Jennifer Weiner Isn’t Gonna Fix The Newspaper Book Review Problem; Or, “No Lagniappe For You!”

Jennifer Weiner has a few thoughtful ideas about what book review sections can do—her post certainly deserves better than the grossly offensive blog post that I suppose I’m obligated to say pointed me to it. (If the amateurs over at Philebrity are incapable of spotting a tongue-in-cheek statement when they see one, what makes them feel worthy of passing any sort of judgment on literary culture? And if their alleged insights are framed around fat jokes, what makes them feel worthy of the task of typing blog posts, or typing at all?)

Anyway. A bit of Weiner’s modest proposal:

[H]ere are some things I don’t want to read about: new books by Philip Roth (I prefer the old ones, which were funny). New books by Cormac McCarthy. New books by any male writer prone to complaining about the indignities of old age, either general or prostate-specific, or or having his male protagonists do the same.

New short-story collection by Alice Munro. Instead of wasting eight hundred words, just say it’s every bit as wrenching and finely wrought as the last short-story collection by Alice Munro, and be done with it. Chances are, I’ve already read most of the stories in The New Yorker, and I know that they are wrenching and finely-wrought (unless, of course, the new collection gets a ridiculously tarty cover, in which case, you can make fun of that for eight hundred words).

Weiner’s complaint, of course, isn’t with Roth but with the saturation coverage that big books get at the expense of many others, not to mention the reflexive cliche-mongering of all too many reviews stuffed with meaningless praise-gunk like “stunning” and “achingly beautiful.” This is an old complaint—indeed, it’s pretty much the central thesis of the litblog culture that’s emerged in the past five years or so. Some very smart people have pressed book reviews to spend more time and attention on genre fiction, graphic novels, works in translation, and small-press books in general—or that just figured it was hopeless to fight that battle and decided to do it themselves.

Anybody registering those complaints has my support—at least, as much support as a guy who reviewed Roth’s last novel for a metro-daily books section can offer without feeling like a hypocrite. But when the book-sections-slit-their-own-damn-throat rhetoric gets a little loud—as it has with the much-mocked National Book Critics Circle petition to save the Washington Post‘s standalone book section—it’s worth pointing something out. Even if all the Sunday book sections of American daily newspapers turned into the kind of sections that Weiner and many others dream of—a worthy small-press novel featured on the cover, a regular feature on books in translation, romance novels treated with care and respect, local author profiles a-go-go—it wouldn’t make a lick of difference for the health of the newspaper. Newspapers are suffering a financial collapse of such magnitude that a content failure—and content improvement—hardly registers. And book reviews never really mattered in this accounting.

I’m a dues-paying member of the National Book Critics Circle, and I’ve contributed to the Post‘s book section. I support both. But I didn’t sign the petition; I didn’t see the point. I’ve been trying to find a way to articulate my reasoning behind this seemingly self-contradictory posture, and Hitsville blogger Bill Wyman (an old editor of mine), found the right word to explain what’s going on. Responding to Walter Isaacson‘s Time essay proposing (yet again) micropayments for online news, Wyman writes:

The few that did publish stand-alone book sections did it as a lagniappe, and these gradually disappeared, not as papers began to lose money, but to prop up the sky-high earnings Wall Street supposedly demanded of companies like Tribune.

Lagniappe. That’s about right. It’s hard to argue that a book-review section is essential to the mission of a newspaper, which is to bring the news and watchdog those in power. Of course, it’s in a newspaper’s best interest to promote literacy, but there’s no reason why a book review section is necessary to do that; arguably, the newspapers-in-schools programs promoted by most dailies do a better job of it. Promoting literary culture in the community that the paper serves? Covering local authors and events would go a long way toward that, but there’s no reason why that coverage needs to be in the form of a book review. No, the reason why newspapers have, or had, book pages because a) Everybody else was doing it, and b) they’re nice things to have. These are bad economic times, so you don’t get to have nice things to have.

So I can resign myself to this decline without feeling like I need to cheer it on—I won’t miss “achingly beautiful,” but I suspect more people will miss the reviews when they’re gone than we think. At any rate, perhaps book-section editors will now start feeling that there’s less to lose by experimenting more. It’s not particularly important to me that the Post‘s book section be in one place in the Sunday paper—I’ve argued before that newspapers might better serve their readers and themselves if they found ways to integrate book coverage throughout the paper. If the Post can find a way to innovate with spreading book reviews around its pages and Web site, the shift can be something to cheer, and a model for other news operations to look to; if it’s just stuffing the same reviews in different slots, it only sets the stage for further cutbacks. That doesn’t serve readers, it doesn’t serve writers, and it doesn’t serve the folks like Jennifer Weiner who, bless them, want more out of book reviews.

4 thoughts on “Jennifer Weiner Isn’t Gonna Fix The Newspaper Book Review Problem; Or, “No Lagniappe For You!”

  1. I agree with all your points, but what does the demise of another book section say about the declining importance of the “critic” in our culture. Yes, there are many good lit-review blogs out there (yours included), but far more influential now are the micro-reviews posted on places like by any shmoe with a keyboard. Book Review sections felt like the last tangible example of literary critics having an influence on a book purchasing public. What replaces that?

  2. Hi, Mark!

    Loved the topic of your post! You’re idea about integrated book coverage throughout the paper is especially intriguing. I started to leave a comment here, then decided to just post on my blog and link back to you and Jennifer. Take a look when you get a chance.

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