May 16, 2007



I'm not finding the GalleyCat post, but I recall one allegation in this whole brouhaha that seemed especially significant -- that newspaper publishers haven't dedicated the same resources in selling advertising as they have for other sections. I've witnessed the difference that a good salesman makes, so if the claim is true, it really does speak more to business mismanagement than an unwillingness of the book publishing industry to support its own content.

If newspaper publishers have shorted book review sections, the failure of those sections is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It sounds like it would be a hard case to make to management to put renewed energy and the resources of a media overhaul to save something that's already been written off.

Chuck Leddy

Thanks, Mark, for these insightful and thought-provoking remarks on the present status of book reviews. I'm in complete agreement that the landscape is changing/transitioning, but it may take years for "new realities" to emerge. I hope there will be healthy, vibrant discussions about books in both print and online media, but I suspect book lovers will have to raise their voices and begin demanding that. As you said, we get the book coverage we deserve & will fight for. Keep speaking up and speaking out!


One key question: are book reviews a tool to help people make wise reading choices, or are they themselves something to be read for pleasure? The best, of course, are both. The arguments being waged in this dicussion, however, seem to put them squarely in the latter camp. If so, then perhaps the general interest newspaper book review section(save for the big dogs like the LAT and NYT, et al, which, as always, are what people are really talking about when they talk about "the media" or in this case, "book review sections") are not the best place for what we are seeking to save.

As a former arts writer who wrote book reviews at a smallish Midwestern daily metro paper, I can say that my pieces rarely involved "thoughtful literary criticism." What I did offer was what I hoped was a summary that didn't give too much away, some analysis of plot, setting and characters, and enough personality in the piece to make it clear whether I thought the book was worth a reader's time. I grappled with many of my choices: Does Michael Connelly really need another review? Perhaps not, but just because I'm a fan and had tracked down dozens of other reviews doesn't mean that someone who relies on a general interest newspaper has done so. I chose, perhaps unwisely, to assume that I was among my readers' sole outlets for book news and reviews. That meant handling some mainstream fare and pushing at those boundaries to recommend a few things that would otherwise fall through the cracks.

On a larger scale, that's what I want as a reader. I want to learn about books I might want to read, and I'm helped much more by simply seeing that a review has been done - and by who and in what tone - than by the review itself. Too much "thoughtful literary criticism" gives too much away, and I'd rather not know too much going in. I may turn to BookForum or the NY Review of Books after the fact to amplify points or help me to better appreciate what I just read, but I seriously doubt more than a fraction of the people who read with any consistency slog their way through several thousand words before deciding to pick up a book.

If I want to know what to read, I can consult thousands of blogs and web site, skim book review sections or (gasp) talk to friends. If I want to be entertained by reading about books and literature, I'll usually go to very different places. So, perhaps people who want the former should fight for book review space to remain in papers as just one tool among many, while those who want the latter should support outlets that already exist for such things (and perhaps suggest that the more successful newspaper book reviews be spun off as separate publications).


This is really well put. To put one more environmental metaphor out there: there needs to be an ecosystem of information wherein all these resources can exist together.


Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks. I hope this discussion will continue to widen.

A few additional thoughts are brought to mind by your comments, especially John's. I think your point is well taken - I often take great pleasure in reading a well-crafted review of a book I know I'll never read. But for the most part - NYTBR being one of the exceptions - I don't find these at newspapers. In addition to the ones I mentioned above, I find these kind of thoughtful pieces in places like The New Yorker, The New Republic, the Atlantic and others - in short, places that cover fewer books but do so in more depth.

I'd also argue that we've sacrificed something chasing after newspapers' reach. The argument - offered, for example, by Oscar Villalon (a find book editor) - is that a newspaper reaches X-hundreds of thousands people. But there's an underlying presumption that all, most or many of these people read the book reviews. I think that's a real fallacy. People interested in books read book reviews, and I'd venture the wager that the traffic at a site like this one or Maud Newton's or Bookslut is a much more accurate indicator of how many people are reading newspaper book reviews.

If we can accept that possibility, then it really rams home the notion that we're trading depth, thoughtfulness and variety for a "wide readership" that essentially is chimerical. I think it's important to remember that though numbers don't lie they can be spun, and they only tell a part of the story.

I do think your notion about wanting to be kept aware of books is a very important one, one that probably speaks for a lot of readers, and again, I think newspapers might learn from blogs about how to do that better, and they might utilize their web presences more effectively to shine as wide a light as possible.


"Too much 'thoughtful literary criticism' gives too much away, and I'd rather not know too much going in. I may turn to BookForum or the NY Review of Books after the fact to amplify points or help me to better appreciate what I just read, but I seriously doubt more than a fraction of the people who read with any consistency slog their way through several thousand words before deciding to pick up a book."

John, you had me at hello.


i really liked this piece. you articulated very well a lot of the thoughts i have been mulling over since the NBCC started their campaign. in particular, i liked what you said here:

"The internet has given readers a new hunger for participating in a discussion rather than simply being dictated to, and, if that raises overall enthusiasm for books, it's not a bad thing, however unruly it might become."

i fully agree. i have wondered if that fear of potential "unruliness" is part of the critics' reactions to the changes in the book review industry... the idea that people who are not "experts" on literature might have opinions of their own about what they are reading--opinions they want to express (for free--yikes!) through blogs, etc. but after all, why shouldn't they? the more discussion of books, the better, i say.

but of course, that is not to devalue the opinions of people who do study literature (being an English major, i could hardly do that! :) ). there will always be a need for learned critics who can help to guide, and give a big-picture context to, the cultural and literary discussion... but what does it matter if they do it in print, or online, or in podcasts, or some other medium? as you say, the change is not coming, it is already here. what is important is figuring out how to adapt to this new world in a way that both readers and writers can benefit.

anyway, great post... thanks.

Jack Pendarvis

Two things about your penultimate paragraph: 1) This may stun everyone, but I personally know some poor people who are smart! Sometimes they buy books instead of clothes! 2) These old people on whom you are counting to die soon, well, don't worry, they all have computers. I know this because they send me hundreds of forwards about not sticking my hand in a payphone change slot because I will be poisoned by a deadly hypodermic needle that someone has hidden inside. So this actually works in favor of your argument. The old are manning their computers this very minute! You have, if anything, underestimated the numbers of the computer-savvy "old-timers" of our land. Also, they are not dying. We have lots of good new medicines! And we love our old people; they are very nice to us. Full disclosure: I am poor and old.


Hey Jack. My 79-year-old Dad is on the internet, too. But I think we can eliminate outliers and agree that the "set" of interested book buyers probably very neatly overlaps the "set" of people with internet access (if I can wear my math hat).

By the way, I encourage you all to cross-post your comments at Critical Mass. They will appear after moderated, and I think the conversation should be held there, too.

Erika D.

Great posts, Mark. Thanks for taking the time to synthesize so many important points I know many of us have been thinking of these past few weeks--and for doing it so gracefully and graciously.


by the way mark, when i clicked on the link to the LA Times article (in the first half of your post, on Critical Mass), it took me to an article about Book Critics Circle nominees... i'm thinking that's probably not the one you are referring to?


Thank you, Erika! And grack, those links aren't mine - you should leave a comment over there. They chose those links.

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