Those of us who love books and make them a central part of our lives had to withstand yet another blow in the continuing saga of print vs. the Web. An article in the May 2 New York Times brought the disheartening, but hardly unexpected, news that a number of newspapers across the country are cutting out their stand-alone book sections and, in addition, cutting back on their book coverage altogether. More and more publications are relying on reprints of reviews from news agencies or larger papers, a move that has translated in the past into less locally generated stories about writers and their books.
As the Times noted, some commentators think this is another sign of the withering of literary culture in the United States while others — especially bloggers who write about books — take it as a hopeful sign, what the Times describes as "an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books."
According to the article, which was written by Motoko Rich, dozens of sites have begun offering "a mix of book news, debates, interviews and reviews, often on subjects not generally covered by newspaper book sections."
Those used to the old ways of doing things have found this hard to swallow, reported Rich. " 'Like anything new, it's difficult for authors and agents to understand when we say, "I'm sorry, you're not going to be in The New York Times or The Chicago Tribune, but you are going to be at curledup.com," said Trish Todd, publisher of Touchstone Fireside, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 'But we think that's the wave of the future.'
"Obviously," continued Rich, "the changes at newspaper book reviews reflect the broader challenges faced by newspapers in general, as advertisement revenues decline, and readers decamp to the Internet. But some writers (and readers) question whether economics should be the only driving factor. Newspapers like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could run book reviews 'as a public service, and the fact of the matter is that they are unwilling to,' said Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.
" 'I think the reviewing function as it is thoroughly taken up by newspapers is vital,' he continued, 'in the same way that literature itself is vital.' "
Bloggers, of course, disagreed and said that their sites were responses to the "often stodgy and pretentious tone" that pervades traditional reviews, as Edward Champion put it. He writes about books on his blog, Return of the Reluctant (edrants.com).
Other blog critics said that newspaper book reviews hew too closely to "safe choices," and that they could learn from the "more free-wheeling approach of some of the book blogs." This came from David L. Ulin, who edits the book review at the Los Angeles Times.
Doubtless, more blogs will appear, and more blather will be spilled before the new definitively overtakes the old.