Litbloggers and the NBCC: “Separate But Equal”

nbcc.jpgHaggis informs me that the NBCC has initiated a new campaign to save book reviews. There’s even a handy-dandy graphic, which you can pilfer on the right, should you be so inclined.

I was prepared to jump on board completely for this project — that is, until I read John Freeman’s words on the subject:

Elsewhere at the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Dallas Morning News, the Sun Sentinel, the New Mexican, the Village Voice, Boston Phoenix, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and dozens upon dozens of other papers book coverage has been cut back or slashed all together, moved, winnowed, filled with more wire copy, or generally been treated as expendable.

And we’re getting tired of it. We’re tired of watching individual voices from local communities passed over for wire copy. We’re tired of book editors with decades of experience shown the exit. We’re tired of shrinking reviews. We’re tired of hearing newspapers fret and worry over the future of print while they dismantle the section of the paper which deals most closely with the two things which have kept them alive since the dawn of printing presses: the public’s hunger for knowledge and the written word.

So the board of the National Book Critics Circle has launched a campaign to try and beat back these changes. Over the next six weeks, in a new series on our blog Critical Mass, we will feature posts by concerned writers, interviews with book editors in the trenches, links to op-eds by critics, novelists and other NBCC board members, Q&As with newspaper editors and owners who will explain the business context for these changes, and tips for what you can do to help save book reviewing.

I whole-heartedly recognize the unfortunate and absurd decisions by some newspapers to cut or severely reduce their book coverage. If a newspaper expects to offer dutiful arts coverage, then that coverage should certainly extend to books. The current practice of hacking away these pivotal limbs is absolutely disgraceful for book reviewers and book critics and the literary community at large.

Yet, even as a freelance book reviewer and an NBCC member, I must play a partial doubting Thomas.

Why does Freeman exclude litbloggers, literary podcasters, and other online voices who write about or cover books? What of Robert Birnbaum’s thoughtful interviews at Identity Theory and The Morning News? Or Rick Kleffel’s podcasts at The Agony Column? Or Ron Silliman’s meditations about literature? These people will continue to write about literary matters, irrespective of whether newspapers exist or not. In fact, if the newspapers continue to fold, it’s very possible that some of today’s shining freelancers — perhaps even Freeman — will be forced to continue their work online, assuming there are still paying conduits. One can complain until one is blue in the face about “saving” book reviewing. But let’s be clear in our terminology here. “Saving” implies that book reviewing is some gray whale about to become extinct. But what we are seeing here is an evolution and a convergence point, not an extinction. As the thousands of litblogs now occupying the Internet will attest, there are still people who are crazy enough to care. Whether they will develop into tomorrow’s Daniel Mendelsohns or John Updikes or Edmund Wilsons is anyone’s guess. But how can we know if these voices are not cultivated or approached or encouraged?

Why has the NBCC campaigned predominantly on the behalf of professional critics without enlisting the help of amateur critics or litbloggers? A visit to MetaxuCafe demonstrates that “individual voices” are doing quite well online. Where some newspapers are content to snip thoughtful 2,000 word reviews down to 650 word reviews, a length that simply cannot do some books proper justice, or abandon column inches altogether, the blogosphere presents no obstacles to length or commitment. So why limit the achievements of literary criticism, as Freeman does so regularly in his roundups, to mere NBCC members? Why not, for example, open the door a crack and establish a relationship between the NBCC and the LBC? Is there not strength in numbers? Are there not fertile voices in the litblogosphere to be cultivated and developed? Can’t we all just get along?

I must also ask the troubling question of whether book reviewing, as it currently exists in some circles, actually needs to be saved. When Sam Tanenhaus and Leon Wieseltier continue to devote the majority of their review space to nonfiction, it’s very clear that fiction isn’t a regular requirement. It’s also very clear with some of the NBCC panels that popular and genre titles are beneath serious critical consideration. And while it’s certainly egregious to see serious literary criticism passed over for fluff, perhaps the current roster of book critics don’t provide, dare I say it, an accessible or entertaining entry point, or even an inclusive range, into thoughtful criticism.

To be perfectly clear, I am not calling upon literary enthusiasts to turn an isolationist eye to shrinking review space in newspapers. This too is a serious problem and one that calls for action.

What I am suggesting is something far more ambitious than John Freeman: a united front, whereby literary and “sub-literary” enthusiasts of all stripes, print and online, litblogger and journalist, campaign on behalf of literary coverage in as many conduits as possible. If that means mobilizing to preserve a book section in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, then let anyone who cares about literature sign petitions and send emails. If that means finding some medium where thoughtful and daring voices can continue to practice criticism and earn a modest living from it, then why not have a conference and action in which the inevitable convergence of print and online is seriously considered?

You want to know what I’m tired of? I’m tired of the needless divide between Freeman and some litbloggers. I’m tired of Daniel Mendelsohn being obsessed with Technorati. I’m tired of Sam Tanenhaus asking other people about me instead of asking me directly what my apparent beef is. I’m tired of Keith Gessen’s needless vanguard machismo and his unfortunate reliance upon generalizations instead of supportive examples and thinking that will benefit all parties.

