Steve Wasserman: “The real problem was never the inability of book-review sections to turn a profit, but rather the anti-intellectual ethos in the nation’s newsrooms that is—and, alas, always was—an ineluctable fact of American newsgathering. There was among many reporters and editors a barely disguised contempt for the bookish. Even for those few newspapers that boasted a separate book section, book reviewing was regarded as something of a sideshow. It simply wasn’t at the beating heart of the newsroom. Careers were advanced by shoe leather, not by way of the armchair. The suspicion was strong among reporters and editors alike that anyone with enough time could read the pages of a book and accurately report its contents. Such a sedentary activity, however, was a poor substitute for breaking news and getting scoops.”
As an editor with some 25 years in newspapering, I can confirm what he says. Few journalists in my experience read for intellectual enjoyment. It is rare when I visit the home of another journalist and find many books resting on shelves. Some read the occasional mystery or thriller or popular history/biography. Literary fiction or serious non-fiction — not so much.
Wasserman’s impenetrable prose and championing of the obscure and inaccessible might have had a little bit to do with the failure of the LA Times book section as well. Contempt for him should not be equated with contempt for all book lovers and book writers. Wasserman loves to pretend that it’s his superior intelligence and taste that make people dislike him, when in actuality, he’s sort of a smug jerk, and pleased to be one.
Mark Sarvas: http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2005/02/we_got_a_bunch_.html
Here’s what I wrote on May 3, 2005:
“But the question here, given Wasserman’s temperament, is whether this was a fait accompli, albeit a slow one. What’s amazing is that Wasserman has remained something of an outspoken rabble-rouser over the years and yet until Mark started holding Wasserman’s feet to the fire on a weekly basis, I don’t think any of us outside of Los Angeles really had a sense of how little of Wasserman’s fire ended up on the Times‘ pages. If it really was an internecine battle that Wasserman couldn’t win, then the big question was why Wasserman stayed on board like some masochist? And the bigger question is whether Wasserman’s replacement will be able to have a less tempestuous relationship with the managing editors.
“Is the Los Angeles Times‘ book section a lost cause? The time has come for Mr. Sarvas weigh in on this question.”
In light of Mark’s “flip-flopping,” which I don’t consider to be particularly egregious, I’m curious what his remarks are now in relation to the current LATBR.
And for what it’s worth, I met Wasserman at this year’s BEA and found him to be a lively, quite funny, and possibly misunderstood soul fighting on behalf of literature.