Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Death Comes for the Book Critic?

Is book reviewing a dying art? Some critics think so, according to a piece today on NPR’s Morning Edition: “Book Reviewers Decry Fewer Newspaper Pages”. The number of print pages devoted to book reviews is declining, and yet another major newspaper recently axed its separate review section in favor of carrying scattered reviews in the Arts section.

Some blame declining newspaper readership, but others point the finger at bloggers, especially popular ones such as Bookslut. Critics of blogging book critics assert that independents (like me!) lack institutional credibility. How can a reader know if they're just spinning titles to promote sales or for some other nefarious purpose? Of course, indies (like me again) could counter that we're often less likely to be sales motivated than someone who's writing for an ads-dependent newspaper. Perhaps review readers deserve a little credit for being able to tell when a reviewer is biased and for being wise enough and motivated enough to move on to someone else as need be.

Putting the question of blame aside, as someone who relies on reviews in various media to find good books as well as occasionally writing formal ones for print publication, this is a troubling situation. I've been touched by it recently, when a nature group's newspaper that has often published my reviews decided to shrink the size and number of its pages. I applaud their goal to save paper and funds for other critical environmental projects, but I lament the loss of a good resource for nature book news. My latest review for them appears only on their website.

What’s being done about the decline? The National Book Critics Circle has launched a campaign to save the book review. Part of their effort is a new award, available to print, web, or other media, for outstanding book reviews. Learn more about the whole campaign at NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass.
Many environmentalists might see this is a backburner issue, much less pressing than stopping zebra mussels or protecting parkland from snowmobiles, but I believe that books wield extraordinary power to inform and mobilize environmentalists—and even occasionally make new ones. What other ways can be found to save the book review? I’ll be thinking about ways I can help and looking for suggestions from all of you.


Dinosaur Mom said...

You ought to submit something to Little Patuxent Review for one of their upcoming issues. I think the next one is nature-themed, in fact.

pinenut said...

Hi Dinosaur Mom,

Thanks for the suggestion and for mentioning Little Patuxent Review. One of my friends works on that publication, and it has fine writing (I can only imagine writing something worth binding between the same covers as a Michael Chabon essay!).

I'm glad to know about your blog. You made me laugh with your comment that Omnivore's Dilemma can be read by "normal" people but not the obsessive. I'm feeling the same way about Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She tries to come across as accepting of small, inconsistent changes, but the logical progression of her views is that i really should live my life--and direct my kids' lives--in a radically different way. Maybe "normal" people are just better at coping with feeling guilty all the time.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Book reviews can also be thought provoking in themselves. I've just read some excellent reviews about nature writing in the Guardian newspaper online.

I'm not sure how to save the book review, but personally I think bloggers and bookcrossers and goodbooks members help 'normal' readers to decide what to read as much as book reviewers in serious publications. I know I sometimes find reviews pretentious, specially in poetry journals.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Actually one of the advantages of more reviews being online is that they can be accessed easily over a longer time period - the reviews I mentioned in the Guardian were recent ones, but they have a whole series of reviews about nature writing that if it had just been in the print newspaper I would have missed but I can re-read them all on the website.

pinenut said...

Hi Crafty Green Poet,

I hear you about some book reviews sounding pretentious. Especially on topics that are unfamiliar, they can discourage rather than encourage readers from a trying a whole subject. I find enthusiastic, personal comments such as yours on Ruth Padel's poetry more inviting and encouraging for a non-expert to give new (or new to me) work a try. Thanks!

And what's GoodBooks? I'm a bookcrosser but don't know about goodbooks.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Sorry, I meant Good Reads:
http://www.goodreads.com a website where you can share thoughts about books. It looks interesting, but I'm too busy with Bookcrossing and blogging to want to join!