Monday, May 21, 2007

Where have all the book critics gone?

Patty here...

In case you haven’t heard, there's a storm brewing.

An alarming number of newspapers nationwide are cutting costs by eliminating book reviews from their pages. This does not bode well for the many writers trying to be heard above the din of the crowded book market.

Michael Connelly weighed in on the subject in this recent Los Angeles Times article:

I can't help but wonder, though, how long Harry would have lasted had he been born in today's newspaper environment. Across the country, papers are cutting back on the space, attention and care they devote to books. Recently, for instance, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced that the position of book editor would be eliminated in a cost-cutting move. Without a specific editor directing book coverage, the paper will rely more heavily on reviews from wire services.

But that's just the latest in an ongoing crisis. The Chicago Tribune announced last week that it was moving its books section from Sunday to the less-read Saturday paper — an edition that becomes almost obsolete by noon, when the early Sunday edition hits the stands. At the Raleigh News & Observer, the book editor's position was recently cut. At the Dallas Morning News, the book critic quit rather than face significant space reductions. Books coverage has also been cut at the Orlando Sentinel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other papers.

Even at the Los Angeles Times, the fine newspaper at which I am proud to have once worked as a reporter, the attention devoted to books is changing. Gone is the stand-alone Book Review. Two weeks ago, Book Review was merged with Sunday Opinion as part of a plan to save pages and save money.

A burgeoning number of Internet bloggers have picked up the slack left by ousted newspaper reviewers, but are they up to the job? Not according to Richard Schickel.

Schickel, who reviews for the Times and also for Time magazine, published a well-reasoned and masterfully written op-ed piece in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, called “Not everybody’s a critic,” in which he challenged the notion that Internet bloggers can or should fill the void left by the downsizing of professional reviewers.

Schickel defines criticism:

[Criticism]…is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

He cites Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Edmund Wilson, and George Orwell as examples of the best that literary criticism had to offer. “All three wrote for intelligent readers who emerged from their reviews grateful to know more than they did when they started to read, grateful for their encounter with a serious and, indeed, superior mind. We do not—maybe I ought to make that “should not”—read to confirm our own prejudices and stupidity."

He claims the reviewer’s job is to “initiate intelligent dialogue about the work in question, beginning a discussion that, in some cases, will persist down the years, even down the centuries.”

Here’s what he thinks criticism is not:

Personal opinion. Hack writing.

"Anyone who has written a book has had the experience. Your publisher kindly forwards the clippings, and you are appalled by the sheer uselessness of their spray-painted opinions."

"And we have to find in the work of reviewers something more than idle opinion-mongering. We need to see something other than flash, egotism and self-importance. We need to see their credentials. And they need to prove, not merely assert, their right to an opinion."

"I don’t think it’s impossible for bloggers to write intelligent reviews. I do think, however, that a simple “love” of reading…is an insufficient qualification for the job."

Here’s what I think:

Book review blogs have their place, but I agree with Schickel. It is the exceptional amateur who can equal the seasoned writing and well-rounded analysis of a professional critic, maybe because amateurs don’t have the time or incentive to dig deep enough to find the art of it all.

What do you think?

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  1. I definitely think that we need our professional critics as much as we need our amateurs. Without professional criticism, writers will be losing out a great deal.

  2. I agree, Sylvia. The reviews in the Times provide examples of beautiful writing, as well. We all lose out when they are no longer available to us.

  3. Far from competing with the professional critics, whom I think do an admirable job when not leading with their own prejudices, the reviews I post on my own blog, Muse du Jour, are a bit deeper in analysis than the regular "I liked this book because...". Admittedly, I get particular what I review: I don't like writing negative reviews, because the writer worked hard to get their story published, and generally there is a reader for every piece of fiction out there. So if I really don't like a book, it's based on my own personal likes and dislikes, which I don't intend to ram down anyone's throat.

    Recently, a reader passed through my blog looking for something good to read. He left a lovely comment that one of my reviews inspired him to go looking for that particular book because I made it sound like a really good read. Now that's vindication in the hard work I put into my reviews.


    PS: If you want to look at some of what I've written:

  4. Sylvia, Patty: I agree with you, mostly. But there's something about this whole "you have to prove your right to an opinion" that sticks in my throat.

