Book reviews in peril: or new trouble in Paradise
To be precise, I'm writing from the Nassau Inn, a name that goes back to Scott Fitzgerald's debut Jazz Age novel, This Side of Paradise, even though the hotel itself,for all its Ivy League vegetation and chocolate box facade does not.
The faint sense that literary life, like the Inn, is not quite what it was pervades a lengthy debate, led for the editors by the combative Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times Book Review, the only newspaper section exclusively for books that survives now in America.
Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic and sometime editor of the sometime Washington Post version, is here too with Steve Wasserman, former holder of the same lost titles on the Los Angeles Times. Jessa Crispin, editor and founder of the website, Bookslut, is prepared, she says, to be assaulted for her part in the print men's downfall and pleasantly surprised when she is not.
No one disputes that across America, the space in newspapers for book reviews is down. Wasserman is adamant on that simple fact. he has written on it eloquently before in the Columbia Journalism Review of two years ago. Now matters are worse.
So, whose fault is it?
The book publishers? For printing more and more titles and advertising fewer and fewer of them?
The book writers? For just not being as good or as interesting as in the golden days and not deserving the space now dolloped out so generously to the stars of sport?
The book critics? For not judging and selecting properly or at all? For describing instead of arguing a case, for enthusing with puff rather than endorsing with reasons. Is there too much reviewing and not enough literary criticism?
The World Wide Web? For allowing an infinity of choice while being at the same time averse to anything 'over 260 words' - and preferring when possible not even to pay for those.
The government? By which we mean here the terrible Bush goverment and its part in the economic crash that has led hot breakfasts to be cut at Harvard and all sorts of problems even in Princeton? Fortunately we stay away from the big picture.
This is not much of a day for politics. Obama is the triumphant 'Nobel Peace Prez' in the local Trentonian's newspaper headline. The Democrat governor, Jon Corzine, is catching up on his challenger in the polls, aided by witty advertisements at the expense of the Republican's weighty waist and thighs. In the Nassau Inn's photo gallery of alumni stars, Michelle Robinson Obama (class of '85) has the clear edge on her neighbour, Donald Henry Rumsfeld (class of '54).
We have a good-humoured debate, conducted by our Princeton hosts over a five hour period that is impressive in itself, ranging over the general joy in books that Dirda so powerfully evokes when he speaks, to the nitty-gritty of pay rates, the power of reviews to make a difference (How much exactly did they help Fitzgerald?) and with minimum moaning about any masters higher than newspaper editors and owners.
There are one or two recurring tensions. I expected that the audience would be grateful that the New York Times had maintained its book section against the odds. Instead, the excellent Sam Tanenhaus had to defend himself strongly for allowing Dan Brown in to his pages and not reviewing enough foreign books.
Why did he not just put more reviews on his website? In patient response Tanenhaus set out with clarity the work of editing and checking that goes into every NYT review and how the cost of paying NYT writers and editors to expand their work along with the medium would be economic madness in the present conditions.
Another issue was whether we should we be 'gate-keepers' for the literary culture that we like, letting in what we considered of quality and worth and excluding what we did not? Jessa Crispin does not want Bookslut to be a gatekeeper or anyone else to be one either. It seemed desirable to me that another word for the principle of gate-keeping might be desirable for the rest of the afternoon. You don't mess with the determined and resourceful Bookslut.
Princetonians appreciate the online possibilities. There is none of the hostility that Jessa Crispin, freshly flown in from Berlin, was expecting. But this is undoubtedly a particularly wonderful place to be the Editor of the TLS. Our readers, writers and appreciators abound. Many thanks to two of them, Anthony Grafton and Nigel Smith, for the idea of the conference and its smooth organisation.
Sam Tanenhaus's vigorous defence of the serious and popular in his coverage - with all the hackles it raises from those who distrust popularity at all - took me back vividly to my days of editing The Times in London. The 'serious and popular' is seriously hard. The TLS, by a contrast that could only be explained here at the acute risk of smugness, can succeed - and does - by offering a mix of exclusively the serious and sometimes difficult to loyal subscibers who prize us precisely and only for doing just that.
Loyal readers paying serious money for literary criticism in a paper which has never been as dependent on advertising as the general press is a winning formula in these days. The World Wide Web, which causes such trouble to newspaper economies, is for us a powerful tool to attract new subscribers in places around the world which we could never reach by mail.
I brought some figures to the meeting, prepared in London by our Managing Editor and writer on contemporary poetry, Robert Potts, assisted, I should say, by some numerate summer interns. The team had taken for analysis a twelve month period to April this year and four other loosely comparative titles, the New York Times section, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and The Guardian.
These showed that of the 1832 books reviewed by the TLS in this time, 73 per cent were not reviewed by any of the other publications, 20 per cent were reviewed by one other, 5.6 per cent by two, one per cent by three - and that only seven books were reviewed by all five papers. I had not intended to publish these, being no statistician myself and ever nervous of the ill use that such numbers can be put. But one of our hosts was keen that I should - and to hosts as generous as those here it would be ungracious to say no. So there they are.
The small number of books reviewed by all was a surprise. Probably it would benefit from deeper appraisal. Seven shared titles is a strong counter to those who accuse book reviewers of a herd mentality to all review the same things. It would suggest,however, that there may be too little acceptance of a common canon, too little confident gate-keeping. Those newspaper owners and editors who cut back on book coverage might be more impressed if there were greater agreement on what is good.
The lack of reviews of foreign books was keenly felt by the audience - and especially reflected when were on our breaks. I did not have comparative figures here and could not defend anyone else. But the same TLS statisticians had shown me that 229 of our 394 fiction reviews were of books by non-British authors, 65 of them American, 29 French, 14 Spanish, 12 German, 10 Russian and a decent sprinking from Angola, Bosnia, Brazil, Ghan, Tunisia and Vietnam. Almost 40 per cent of our poetry reviews were of books by writers outside Britain This is a very conscious editorial policy at the TLS. I was pleased but not surprised by the numbers. The Princeton audience were both pleased and surprised.
This is not a full report on our debates. Perhaps other bloggers in the audience or the panels will add their own recollections. I await Bookslut on gatekeeping with some trepidation. The afternoon ended with a discussion of whether in future universities like Princeton would fill the publishing gap left by the newspaper press. Many reviewers were academics already (how else could they afford to be reviewers?) and their students were keener these days to review books even as the opportunities in print reduced. And, half way through that thought, with comendable attention to timekeeping, we drifted off to drinks.
A few moments later a woman with a glass of white wine in her hand - in beween enthusiastically praising Obama's Nobel and unenthusiastically endorsing Governor Corzine over his fat Republican opponent - suggested that I buy a copy of Fitzgerald's once notorious Princeton novel while I was here and read it again in the Nassau Inn where some of its parties are set.
It seemed a good way to spend a morning. So I have. And I have just reached a passage where the hero, based on the author, is arguing with a fellow student about literature and the press.
"Look at you; you're on The New Democracy, considered the most brilliant weekly in the country. . . .You represent the critical consciousness of the race. Oh, don't protest. I know the stuff. I used to write book reviews in college; I considered it a rare sport to refer to the latest conscientious to propound a theory or a remedy as "a welcome addition to our light Summer reading". Come on now, admit it."
It looks as though there may be more in this vein to come - in a long and continuing New Jersey conversation.