by Pat Holt
Monday, April 30, 2007
BOOK CRITICS: ARE WE DRIVING READERS AWAY?
I wish I could applaud the National Book Critics Circle* and critics like Cynthia Ozick* for lamenting the loss of space for book reviews - and jobs for book review editors - in newspapers and magazines across the country.
But maybe it's time for those of us who have worked as critics for a living to evaluate what's happened to our profession and why we may be driving readers away.
In the last 25 years, just about everything about the print experience has changed except the way critics review books.
Our audience zips around the Internet with tremendous agility and speed, and what do we give them?
Not only have we gotten stuffy, dreary and plodding, but our panic is showing - we know traditional print media is in trouble and try too hard to get readers back. We've substituted opinion for criticism. We've pronounced books good or bad rather than shown readers why. We've fallen into the Hollywood media game of guessing what titles will hit a best seller list instead of what titles deserve audience attention.
And our standards are dropping.
A Healthy Impatience
Let's face it. An impatience has set in among readers that may be the healthiest and most exciting force to hit critical writing in decades. Somehow the passion and excitement of books and opinion is cropping up not on traditional book review pages but in the dreaded lowbrow customer comments sections of retail websites.
You can grumble that customers writing on the web don't know the difference between personal biases and literary standards, but the fact is that a scroll through a dozen customer reviews tells you all you need to know, quickly and often refreshingly, about whether the book is for you and, even (yes, you have to keep scrolling) if it might be any good.
Isn't it time for a parallel revolution in book reviewing? Surely we can retain our high standards of erudition and criticism and have fun at the same time. I would love it if a Sunday section wiped out all but a few standard book reviews and set up, say, a dozen departments in which critics are charged with writing succinctly and excitedly about books in a well-designed, easy-to-grasp format.
A New Sunday Book Section
What a challenge: Instead of reviewing 10 or 11 titles with the same old yawners, a Sunday section could explore new ways of providing critical information about dozens of books from every possible source and attend to every possible reader need.
And how about some departments within the section to stir the juices? Here are a few I'd love to see:
Our Hearts and Souls on the Line
If all this sounds like so much caving in to the "fear of reading," as Erica Jong recently put it, consider Publishers Weekly's Best Seller Lists - dry as dust only a few years ago, today a graphic wonder exploding with information-at-a-glance that you can't stop reading because it feels indispensable and is just too engrossing to put down.
And if that sounds too DK (as in Dorling Kindersley, i.e., junked up) to be believed, fine. Don't go that far. But go somewhere, let's do something. Let's get out there and pound some tables about books; let's put our hearts and souls on the line, not to pander to base tastes but to start a true critical discourse with audiences and make book reviews in all their forms as riveting to read as they are essential.
Then let's start a movement to bring back book review sections.
*(see NBCC's Campaign to Save Book Reviews http://www.bookcritics.org/?go=saveBookReviews and Ozick's article in Harper's Magazine 4/07)
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