BEA Panel Report: Crisis in Book Reviewing

Here’s what dictionary.com say about the word “crisis”:

1. a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, esp. for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.
2. a condition of instability or danger, as in social, economic, political, or international affairs, leading to a decisive change.
3. a dramatic emotional or circumstantial upheaval in a person’s life.
4. Medicine/Medical.
a. the point in the course of a serious disease at which a decisive change occurs, leading either to recovery or to death.
b. the change itself.
5. the point in a play or story at which hostile elements are most tensely opposed to each other.

We can eliminate the medical definition altogether, unless, like me, you count the “book reviews are good for you and blogs are bad for you” nonsense as pathlogical. We can eliminate the first definition because while the column inches are evaporating and whole newspapers are starting to absorb wire copy (read, for example, how much of the current Newsday books section is composed of original, non-Tribune Company content and you will see the marks of cannibal teeth), I cannot believe that book reviewing is dead. If the turning point involves the hypothesized convergence point of print and online, John Freeman, the somewhat diffident moderator for Sunday morning’s panel, certainly didn’t mention much of it. So is this a personal crisis? And if so, why not be candid about this? Perhaps the fifth definition is in order, given the inexplicably hostile look that John Freeman offered to me when, on my way out of the conference room, I reiterated the point that Freeman continued to make throughout the panel: “Remember, John, all voices need to be represented. Email me.”

Item: The two most common words uttered during the Crisis in Book Reviewing panel were “business model.”

Disclaimer: Due to a thundering hangover I was nursing from the previous night’s partying, I arrived twenty-five minutes late. So if there was more priority given to book reviews as an editorial or intellectual crisis, then please let me know. But from all concerned, it appeared that the crisis was more about “gots to get paid” rather than “gots to get read.” I suspect this was one of the reasons why Carlin Romano vociferated from the back how he was disappointed that the conversation was more a collection of middle manager-speak and laid into Heidi Julavits. I suspect this was one of the reasons that Ron Hogan likewise raised hell.

Ergo: I must therefore conclude that the crisis then was about the personal pocketbooks of all involved. And if this was the case, why assemble a group of arts editors (and a few lower tier money people) to talk about a subject outside of their expertise?

There is no time to provide much in the way of context. The day is almost gone. So here is a gonzo precis of what transpired on Sunday morning.

Heidi Julavits: Not fond of less than 4,000 word reviews.

Oscar Villalon: Disagrees. The fate of the book world is linked to the fate of the review world. Decline of the literary world is linked to the decline of criticism. Does not like Consumer Reports squib-like reviews.

Stacey Lewis: Publicist of City Lights Books. What sells books? When a customer comes in and cites a source. Feels very strongly in mainstream book reviews and regional papers. Alas, the book review position is now amalgamated with the arts editor position. The good people lost at the Village Voice Literary Supplement, including Ed Park and Joy Press, always paid attention to City Lights. The new answer? Alternative press and radio.

Maud Newton: The smartest of the panelists. “If I had known this panel was to be called the ‘Crisis in Book Reviewing,’ I would have demurred.” Pointed out that she doesn’t read print newspapers. She and many people 35 and below reading online. How many truly read the paper in print? The blog is just a different form. She doesn’t see the cause and effect relationship. “I’m puzzled by the level of animosity that has on occasion come from newspapers.”

Villalon: “We drink the Kool-Aid.” Openly admits that book review sections don’t have a business model.

Mike Merschel: We need to promote. “We’re taking for granted that the books section will be there” “The print edition is not dead. I don’t think people are aware of the influence it still has.”

Julavits: “The 650 word review is bullshit.” Slight susurration from crowd.

Freeman: “The distinction is the quality of the writing.”

Villalon: It’s never been our goal to sell books. The mass media sets the agenda, but “we in no way tell you what to think.” (I raise my hand here to quibble with this elitist paradox. Alas, I am invisible to the mumbling moderator beating the same two tedious generalizations over and over again. The distinction is in the quality of the argument.)

From the audience: Jerome Weeks! “I never thought I’d be in the position of defending the 800 word review.” Weeks points out that all the critical editorial positions are gone but that the space at the Dallas Morning News is still there. “Yet the paper is making a profit.”

Merschel (the current DMN books editor, by the by): “Let your publishers know.”

Ron quibbles quite rightly about the hyperbolic nature of Freeman’s flummery.

Freeman (resembling Ari Flesicher with hair and not for the first time): “It’s important to have all points of view on there.” The less points of view, the same points over and over.

POT KETTLE BLACK!

Villalon: Astonished that the Chron has lost $330 million since 2001. No online business model. Where did this money go?

Carlin Romano: See introduction. Also, fiery words about the fact that young people do read print. Objecting to corporate nonsense.

Melissa Turner [incoming features editor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution]: I have drunk the Kool-Aid.

(What I’m thinking right now as I continue to raise my hand. Do you really want to be confessing that you’re drinking the Kool-Aid when you are likewise complaining about a crisis? I never get a chance to address this question.)

Villalon: On young readers, “if you try to be hip, they will never ever read you.”

(Third question now in noggin: If you don’t write with a fresh voice, they will never ever read you. Alas, I am not among Freeman’s “all points of view,” because he’s a frightened hypocrite.)

Julavits: Smartly advises that we need to embrace that book reviewing is a labor of love.

Various conversations with swell people as panel closes. I mention something to Oscar Villalon (just to help him out) about POD newsstands being one solution. For the most part, everyone is very kind and affable.

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2 Comments

  1. Re: Heidi Julavits: Not fond of less than 4,000 word reviews.
    Re: Julavits: “The 650 word review is bullshit.”

    Huh? Did Julavits have The Believer in mind? Their long essays are long but their book reviews are like short-shorts. Most run shy of 1000 words. A recent one about Lydia Davis’s new book clocks in at 537 words. I guess that was bullshit though.

    http://www.believermag.com/issues/200705/?read=review_davis

  2. Julavits expressly allowed as how editing those short reviews was her least favorite part of putting the Believer together, although they provide a useful spotlight on debut fiction. She also spoke more broadly about how the vast majority of short reviews in newspapers are, and I’m paraphrasing, little more than book reports with bracketed by brief expressions of like or dislike.

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