Why have so many book-review sections shrunk, disappeared or turned into cheerleading squads for major publishers? Critic Gail Pool explores some of the reasons in her Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/ .
But literary agent Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, goes further in a recent essay in the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman calls some book-review sections “shockingly mediocre.” And his article explains, better than any I have read, why their perilous condition reflects more than — to oversimplify a popular argument — cretins in the accounting department.
Here are some excerpts from Wasserman’s CJR article, which you can read at www.cjr.org/cover_story/goodbye_to_all_that_1.php?page=all.
“That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable threshold has been crossed: Whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question.…
“The predicament facing newspaper book reviews is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: The first is the general challenge confronting America’s newspapers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly absorbing advertising dollars, wooing readers away from newspapers, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument….
“A harsher truth may lurk behind the headlines as well: Book coverage is not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers. One is tempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages of America’s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration.”
Wasserman is managing director of the New York office of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson and book editor of www.truthdig.com.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.