it's early; yes, they are finding their way. But it's clear that not much thought went into the online presence, and it's clear that despite some really fine work that is coming our way, some real clunkers are waved on through the gate as well. The space crunch is not the fault of the editors, obviously. They were dealt a shitty hand over which they have no control. But how they respond to what they've been given, and what they make of the new opportunities - if they can identify them - will determine whether the LATBR will earn a place in the hands of discerning readers.