Does The End of Washington Post Book World Mean the End of Books Coverage?

Even though there has yet to be an official announcement, the NBCC is once again unofficially “reporting” “unofficial” and unsourced news that Washington Post Book World will print its last issue on February 15, 2009. Efforts to reach Marcus Brauchli to clarify answers have been unsuccessful (the man does not want to talk, even though it is claimed that he’s the only one who can answer), but perhaps a clue to Washington Post Book World‘s possible demise might be found in this blog entry at Short Stack, whereby specific links to “hard times” and “good news” suggest a tenable connection.

Conjecture, however, is hardly journalism. It still strikes me as journalistically irresponsible to report unconfirmed and unofficial rumors, particularly after Maureen McLane’s embarrassing array of bread pudding posts over the weekend. While this approach may work for Harry Knowles or Perez Hilton, it’s a bit dismaying but not particularly surprising to see that it likewise works for Jane Ciabattari.

[UPDATE: Thankfully, Motoko Rich has done some reporting, getting some interesting quotes from David Ulin, Steve Wasserman, and Douglas Brinkley, and talking with sources inside the paper. As Ulin notes, the death of a Sunday stand-alone section does not necessarily translate into an end for robust book coverage. It apparently hasn’t occurred to some of the NBCC’s inflexible fulminators that merging books coverage into general cultural sections may actually get more people reading books coverage. Is not such an approach better for the long-term health of literary journalism? And does it not attract a broader readership who otherwise may not have known about a specific book or author?]

[UPDATE 2: Terry Teachout also has thoughts, adding, “Why tear your hair because the Washington Post has decided to bow to the inevitable? The point is that the Post is still covering books, and the paper’s decision to continue to publish an online version of Book World strikes me as enlightened, so long as the online “magazine” is edited and designed in such a way as to retain a visual and stylistic identity of its own.”]

[UPDATE 3: Sarah Weinman notes, “Instead of passive intake, this is a world of active consumption and discussion, where people seek out what they want, when they want it at their own discretion. Looking for guidance and seeking things out aren’t mutually exclusive, but readers should be – and are – suspicious of entitlement and suspicion that comes with books coverage being wholly separate from the larger world.”]

[UPDATE 4: To jump off from Terry and Sarah’s thoughts, one advantage that a print-based newspaper has over a blog is the manner in which a reader can discover an article adjacent to another, much like the way in which you discover an unexpected book next to another in a library or a bookstore. Given this exploratory reading tendency, does it even make sense for any newspaper today to maintain a stand-alone books section? I’m wondering if the time has come for newspapers to stop segregating books coverage. A naturally curious reader, interested in the many pressing issues of her day, might very well find a newspaper book review to be of value. Hell, the reader may not even know that the newspaper features books coverage. Maybe the time has come for newspapers to stop considering how a newspaper’s house style dictates the tone, and think more about how individual voices bring life, passion, and informed arguments to a newspaper. The gatekeeper may no longer be the outlet; it may very well be the individual reporter herself. Authority may now arise from an individual’s reputation and voice, rather than the trappings of institutional newspaper culture. And given how rigid, gaffe-ridden, and humorless many of these institutions are, this development may not necessarily be a bad thing.]

[UPDATE 5: A contrarian print-partisan take from Lizzie Skurnick, whose mind is in the toilet.]

[UPDATE 6: The Post itself offers a report, with quotes from Brauchli. According to Rachel Shea, three quarters of the roughly 900 reviews each year will be shifted over to the Style section. Shea herself invites comments from readers.

Carolyn Kellogg: “A lot of effort has gone into bemoaning book review changes and it’s hard for me not to think that, coming from book critics, it’s both self-serving and a little cheesy. And it’s certainly less interesting than engaging with books.” Meanwhile, Scott Esposito calls out newspapers for not getting “with the 21st century and [figuring] out how to sell bookpage adspace to entities other than publishers and bookstores.”

Orthofer: “[M]an, do we miss paper coverage.” And to address the print sentiments of Elizabeth Foxwell and Joe Flood, it’s worth observing again that there will still be a print section that you can curl up to. It’s just going to be merged into the rest of the newspaper. Flood observes that the review was “printed on the cheapest paper available – the CVS coupons are on much better stock.” Maybe the time has come for newspapers to adopt POD as a viable curling up option.]

[UPDATE 7: I’ve located an article from 1973 depicting the then closing of Book World. The pertinent parallels and details can be found here.]

Edward Champion for NBCC Board Member — Platform


Today, the National Book Critics Circle ballot was issued. And as previously announced on these pages, I am running for Board Member. Even though there are eight slots and twenty-two fine candidates, I thought it might be constructive to outline my platform for anyone who might be on the fence.

Make NBCC Board Meetings transparent: I’ve been an NBCC member for almost a year and I haven’t a clue about what goes on during an NBCC Board Meeting. For all I know, these fine minds get together to play Parcheesi. I am certain that I am not alone on this front. Nearly every other organization keeps a dutiful record of minutes and releases these minutes to the members. Why doesn’t the NBCC do this? The time has come for the NBCC to be completely transparent about what goes on behind closed doors. Because if there are lingering questions or uncertain solutions, it’s very possible that the NBCC’s collective pool may have more than a few ideas in solving them.

Organize more social gatherings: Literary symposiums and discussions are one thing. But when was the last time that the NBCC organized a place where freelance reviewers and book critics could simply relax and encourage each other? Hell, when was the last time that book critics met up for bowling or mini golf? NBCC member Tim Brown has the right idea with his trivia contests. I understand that the NBCC used to be a place for social gatherings, but this has not occurred under the John Freeman regime. Mr. Freeman has, on at least one occasion, expressed a desire to hold a party somewhere. But let’s translate these great desires into definitive action. And by action, I mean, a low-key social gathering where casual social discourse is as much a raison d’etre for getting together as intellectual discussion. Book critics are people too. And since fun is one of my campaign slogans, let’s likewise ensure that this isn’t a hollow promise.

