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by Pat Holt

Monday, April 30, 2007


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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.

Standards Dropping

Our audience zips around the Internet with tremendous agility and speed, and what do we give them?

  • Stodgy, dull, laborious and indulgent reviews.
  • The same old 16-300 column inches that digress and meander and oh, so slowly get to the point.
  • "Objectivity" mired down as we strive to get the words "nuanced," "finely" and "wrought" into a sentence.

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.

  • Gifted young writers who are wasting their talent on gimmickry and overblown novels are given rave reviews that mislead readers and contribute nothing to posterity.
  • Book reviewers waste the space they are given by wondering if readers will "like" a title. Audience tastes and publishing fashions are none of our business! Critics who could have nailed the "Harry Potter" series as fun but hardly brilliant, or explored the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien and Joseph Campbell, instead devoted entire columns pondering whether fans would "like" the last title in the series as much as the first.

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:

  • THESE BOOKS ARE HOT - not another excuse for bestsellers but a mix of the best literary and commercial books that are exciting for every reason - because they read like cream or because they're difficult and worth it; because nobody's discovered them except a handful of devotees who'd stake their paycheck on them; because they rip the lid off accepted beliefs and introduce new ideas; because they're fresh and original and make you angry or happy; because they uphold literary standards while kicking sacred cows around; and because they make us think. (And on the other side of the page, just to establish a floor, THESE BOOKS ARE NOT.)
  • BOOK CLUB HITS AND MISSES - gad! Many book groups out there are critically tearing books apart and putting them back together by using tough literary standards, pulling out quotes to prove their contentions and astutely referring to other literary works again and again. While much of the media derides book clubs as an excuse for (mostly women) readers to gossip and drink, for reviewers these groups offer a fresh way to apply new critical muscle to writing of all kinds. Let's get out there and take a look at this literary discourse and see if it translates to our pages.
  • CONTROVERSY CORNER - for crying out loud, if there ever was a chance to liven up book sections, how about examining the effects of the Patriot Act on libraries, bookstores, schools and the courts in your neighborhood, state and the nation? And why wait for a James Frey to screw up on television when questions of literary ethics are flying all around us and are definitely of interest to readers?
  • P.O.D. ON PARADE - everybody talks about the democratization of publishing, but as reviewers we get to explore this vital new area with gusto. Granted, 99% of self-published books are lousy (of course one could put a similar percentage to industry-published titles), but the zeal behind P.O.D., the heretofore unknown niches explored and the Internet audiences discovered are well worth a running column. What a service that would be for readers who want to know more about the P.O.D. phenomenon but don't know where to start.
  • INDUSTRY SIZZLE - Nothing has changed more than publishing itself in recent decades, and average readers want to know about it. It's not just Judith Regan's excesses or the criminality of marketing the Hillary and Billl Clinton books for their sexual secrets or the exploitation Colin Powell's presidential aspirations to sell books. It's examining lists, talking to editors and agents who have lost their power, scrutinizing marketing departments that have stolen power and yes, getting the real dirt out of the back rooms of publishers, agents and booksellers alike. The publishing industry should be the great caretaker of a nation's literature, but when it acts like a giant junior high school, it's our job to nail it.

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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