Dec. 25, 2007 - Issue #636: The Swiftys
Book reviewing is dead! Long live the book review!
Lack of venues and a paucity of critical writing are Digging the grave of the book review
No, Hardwick was not speaking of Heather Reisman (aka “Chief Book Lover” of Chapters Indigo) and her gushing, saccharine reviews—for instance, Brian Mulroney’s biography (“a truly fascinating story”) or Elizabeth Hay’s Late Night on Air (“a compelling story rich in human emotion”). Nor was she speaking of any of the bland, off-the-wires reviews of already-best-selling books published by the same half-dozen major publishing houses.
Hardwick, novelist and (eventually) acclaimed literary critic, wife of American poet Robert Lowell, wrote those words in 1959 in the pages of Harper’s Magazine. Hardwick was neither the first, nor the last, to decry the lazy intellectual standards, tendency to unadulterated praise and lax literary standards of contemporary book reviews. In 1928, for instance, Edmund Wilson, an American literary critic, complained, “When one considers the number of reviews, the immense amount of literary journalism ... one asks oneself how it is possible for reviewing to remain so puerile.”
(At least Hardwick did something about it, though: four years after she said the above quote, she started up The New York Review of Books, a veritable critical institution in American letters that continues publishing to this day.) Today, though, these old criticisms of book reviews remain oddly resonant, with different forces conspiring to put the art of book reviewing on life-support. For one: in both Hardwick’s and Wilson’s era, there were plentiful venues for the publication of book reviews. Today, the number of daily newspapers that publish a book section has declined dramatically. In Canada, the Globe and Mail, with its Saturday book section, is considered the only paper to do anything close to a comprehensive job of reviewing the mountains of books published in Canada each year. (Quill and Quire, a books industry publication with a significant on-line component, is usually mentioned as the other noteworthy venue.)
“If you go on-line, you can see the trend,” says Richard Helm, books editor at the Edmonton Journal. “The book sections are getting reduced, if not chopped altogether.
“It’s a funny little dance we’re obliged to do every week, as book editors,” adds Helm, speaking on the balance he must maintain between representing small and large publishers, between books that have broad public appeal and those with niche markets, and many other factors. “[I get] over a hundred books a week, and, during peak season, more than that. I have room in my section to run 12 reviews on a very good weekend. In an effort to get more reviews in, we’re compelled to cut back on length, at the expense of thoughtful criticism.”
Helm declined to elaborate on the reasons why this is the case.
There are some with ideas, though. In an article that had overtones of the criticisms of Hardwick and Wilson—”Book coverage is not just meagre but shockingly mediocre. The pablum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers,” for example—in The Columbia Review of Journalism this past fall, Steve Wasserman, former editor of The Los Angeles Times’s book section, laid the blame on the fact that many editors permit themselves to be pressured by “the faux populism of the marketplace.”
“Only the review (or book) that is immediately understood by the greatest number of readers can be permitted to see the light of day,” he writes. “Anything else smacks of ‘elitism.’ This is a coarse and pernicious dogma—a dogma that is at the centre of the anti-intellectual tradition that is alive and well within America’s newspapers. It is why most newspapers barely bother with reviews. And it is why most newspaper reviews are not worth reading.”
The anti-intellectual tradition seems to manifest elsewhere: accompanying the death of the book review is the death of reading itself. These days sooth-sayers foresee the end of literacy altogether. Consider just the title of Caleb Crain’s essay in the latest issue of the New Yorker, for instance: “The Twilight of the Book.” Meanwhile, the title of Scott Timsberg’s piece, published earlier this month in The Los Angeles Times, relied on a what seems to be an entirely ironic question mark for its hopefulness: “A dismal year for books?” Both pieces lament falling literacy levels, falling book sales and the allure of other technology.
But whereas the decreasing market share for literature over other forms of entertainment is a wholly familiar argument, the number of reading individuals in the States, according to Wasserman, has remained relatively consistent over the past few decades in absolute numbers (about 96 million people, according to the National Endowment for the Arts), if not in percentage of the American population. The percentage of these readers who limit their reading choices to less intellectually rigorous fare, like Harlequin romances or crime fiction, however, was not recorded.
It’s not simply a matter of anti-intellectualism, though: as Wasserman points out in his article, the publishing of book reviews is a fantastically unprofitable enterprise. Wasserman says that the problem is that they rely on advertising revenue from publishers, who would rather take out ads in other sections of the paper—if they take out ads at all—in order to reach a wider audience.
That’s as much a fault of the newspapers as the publishers though. Wasserman points out that book sections could be made more lucrative for newspapers and other publications if they broadened their base to include products and services the relatively affluent demographic that makes up the readers of the book section like to buy: ads for top-quality whiskeys, electronics, coffee and other luxury goods would help the bottom line. (Flip through the Globe and Mail’s Saturday books section and you’ll notice that they have adopted some of these strategies.)
Practically, however, book reviewers (and, frankly, writers on the arts in general) are in a state of suspended animation when it comes to their own finances.
“I think the general public has the idea that reviewers are paid more than they are,” says Candace Fertile, whose book reviews are widely published (including locally in the Edmonton Journal). She, like most book reviewers, has a day job, teaching at a BC college.
“You have to want to do it,” she continues. “Getting paid $50 for a book review is basically volunteer work. Although, to me, getting paid something is important. Too often writers are expected to give away their work.” Fertile also points out that pay for freelance reviewers has not kept up with inflation.
The idea that truly critical book reviewing is a pernicious activity, a lethally parasitic growth on the otherwise immaculately saleable work of literature, doesn’t help. Especially for weekly arts magazines like the one between your fingers, the ethical impetus to just support the entirely underfunded and undersupported local publishing industry is immense.
Not that the pressure necessarily comes from publishers themselves. As Lou Morin, general manager of Edmonton’s NeWest Press, explains, these days simply getting a review is a good thing, regardless of what it actually says.
“Every time we see a review published, a little cheer goes up in the office,” says Morin. “Book reviews are of utmost importance in terms of getting the word out. A good review can really increase interest in a book, and pique the curiosity of readers to go to a bookstore or library. It’s really a key marketing tool.”
NeWest publishes 12 books a year, says Morin, and that getting half a dozen reviews for a given title is “doing really well.”
Though Morin doesn’t have a solution for getting more reviews published, she does think it’s vital we find a way to increase not only the number of reviews, but the critical discourse within them.
“For our whole literary community,” she says, “reviews are essential to get people thinking and talking and reading.” V
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