Facilitators and Explicators

So, yes, this Nation piece about the death of book reviewing. John Palattella, literary editor of the Nation, does a good job of rehashing how the newspaper book review has collapsed in recent years. No news there, though Palattella at least puts a new, somewhat positive spin on what’s happening by honoring the survival of magazine-based reviewing. I’ll take it one step further and suggest that there are not one but two bright spots here. What’s survived in reviewing from the print era are the advance publications (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, etc) and the long-form essays in the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, and so on. What didn’t survive, at least in their old form, are the Sunday newspaper book reviews, which even at the largest metro dailies have thinned considerably. Print reviews now, more or less successfully, serve publishing professionals and the most serious of readers; the casual reader reading newspapers for books coverage is now generally underserved.

But are those readers now underserved online? Palattella seems to think so, though it also seems he hasn’t studied the matter very closely. “We are in the throes of another newspaper crisis, yet nothing comparable to the NYRB or the LRB has emerged, in print or online, even though there is, I believe, a genuine hunger for serious books coverage,” he writes, in a much-blogged sentence. From there he takes a few whacks at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, which he calls “dismal.” This hits me where I live, but look—if Critical Mass were the only place I looked for literary criticism online, I’d fear for the future of the discipline too. As plenty of people have pointed out, websites that take reviewing seriously are—I won’t say abundant, but there are enough around to argue that the same spirit that launched the NYRB and LRB exists today. (Also, enough exist that I can help feed the aforementioned “dismal” blog with some features on those sites. The latest one, on the Quarterly Conversation, was posted yesterday.)

Sorting out how money works in this new world is tricky issue (and TQC Scott Esposito has some interesting thoughts on it). But the end goal shouldn’t be so much to save the book review (as the headline to Palattella’s piece suggests), but book reviewing—which is to say that even experienced reviewers need to look at their work differently. Douglas McLennan, writing at the National Arts Journalism Program blog, is as exasperated by this discussion as everybody else seems to be, but he clearly spells out what the stakes are:

That’s not to say that many of journalism’s traditional values aren’t worth preserving. Yet what I see among a lot of arts journalists is unwillingness to consider new ways of critical response to work. Who says that the 500-word or 1000-word review is the apex of that response? Let’s not forget the audience, the community. They expect more from an interaction with us. They have valuable things to offer, and I don’t just mean commenting on what we do.

Perhaps one expanded role of a critic/journalist is to curate the best people/perspectives out there and not only report what those people think but find ways to have them interact with readers. This is journalist as facilitator-of-smart-discussion rather than journalist only as explicator. Everywhere, arts organizations are looking at their changing relationships with their audiences and trying new things on. And we think arts journalists don’t have to do the same?

4 thoughts on “Facilitators and Explicators

  1. McLennan seems on the right track to me. It occurs to me that the structure of book discourse might be following the changes that have happened in the classroom, where large lectures have been slowly replaced, by and large, by smaller, discussion-based seminars.

    I like how you suggest that the thing to be saved here is the reviewing, not the review. I might even take it a step further and say that the uni-directional gaze of the review is going to be displaced, as you suggest, by interaction around books. How this will be organized and enacted seems very much up in the air, but that seems the arc of the narrative of literary discourse in the internet age.

  2. I’m an NBCC member, but to be frank, if I’ve got thirty free minutes to go to online review sites, Critical Mass is rarely going to make the cut. It’s come a long way, but there are other sites putting up more original content. I’d like to see NBCC do more with Critical Mass.

    1. I agree—I think there’s more that can be done with the blog to serve both NBCC members and people who are just interested in good content about books. As with all things bloggy, it’s often a matter of finding good ideas and volunteers willing to pursue them. If you (or anybody) else has thoughts on gaps that Critical Mass can fill, please let me know in the comments—or privately via email, if you prefer.

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