Book Critics to the Ramparts

May 1, 2007
Category: Uncategorized

The newspaper book editor is becoming an endangered species.

In April,
the Los Angeles Times dropped its stand-alone book section, The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution
eliminated its book editor and the Chicago Tribune
announced plans to shift its book-review section from the prestige of a Sunday
slot to low-circulation Saturday.

This comes
soon after the Associated Press abandoned its book-review package, The News
& Observer
in Raleigh, N.C., reassigned its book editor and a host of
newspapers across the country reduced the space they devote to book reviews.

In response,
the National Book Critics Circle, an organization that claims more than 600
members, has launched a Campaign to Save Book Reviews. The group has been
collecting signatures — more than 4,500 as of May 2 — for a petition to
reinstate AJC book editor Teresa Weaver. The group is planning to protest Thursday in Atlanta. On the group’s blog, Critical Mass, NBCC president John
Freeman urged readers to send e-mails to AJC, protesting Weaver’s removal: “There are some things, I believe, that the ‘all-knowing’ capital markets may
not place a value on, but readers do — so it’s important that they hear from
you, loudly.”

Meanwhile,
a blizzard of commentary on the Web has been poking newspapers in the eye for
their anti-literary ways. Columnist Scott McLemee at InsideHigherEd.com urged
librarians to join the NBCC fight.
Critic and NBCC board member Art Winslow, in
his blog on HuffingtonPost.com, lamented the “rolling blackout.” Writer George
Saunders, on the NBCC site, offered a mock memo (scroll down to “Did you get the Memo?”) in the spirit of George Orwell’s “1984,” congratulating the troops for bringing us closer to a
bookless (and mindless) society.

These self-appointed Cassandras of
culture may seem naive to some journalists. They may wonder how much book
critics understand the financial turmoil in the newspaper industry, and where
the eggheads got the idea that literature trumps lucre.

But the
book critics may be pointing to a problem that newspapers ignore at their
peril: With TV and the Internet
breathing down its neck, print journalism may be more dependent than it thinks
on the discriminating reader.

In a March
article for The Wall Street Journal
, Jeffrey Trachtenberg blamed the cutbacks
in book sections on book publishers who, he claimed, had diverted dollars away
from newspapers. But those dollars have always been notably scarce. Book
publishers, operating with low profit margins, rely on newspapers to get the
word out about their books — through editorial columns, not ads. Notable
exceptions are The New York Times and USA Today, both of which have a national
reach.

Advertising
wasn’t the catalyst for most book-review sections. Rather, newspapers viewed
book sections much the same way as they did editorial: as a service to the
serious reader. Editorial and op-ed covered politics and civic life, while book
pages were the place to continue the discussion and stay abreast of the world
of ideas. For newspapers, this was a contribution to the country’s ongoing
cultural conversation.

Some are
hanging in there — but only the ones that are convinced their readers care.
When the San Francisco Chronicle announced it was dropping its stand-alone
section, the outcry was strong enough to have the section reinstated, albeit
reduced from six pages to four. Thanks
to its own book festival, which last year drew a crowd of 127,000, the Los Angeles
Times
is reminded annually that books matter to its readers.

Perhaps
that’s why, when it made the decision to combine its book section and op-ed
pages into a single tab as an economy measure, the Times‘ book editor managed
some artful dodging: The events calendar and the bestseller list were moved to
the Web, which is growing as an alternative medium for book editors nationwide.
No review space was sacrificed, and no staff was eliminated.

The NBCC
hopes its call to arms will have a similar effect elsewhere. At the least, it is alerting newspapers and
readers that book sections matter.

Now the
critics’ group needs to start another discussion: how to make books and reading
more visible everywhere else. Newspapers are not the only outlet that can carry
the cultural conversation to a wide audience. Just ask Oprah.