Improve the “Critical Mass” blog: While the Critical Mass blog has developed its voice over the past year, what can one say about a blog without permanent links? How then can other bloggers easily link to Critical Mass? The time has come to make Critical Mass a central place for literary discourse. And that means transforming it into something that is easier on the eyes and not always so serious. It also means coaxing David Orr into more humorous posts — which may involve bribing the man with baked goods to get him to post more frequently. As NBCC Board Member, I will also happily volunteer my services to getting Critical Mass on the more flexible blogging platform WordPress. I will even volunteer my podcasting services for special NBCC-centric author interviews.

Encourage younger critics and diverse voices: The NBCC hasn’t exactly reached out to young critics just starting out who would take up literary criticism. Nor are there any specific NBCC contacts currently signed on to help young critics contend with the realities of freelancing. The time has come not only to encourage these new voices, but to mentor them as time permits. Like my fellow NBCC Board Member candidate David Ulin, I also feel that there is too much emphasis on critics in the Northeast. Let’s recalibrate the balance and include other voices.

Stop turning our backs on genre and graphic novels: While literary fiction is a wondrous place for any books enthusiast to start, the NBCC has been particularly lax in addressing genre titles and graphic novels. Yes, it is true that Fun Home was nominated for the 2006 Memoir/Autobiography award. But what of genre and graphic novels as a whole? Why don’t we celebrate Anthony Boucher as eagerly as we celebrate Edmund Wilson?

Extend NBCC membership to litbloggers who do not appear in print. Litbloggers are, as the Rake recently observed, not the enemy. While the Rake has overlooked many of the positive comments directed towards litbloggers in the NBCC Ethics results, he is right to point out to quiet hostilities directed toward the litbloggers. We don’t really know what the book reviewing landscape will look like in ten years, let alone five. But it is clear that litbloggers have a passion for books, and often a critical acumen as keen as many print reviewers. Instead of maintaining a divide, let’s work with them. If literary criticism is to thrive in the 21st century, then it’s up to us to reach out to those who may take up the mantle. Further, opening up the membership doors to the litbloggers will also permit additional membership revenue that will help to keep the NBCC afloat.

I have many more ideas for how to improve the NBCC. But please feel free to email me if you have any other questions or ideas.

Also, please feel free to join the Facebook group page.

Thank you for your consideration!

Scott McLemee Enters the Ring; More NBCC Boad Member Thoughts

Thankfully, I’m not the only person using his blog for an NBCC Board Member campaign. Scott McLemee has also announced his candidacy. Mr. McLemee has some solid thoughts on the digital divide and, as a fellow candidate, I wish him well in his campaign and likewise offer my endorsement, however crabwise the gesture may be.

In light of Mr. McLemee’s evocation of Wilfred Sheed, however, I’d like to continue my campaign by quoting from Elizabeth Hardwick’s “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” written for Harper’s in 1959:

Invariably right opinion is not the only judge of a critic’s powers, although a taste that goes wrong frequently is only allowed to the greatest minds! In any case, it all depends upon who is right and who is wrong. The communication of the delight and importance of books, ideas, cultures itself, is the very least one would expect from a journal devoted to reviewing of new and old works. Beyond that beginning, the interest of the mind of the individual reader is everything. Book reviewing is a form of writing….It does matter what an unusual mind, capable of presenting fresh ideas in a vivid and original and interesting manner, thinks of books as they appear. For sheer information, a somewhat expanded publisher’s list would do just as well as a good many of the reviews that appear weekly.

Hardwick’s complaints from nearly half a century ago are just as applicable today. And as NBCC Board Member, I will do everything in my power to ensure that the delight and importance of books is celebrated and encouraged among the constituency.

Edward Champion for NBCC Board Member


This notice serves as public announcement that I am running as Board Member for the National Book Critics Circle. Several people have suggested that I run. And while my political career has been limited to running for Treasurer in the seventh grade (and losing), I figured why the hell not? Someone needs to lay down the gauntlet and address some of the major problems that have caused the NBCC to remain a rather stiff organization. The time has come to inject more fun and debauchery into an organization that can do a good deal more for readers, critics, and the general public. I’d like to see the NBCC become a place that celebrates the reader, whether she be our most revered critic or the most prolific litblog commenter. Let’s do away with the print vs. online battles. I’d like to see the NBCC listen to and embrace its misfits and muckrakers, and transform this organization into a nexus point that offers a little something for everybody. I have more than a few ideas about how the NBCC can be a major force in getting people excited about literature and how it can even help young critics starting out. And I’ll be outlining my platform and positions in the forthcoming weeks.

But in the meantime, I plan a full-fledged political campaign. There will be commercials and testimonials. I’ll shake hands. I’ll kiss babies. But more important than any of this, I’ll listen to any problems or gripes you have with the way that the NBCC is currently conducting its business. You can start by leaving comments here. Let’s make the inner workings of the NBCC public, accountable, and transparent. With your vote, I pledge to communicate your concerns directly to the Board and make things happen. As Katharine Hepburn once put it, “You’re going to get back on that horse, and I’m going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we’re gonna go, go, go!”

And, by the way, if anybody wants to start an Edward Champion NBCC Blimp campaign, be my guest!

[UPDATE: Someone has been kind enough to create a Facebook group in support of my candidacy. I am happy to address any questions or comments from my supporters (or anyone on the fence) through this munificent use of technology.]