January 30, 2008



I just subscribed this week, specifically because I wanted to start supporting Bookforum instead of just reading it on newsstands. This news is not encouraging.


I subscribed for this year too because I tried it last year and enjoyed, among other things, the absence of political coverage. So I was less than equanimous (the internet says that's a word but I'm still not sure) when I read that PW article.

Mark Thwaite

I don't think it is worth us keeping an open mind, Mark. I think it is worth all Bookforum readers making a great big bloody fuss about this news NOW and then maybe we can stop it happening or at least get the editors/owners to consider a rethink. They are suggesting a third of the magazine will move to current affairs -- so, effectively, every third magazine you buy will be a news mag. I want every one to be a book mag.

Brendan Wolfe

Put me in the "open mind" camp. I understand why Mark Thwaite would want to raise "a great big bloody fuss," but I've also been in the business of putting out publications. If you lack the readers and subscribers to support what you're doing, then you have to make changes. Either that or lose money. Or go out of business.

It's easy to be offended by such changes and demand that magazines such as Bookforum remain pure. But magazines need subscribers and funders to survive, not declarations on the sanctity of all literary coverage.


Can somebody check their masthead and see if Sam Tanenhaus' name is now on it?

Jennifer Howard

Note that the person who's going to be editing the so-called current affairs section of Bookforum is Chris Lehmann, who used to be deputy editor of the Washington Post Book World and is one of the most intellectually serious and book-loving people I know. Bookforum wouldn't be hiring him if they meant to dumb down their books coverage or pander to the masses. What they're calling current affairs may look like serious nonfiction coverage to you and me.

See also these comments at the bottom of the PW item:

"But McConnell promised that Bookforum 'will remain a book review. I imagine it will be broken down roughly in thirds—one third fiction, one third academic and one third current affairs, but book based.' Lehmann seconded that plan: 'I don't think I'm doing anything other than pure book coverage. That's part of the mandate that goes with being one of the last publications standing in this field. I'm very, very much interested in literary and scholarly work. I'm very excited and happy to get started. I gather that the team up there feels the same.' "


I completely agree, Jennifer - Lehmann's presence is a real reason to have hope.

Dan Green

"It's easy to be offended by such changes and demand that magazines such as Bookforum remain pure. But magazines need subscribers and funders to survive"

Which is precisely why literary coverage will only continue to decrease in mainstream print publications, which in turn is why the protestations of such as Adam Kirsch, Richard Schickel, et al, is finally irrelevant and why, eventually, most "decent criticism" will be found online. There will be no other place for it to go.

Steven Augustine

"...eventually, most "decent criticism" will be found online."

The important questions being: A) will the important critics, largely, consist of refugees from "print" to "online" as the larger magazines convert entirely to virtual; B) will an efficiently monetized Web elevate talented bloggers to professional standards (or attract fresh blood with serious qualifications); C) or will a vestigial kind of literary criticism, existing only online, irremediably casual and operating at a much lower standard than the greatest literary magazines did in their heydays, mark the beginning of the end?

Dan Green

Steven: If it's C, where will all the real critics have gone?

Steven Augustine

Dan, I'm pretty sure that if the opportunities for remunerated criticism wither away entirely, most of the talented practitioners will find it difficult to justify producing critiques of any length or seriousness. Of course there'll be exceptions... there are *already* exceptions (because the situation is already rather bleak, compared to how things looked just thirty years ago)... but even *you* can't guarantee you won't have burned out sometime in the forseeable future.

Beyond the very rare minority of critics/essayists who are not only natural talents, but manage to hold to a professional level of standards *without* having to answer to a bluenosed cheque-dangling apparatus, I can't see a bunch of genuine talents lining up to do a lot of hard work for free. Isn't it inevitable, in the absence of at-least-subsistence wages, that the vacuum will be filled with second, third, and fourth-stringers?

And future Golden Ages of the Gifted Amateur will depend on the economy, I think.


This isn't unexpected. Look, folks, the cold hard truth is that, as much as we all love smart fiction coverage, there's very little money in it. Go through the latest print issue of Bookforum and look at the advertising. Mostly spillover arts publishers from Artforum, a few university presses, a good deal of placeholder ads (because they couldn't sell the space), and a few philanthropic ads from The Threepenny Review and The Observer.

But very little advertising space from the big publishers or for anything that ISN'T books.

So either the Bookforum ad sales people aren't persuading advertisers or the demographic for books coverage is so small that nobody wants to waste money there. Particularly when there's this whole Internet thing, where bloggers will essentially promote your book for the price of sending on a galley or an ARC.

Print book reviewing, as we know it, is dead because of this problem. Can we now officially declare that newspaper books sections lost the great Battle to Save Book Reviewing? I think it's pretty damn self-evident now, what with the declining column inches and the wholesale gutting of reviews. (It's the truth. It hasn't been announced yet, but I learned recently that yet another great books section is toast.)

And print film reviewing will be dead two years after print book coverage once the film companies get wise to the same idea.

The arts and cultural coverage in newspapers that will be left will be devoted to the big names. And the big names only. Meaning that if you want to write about some independent film for a small-town newspaper, they won't be interested. Because they need a name that their broadening demographic will recognize. That is the sad future of newspapers.

Which is why we must use the Internet need to always think of the small presses and the indies. Because sooner than we think, there will be no other option available for variegated arts coverage.

Dan Green

"I can't see a bunch of genuine talents lining up to do a lot of hard work for free."

But there's hardly any remuneration now. Do you know how much a book review, in even the most prestigous places, will get you? Pocket change. (And the most "rigorous" criticism, the sort that appears in scholarly journals, is does entirely for free.) Are you aware of any "professional" critics who make a living at criticism? Even James Wood has to reinforce his banking account with teaching. If online sites (blogs, or whatever) become reputable sources of literary criticism, dedicated critics will go there.


It's not solely a matter of wanting my favourite publications to remain "pure". So they're probably going to provide serious, critical coverage of non-fiction: so what? Like that isn't being done already by Harper's Magazine, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, New York Review of Books etc. etc.? I am highly sceptical of the viability of this new "current affairs coverage" that pretty much every other print publication on the earth provides and of which those I mentioned tend to do very well.

What is the point of Bookforum's coverage going to be -- another venue to read about Bush and get an Islamic perspective from Tariq Ramadan? What will Bookforum being doing that no one else is that will somehow magically attract new readers and boost circulation? Because all I see about this move is Bookforum sinking into the noise of all the other lit magazines rather than standing out, which is what I noticed about them when I tried it last year. I noticed them and subscribed *because* they were so devoted to literary and cultural critique; they did it so well and finally, finally I had found a magazine that didn't think it needed to review the 150th Abraham Lincoln biography to be taken seriously.

Washington Post Book World? Whatever. I just read that Rain Taxi is rather like Bookforum so I'll head over there.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


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