    We have a saying in the law biz regarding objections to disputed evidence: "your objection goes to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility." In short, the evidence may come in, but you're free to point out its shoddiness to the jury.

    I don't think anyone needs to "prove their right to an opinion," but we're all free to take it with as much or little salt as suits our tastes.

  5. I find it fascinating that the L.A. Times cuts their Book Review section, yet sponsors (co-sponsors?) the L.A. Book Festival.

    Will that be the next thing the Times cuts?

    Thought-provoking post, Patty.


  6. I think we all appreciate a well-considered review, whatever the source, however, I am filled with chagrin at the demise of the book review sections. The LA Times book section is an abomination now, upside down (depending upon how you look at it) on the back of the Opinion section.

    The trouble with web-based opinion is that everyone has one, and - as you rightly comment, Patty - often those "reviews" amount to a diatribe based upon whether the reader liked the book. Many times such reviews tell the reader nothing about the book in question and everything about the reviewer - after all, opinion's strongest relationship is with the person to whom it belongs, not the phenomenon about which he or she has opined! A good reviewer steps beyond that relationship and draws from a broader knowledge - and fewer people are willing or able to do that, as you've highlighted, Patty. Thanks for this post - and what a shame it has to be written.

  7. Marianne, the sort of thoughtful reviews you write defintely help get books into the hands of readers. For that, both writers and readers are grateful. I'm thinking more of those snarky online reviewers who think they're too clever by far when they attack the author personally or the book cover or the font size and think that's good reviewing. If I'm going to be dissed by a reviewer, at least I want beautiful writing.

    Dusty, I see your point but how do you feel about paralegals who set up a shingle offering to do the work that an attorney would normally do like preparing and filing papers? Should the public award them equal status?

    Groupie, as always you cut to the quick. Sponsoring the LATFOB and then cutting the Book Review section, the Times has created the ultimate irony.

  8. Our J, so well stated. Another of my pet peeves with some reviewers is when they don't consider the writer's intension in writing the book. Not everybody sets out to write War and Peace, so to say they've failed is missing the point.

  9. Like Mr. Rhoades, I quail at the notion that one must "prove his right to have an opinion." I appreciate any thoughtful review ... amateur or professional. After all, we're not just writing books for Marilyn Stasio to read, are we?

  10. My take would be "consider the source," no matter who it may be. What is true is true, regardless of who said it. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn occasionally, and a broken clock tells the right time twice a day.

    However, I MUST agree that a "snarky" review or diatribe is more telling about the reviewer than the work in question.So someone has an ax to grind, that shouldn't shake your confidence in what IS a genuine example of good work [writing].
    On the other hand, I feel that dismissing a blogger's opinion because it's from a blogger is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Either what anyone writes is "sound and fury signifying nothing" or it is worthy of thoughtful consideration.
    PS: these comments are provided by a lay person and as such carry no warranty, implied or implicit. Taking said comments to heart is done solely at the risk and discretion of the reader.The reader shall hold this author inviolate for all harm or help which emanates from this post.

  11. "PS: these comments are provided by a lay person and as such carry no warranty, implied or implicit. Taking said comments to heart is done solely at the risk and discretion of the reader. The reader shall hold this author inviolate for all harm or help which emanates from this post."

    Love the disclaimer, Jon. Who knows? It may just catch on.

    Louise, I'm chagrinned to admit I've never read a Marilyn Stasio review. Are they any good? (Just joking)

  12. "Criticism is, or should be, an elite enterprise..."

    I find Richard Shickel's unapologetic elitism troubling. The Internet provides the greatest marketplace of ideas the world has ever known.

    Do you remember the old saw, The press is free only for the man who owns one?

    It's not true anymore.

    Let bloggers blog, the smart and the dim. And let's have more faith in the readers to separate the wheat from the Wheaties.

  13. I think there are two kinds of reviews: good and crap (and I don't mean the tone they take regarding the book(s) reviewed therein). I've read shoddy, stupid book reviews published by established newspapers and magazines, and the same published on blogs. I've also read erudite, well-considered, thoughtful and witty reviews in both venues.

    "Eliteness" has nothing to do with the quality of literary criticism, and is a sloppy choice of word. I imagine George Orwell, especially, would have bristled at being branded with it.

