Tuesday, September 04, 2007

It isn't the end of the world...

Steve Wasserman, former editor of the L.A. Times Book Review, has a long account of the decline of book sections in America's newspapers in the CJR. I think his main goal is to try and make a case for the importance of the book review, but his essay considers in depth the possibility that a serious literary culture will survive the removal or reduction of book review sections at many newspapers.

Even as these sections are declining, good things are happening, and I'm not just talking about blogs. Online sales, for example, give a lot of power to the consumer:

Regional theaters and opera companies blossomed even as Tower Records closed its doors. CD sales might have been slipping, but online music was soaring. Almost ten years later, Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s new general manager, understands this cultural shift better than most and launched a series of live, high-definition broadcasts of operas like Puccini’s Il Trittico and Mozart’s Magic Flute shown at movie theaters across America. His experiment was a triumph, pulling in thousands of new viewers. As Alex Ross reported in The New Yorker, Gelb’s broadcasts “have consistently counted among the twenty highest-grossing films in America, and have often bested Hollywood’s proudest blockbusters on a per-screen, per-day average. Such figures are a timely slap in the face to media companies that have written off classical music as an art with no mass appeal.” The truth is that many people everywhere are interested in almost everything.

Thanks to Amazon, geography hardly matters. It is now possible through the magic of Internet browsing and buying to obtain virtually any book ever printed and have it delivered to your doorstep no matter where you live. This achievement, combined with the vast archipelago of bricks-and-mortar emporiums operated by, say, Barnes & Noble or Borders or any of the more robust of the independent stores, has given Americans a cornucopia of riches. To be sure, there has also been the concomitant and deplorable collapse of many independent bookstores—down by half from the nearly four thousand such stores that existed in 1990. Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary American bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. You would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer.

It seems hard to escape the likelihood that conventional literary book reviews are going to continue to decline in the years to come. A few newspapers (NYT, WaPo) will continue to carry them, as "prestige" sections, much the way the major movie studios keep making a few money-losing art house films on the odd chance that one of them might win an Oscar. Most other newspapers are looking at their bottom lines, and choosing to buy their reviews from the Associated Press rather than retain full-time book reviewing staff.

But the decline is largely about money -- the financial woes of major newspapers in the internet age -- not the liveliness of the cultural mix that leads some people to write interesting novels, and other people to buy them and appreciate them. As long as there are some mediating channels that help readers find good new books, the loss of book review sections at newspapers like the Atlanta Journal-Constituion might not be so damaging after all. What exactly those mediating channels will be, and how they'll reach readers -- it's got to be more than just blogs and Amazon reader reviews, I think -- remains somewhat up in the air.

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