Criticism is and has been circling the web the last several weeks. Until now, I’ve chosen to remain quiet and just listen. There are such strong feelings on both sides of this debate, like so many. I can see some of what both sides say, but I can’t align myself with either side. I’m pulled in several directions here.
Once I completed my coverage and analysis of this discussion, I decided to break it into three parts for the sake of length. This first part is an introduction to and overview of the situation.
First, let’s set the stage.
The subject: Will the death of newspaper book review sections hurt books and the literary community in general?
Disclaimer: I never could really get into the reviews in newspaper book sections. They’re long, and so many of the books they review are books I’ve never heard of, I most likely can’t get at my library, and I may not be interested in reading.
The back story: Major newspapers have been closing down their respective standalone book review sections, sometimes eliminating the content and related positions entirely, other papers eliminating some positions and crowding the book reviews into another section with less space. [This hasn’t been happening at smaller newspapers because they didn’t have standalone book review sections to begin with.] Part of this issue, although not really discussed alongside, to my knowledge, is how major newspapers’ collective future has been in question for quite awhile now. The logical question is, then, what will replace these reviews in the collective? Stated another way: How will readers learn of new, quality books? It’s the answer to this question that the current controversy stems from.
A good two-sided conversation on the subject: Here, from PBS. I especially liked this exchange:
JEFFREY BROWN: If all that is going on online, what’s lost if papers don’t have their own special sections anymore?
KASSIA KROZSER: Steve is probably going to disagree, but I say nothing.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Let me ask — go ahead, Steve.
STEVE WASSERMAN: Well, to oppose the Internet I suppose would be like to oppose climate change. I have no problem with the vast democracy wall that the Internet provides on which everyone, every crank and every sage can post his or her pronunciamento.
But what’s lost here is the discriminatory filter provided by people who have embraced journalism as a craft. What has been lost here is the authority, such as it ever was, of newspaper people trying to do a job well done.
I do not see foreign coverage being replaced by the activity of individuals on the Internet bloviating about this or that.
And despite the robust nature or at least the very excited nature of the conversation on the Internet, the best criticism still being written today is being published, say, in magazines, James Wood in the New Yorker, or Leon Wieseltier in the pages of the New Republic, or Christopher Hitchens in the pages of the Atlantic.
And it will be a long time before the Internet gives us a forum in which such people unsupported by institutions can deliver us that kind of literary criticism. At their best, the newspapers were an exercise in delivering to us that kind of informed criticism, which was the work of professionals who had devoted a lifetime to the consideration of literature.
I’ll post subsequent segments of this discussion soon.