  14. What a provocative post, Patty!

    Schickel characterizes literary criticism as an "elite enterprise." I don't think he means that it must be done by a chosen few, but rather by those for whom it is a sufficient--dare I say--creative act unto itself. Criticism on that level goes beyond the work in question and provides context, both aesthestic and historical.

    According to T. S. Eliot, "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone." Eliot goes on to argue that this is a two -sided exchange in that the new work is seen in the context of what came before, and also that the entire canon must be reconfigured in light of the new. Great critics perform an act of aesthetic reconciliation every time they approach a new work. Not just "what does this work mean? But how has it changed the way I see everything that's come before?"

    The nature of the beast suggests a temperament that the very best readers and writers may not possess. The ability to maintain distance and enthusiasm simultaneously. To express opinions without animus.

    What a lofty, endangered calling!

  15. Dusty, I see your point but how do you feel about paralegals who set up a shingle offering to do the work that an attorney would normally do like preparing and filing papers? Should the public award them equal status?

    Patty, I think you're comparing apples and oranges here. Law or medicine are professions that require licensure to assure competence. You have to "prove" your right to practice law due to the grave consequences of incompetence.

    Criticism isn't like that. No one's going to die, go to prison, or lose their house if Marilyn Stasio misses a deadline.

  16. I have read all the outrage about the decline of book reviews but have stayed out of the discussion. Because to me it's not about books or book reviews, it's about the state of newspapers today.

    Newspapers are on the decline. Everywhere. Staff is being cut at every paper, layoffs that mean there are fewer people to put out the product that is smaller and has less on its pages than it used to. Newspaper companies cry about declining profit, which is how they explain everything away. But newspapers still make money, it's just not as much as it used to be. And that's what they can't get over.

    I spent 20 years in newspapers. This isn't about book reviews getting cut. It's about how screwed up newspaper management has been all over the country for a long time now.

    The book editor in Atlanta is lucky she still has a job. And from what I hear (I have a good friend who works there), it's possible layoffs are still coming down the road there.

  17. I think you have to find the right internet reviewer. Many double as print reviewers too like Sarah Weinman and David Montgomery. I would argue they are among the top reviewers (along with OLine Cogdill and Marilyn Stasio) in the country.

    But what do I know? I like Paul's books.

    Jim Born

  18. Mims, you blow me away. That's what I would have said if I was as smart as you are.

    Mr. Rhoades said: "No one's going to die, go to prison, or lose their house if Marilyn Stasio misses a deadline." But what if the reviewer misses the point of your book and you're driven to...?

    Paul, what do you think when you read a review in which a book is panned using poor writing? Would it stop you from buying the book? Or would you dismiss the person as a bad writer and hence a bad reviewer?

    Jim, I don't think Schickel was talking about people like Sara and Oline. They're reviewers who (in Sara's case) also blog, although I don't think of Sara as a blogger. More like an online journalist. Both are accomplished wordsmiths.

    Karen, the LA Times has been undergoing that sort of transformation for several years. It's frightening to think of all those out of work investigative journalists. Without them how will we undercover the shenanigans of corrupt politicians?

    Cornelia, only good and crap? Not exquisite? I think that's Schickel's point. There should be more exquiste reviews.

    You guys are all brilliant.

  19. Strange that what newspapers are actually doing is eliminating a tie to people who READ.

    Just flickering through, Patty. A very nice, well thought out post.

  20. You've exposed yet another irony, Jeff. Very astute of you. Thanks for flickering through!

  21. With luck, what is happening with newspapers is what happens in Nature: periodic cleansing. They used to be thin, sometimes only weekly, and contained mostly news. Over time they grew, they bloated. A few people/companies owned several papers. Competition was removed. (Only ONE paper in L.A.--a city with, perhaps, more ethnic interests than any other in the country? Who's your target audience?)

    Hopefully this is a period of winnowing. As a forest fire cleanses, maybe, just maybe, something better will spring forth from this publishing conflagration.

    Bad television brings readers back to books; maybe dissatisfied newspaper readers will turn to books as well. . . .

    Tom, T.O.

  22. Tom, T.O. said: (Only ONE paper in L.A.--a city with, perhaps, more ethnic interests than any other in the country? Who's your target audience?)

    By all accounts the Times thinks its target audience is all those people who want nothing more than to see pictures of Paris Hilton and read what film topped the box office the previous weekend.