Daniel Green at the Reading Experience has taken notice of my blog post on Don DeLillo‘s new novel, Point Omega—a post that was intended as a sort of supplement to the DeLillo review I wrote for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Green is politely approving of the newspaper review, but he’s much kinder toward the blog post, concluding that “blog-published reviews and criticism in general are more satisfying in this way than what can be found in print publications, especially newspapers.”
Before going on, I want to say that I’m grateful for Green’s compliments—he doesn’t dispense them casually—and that I’d sooner shuck out my eyeballs with a rusty fork than revisit old squabbles about the virtues of bloggers versus newspaper book reviewers. But it might be useful to say a little bit about the “perceived ‘general’ audience” of a newspaper book review, and why it’s worth respecting.
As with most daily newspapers, the circulation of the Star-Tribune has been declining in recent years—the Sunday edition (where most of the book reviews run) has around half a million readers. This blog’s readership is smaller than that, to put it mildly; indeed, few Web outlets could compete with those single-day readership numbers. (The Canadian Newspaper Association launched a clever advertising campaign last year that stressed the disparity in audience size.) That doesn’t mean that litblogs are proportionally less important than newspapers—it certainly doesn’t mean they’re more poorly written—but it does mean that writing for a newspaper involves a different set of obligations toward an audience that’s still worth respecting.
For one thing, I can’t assume that the reader of a newspaper review is somebody like Daniel Green, who has a strong interest in books and the critical conversations that surround them. I can’t even responsibly assume that the reader is especially interested in books, let alone books written by Don DeLillo. The person flipping through the Sunday paper generally has little idea what he or she is interested in; it could be healthcare, or last night’s game, or Hi and Lois. The best I can hope for is a reader who’s perhaps heard of DeLillo, and who might know that he’s a much-decorated novelist concerned with contemporary American life. Assuming anything else is assuming way too much. After all, any journalist who covers healthcare reform can’t even assume that Americans know how many senators it takes to break a filibuster.
Writing in the face of such ignorance is, understandably, an unappealing prospect for a lot of people, particularly book reviewers. But ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. If I can’t assume much baseline knowledge in a newspaper’s readership, I can at least assume a degree of interest in being told about something they haven’t heard about before. Which is why I think of compressing a statement about Point Omega into 450 words is an interesting challenge and not an exercise in futility; how can I convince somebody to find DeLillo as interesting as I do? If newspaper book reviews often fall into the category of lazy “lifestyle reporting,” as Green puts it, I can at least do my own bit to avoid the most egregious problems with daily newspaper reviews. Those are legion, but the majority could be avoided by simply policing for cliches like “stunning,” “dazzling,” and the like. And I can’t think of a circumstance where I’d write a newspaper book review in the first person. As a journalism professor once put it, “A good story doesn’t need you in it,” and I think asking a reader to care about both a book they haven’t read and a person they haven’t met is outright idiocy. Some people are clever enough to pull off that trick. I don’t believe I am.
All that said, writing shorter and shorter reviews is damned frustrating. When I began reviewing regularly for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003, my average assignment was 1,200 words. Now 500 words is a luxury. Newspaper reviewers now typically toil at what George Orwell considered pointless labor: “Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful,” he once wrote, “but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it.” I genuinely want to write it, but I’m genuinely frustrated with it, which is why I’ve started getting into the habit of writing supplementary posts to my reviews. That’s something I’ve done before with Joshua Ferris‘ The Unnamed and hope to do more of in the future. They’re fun to write, and they help me write down a few thoughts that I couldn’t squeeze into the review proper. But I don’t write off the value of the original review versus the blog post, even if I disregard which article got me a paycheck and which one didn’t.