How can we save book reviewing when Freeman writes of “put[ting] our energy into a prize honoring the best books of the year, and singling out critics who have consistently helped us find them,” while single-handedly ignoring that the litblogosphere is also doing this and having a sales impact, through highlighting overlooked titles with the LBC Read This! selections and helping other readers to find titles.

No less a critical institution than John Leonard, recently honored by the NBCC, observed in an interview with Meghan O’Rourke:

Reviewing has all become performance art; it’s all become posturing. It’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us. At least they have passion.

The time has come for the John Freemans of the world to accept this passion instead of ignoring it, to not “generally treat” litbloggers “as expendable.” The time has come for litbloggers and book reviewers to realize that, while their respective approaches may be different, there is much that each can learn from the other.

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8 Comments

  1. Why exclude litbloggers? Because you’re not in the guild, at least most of you. You guys don’t get paid, and the NBCC wants to stay paid. How many layoffs were announced today at the LA Times? The Chicago Trib? The critic at the Trib is probably sweating bullets right now, but that jerkoff Jay Mariotti will still have his barely literate column in the sports section, because the sports section can still sell ads for tire sales and 2-for-1 drinks at the local strip club. I don’t like it either, but that’s the economics of newspapers.

  2. I guess Tom is right about that–it’s self-preservation by the folks fortunate enough to get paid to review. As someone who really admires a well-written review, and recognizes the skill it takes to write one, I’ve generally been amazed by the litblogs; there are so many well-read, thoughtful people writing about literature and the business of. I’ve been excited to begin dabbling myself, and do in fact see the whole continuum of reviewers, from the casual dabblers like me, to Ed, to the rotting-but-still-hallowed bones of Alfred Kazin as a group that should be a mutually supportive community, or at least a team. Thanks, Ed, for doing your part.

  3. Tom, I hate to quibble, but Mariotti writes for the Sun-Times, not the Trib. And the Trib already doesn’t have a resident book critic. But yes, that’s the economics of newspapers. If memory serves, the Trib last week announced that books coverage would move from the feeble, failing stand-alone Sunday insert to something on Saturday…where it will be even easier to hide.

    Enjoyed your post, Ed. I’m a paid, pre-pub reviewer who gets a very unthoughtful 175 words per book — and also a blogger. So I agree with everybody. But I think you’re right: it’s important to see this as an evolution.

  4. Keir- Thanks for the correction. I don’t read Chicago papers much (I live elsewhere in the Midwest), and I’ll admit that my exposure to Mariotti is mostly through his ESPN scream-fests, but I’ve read enough of his columns online to stand by my judgement of his writing.

  5. Sorry, but the NBCC is a total joke. They flee from the very thing– the noise, contention, and exchange of ideas– which would rescue book review sections.
    Several weeks ago I posted a comment on their blog about why sports sections are flourishing while book sections are dying. There was nothing vulgar or anonymous about my post. Did Ms. Skloot post it? Of course not!
    These are critics?
    No, they’re apparatchiks, not critics. That they can’t handle debate or dissent is proof of this.
    NBCC is an organization consisting entirely of book “critics”– yet where has been the exchange of conflicting ideas on their own blog?
    By contrast, check the posts on my blog earlier this year when I was allowing comments and you’ll see every topic covered, no holds barred. Fireworks– though the posters were of course anonymous demi-puppets. (I’ll be enabling comments again shortly.)
    Why are book review sections dying?
    Because they by-and-large offer NOTHING which would interest for five seconds the general public. The NBCC crowd write as if this were sixty years ago– the same standard book review make-no-waves pablum. (Except sixty years ago there were still some great essayists around.)
    You know all this, Ed, but to make your way in their world you pretend not to know it.
    You’re doing the very things with your podcasts et.al. that literary people are supposed to not do, because it might somehow dilute the purity of the art form.
    (Literature will be very pure when no one any longer reads it– when it’s completely dead.)
    This whole uproar about book review sections is an admission of failure. It’s a discussion of failure. It’s hysteria about failure. One has to at least recognize this– and then start looking at reall change in order to rescue the art.
    (I’ll be posting more about this on my own blog. My colleagues and I aren’t afraid to compete with anybody in this culture. We’ve surrendered to no one. We’ve been putting on shows– readings, celebrations of the word– as exciting as any baseball game or rock concert.)
    Contrary ideas. Are you afraid of them, NBCC??

  6. For the record: I’m not the sole person in charge of moderating comments on Critical Mass. Everyone who blogs there moderates comments. Despite King’s claims, I’ve never deleted any comments from him. In fact, so far, the only comments I’ve ever deleted are spam.

  7. PS: I tried to post the above comment on King’s blog, where he’s written a screed about me, but ironically, he doesn’t allow comments on his site …

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